|Volume 51 Number 10, March 27, 2021||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Electricians have been organising themselves in resistance to the latest attempt to deskill their role in the construction industry. In particular, employers at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station construction site have reversed an agreement to employ 500 electrical apprentices and have instead begun to enact plans to employ new grades of "Electrical Support Operative" at the construction site, without any consultation. The power station, on which £23 billion has so far been spent, is due to open in June 2026, and is owned by EDF Energy . On February 24, electricians staged a protest at the EDF Energy offices and said they would, if necessary, blockade the Somerset power station site.
In an effort to manipulate, EDF have attempted to spin their programme of deskilling as part of its agreement with "its trades union partners" to in fact "develop UK skills and training, including a commitment to create 1,000 new apprenticeships". The electricians tell a different story. Speaking from their own experience, they know the real needs and training requirements, having nurtured apprentices over many years while facing the cuts made by government and employers over time. There were long and crucial negotiations made in the past with the Joint Industrial Board for recognised training schemes in order to qualify as an electrician.
Turning truth on its head, a company spokesperson said: "This progressive approach has been developed to maximise employment opportunities for local people and to help them develop new skills. It is backed by a major investment in training facilities to help new entrants start their careers in construction. Productive talks are now taking place to reach agreement on the curriculum of the new training courses." The reality is that the plans were imposed. Such talk, while throwing a few crumbs to placate opposition, is aimed at painting the workers as standing against the needs of society, at blocking their "progressive approach".
After the protests, it was announced at the beginning of March that EDF has suspended the deskilling plans at Hinkley Point C. That particular struggle is but one example, however, of a general industry-wide attempt to impose the new semi-skilled grades on construction and infrastructure projects. The grades have been introduced by employers with the assistance of the Engineering Construction Training Board, a government body, who have officially created the grades together with short training courses for them, which amounts to creating a new layer of semi-skilled section of electrical workers in the industry.
Electricians want the grades, which undermine their role, scrapped decisively, and have been continuing to organise their opposition, such as a demonstration on March 10 at infrastructure giant Balfour Beatty's headquarters in London, and other actions around the country.
A series of online meetings of the Unite union Electrical and Mechanical Combine (EMC) and the electricians' rank and file group have been held, where electricians and trade unionists have been discussing and speaking out against the new grades.
The traditional method of training of installation electricians and engineers involves technical education and training to a high level along with quality apprenticeships. The reason for such high standards is the nature of the work, involving high competences in health and safety and appreciation of the engineering and technical science. The new grades of unskilled and semi-skilled labour are set to carry out aspects of work traditionally performed by electricians and mates, such as installing cable trays.
"The undermining of the role of the Electrician has been attempted for more than 30 years, most recently in 2011/12, when eight of the major mechanical and electrical construction companies promoted the use of non-electrical personnel to carry out skilled electrical tasks under the so called BESNA agreement," said Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey. BESNA was the last major attempt to change grades in the sector, which were abandoned by employers following a concerted campaign by workers. Electricians had then protested, occupied and struck work for six months.
"For over 30 years we have had to endure the deskilling agenda of major electrical contractors. Each time we have responded and each time these companies have been forced into retreat. But they keep coming back but we will not go away," he said.
"Our message to the industry is clear. Unite and its electrical membership will oppose any and all efforts to weaken the skill set of the trade which will undermine the industry by introducing non-skilled operatives," said Unite in a statement. "Any deskilling of electricians would result in a race to the bottom and would be highly damaging to industrial relations across the sector."
The union is right to point to relations. Economically, the intention is to increase the rate of return through employing lower-paid sections and reduce the supervision of electricians, in some cases doing away with electricians altogether. Deskilling is also about undermining the ability of electricians to have any degree of control over their lives and conditions, and serves the interests of the owners, who desire increasingly total control in their social relation with the workers they employ.
Further, once the construction of a plant such as Hinkley Point C is completed, it is by and large electricians and other engineers that actually run operations, including management and supervision. Undermining the role of the electrician and electrical engineer in general also encroaches on this aspect of control.
Capital-centred, rather than human-centred, production places private monopoly interests above workers' rights. The owners of the means of production restructure labour in their interests. The interests of workers depend in part on upholding the dignity of their work, which includes maintaining standards. This dignity is undermined by deskilling and forced division of labour, which is part of depriving workers of any role in determining their conditions, and in general marginalises them.
Speaking in the workers' own name and asserting their will is certainly not what the owners of capital like. Electricians have always organised and asserted their collective voice. Employers have always tried to stifle them. Many electricians' leaders in the past have been victimised and labelled as extremist and illegally blacklisted. Even to this day, shop stewards are victimised. If employers "blacklist" a worker, they recommend that other organisations from the same industry do not hire that worker. This acts to suppress electricians' political voice. The employers are prepared to destroy an effective productive force, remove skills, providing they maintain control of what remains, causing permanent losses in the skill base as a result.
Electricians should have control over their lives and conditions. This also extends to the economy itself, in which the large infrastructure they along with others build, run and maintain, play a crucial role. Industrial and domestic energy supply, for example, are massive factors in the production of value in the economy; the method of producing energy and the use to which it is put are centrally important to the direction of the economy.
The path to resolving of the issue of control can only be found by a fundamental change in that direction. Far from it being the case that electricians are standing against the "progressive approach" of the global monopolies and the states that represent them, it is only workers who are able to set the aims of and take up a project for the building of society, whose interests are at one with the general interests of society.
1. EDF Energy is the British subsidiary of Électricité de France (EDF). EDF, 84.5% French state-owned, is the largest electricity producer in the world. They have contracted the building of the power station to the MEH Joint Venture, formed in 2018 by the monopoly groups Altrad, Balfour Beatty Bailey (itself a joint venture between Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey), Cavendish Nuclear and Doosan Babcock.