|Volume 51 Number 21, July 17, 2021||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Electricians at Amazon's new Gateshead Fulfilment Centre warehouse, due to open later this year, have won an important battle, reversing a mass sacking at the site. Relations of employment had broken down as contractors decided to confront the electricians, having attempted to deskill their role. The global monopoly Amazon has washed its hands of the dispute, claiming it is a matter for the contractors and not Amazon itself.
According to reports, SSE Enterprise Contracting had unilaterally decided to hire electricians for tasks for which they had not properly been trained, on lower rates of pay. On June 16, electricians from across the site held a picket in opposition, after which the company agreed to their demands to employ and pay the established rate for professionally trained electricians.
Just two days later, another contractor, SIS Systems, arbitrarily sacked up to 40 of its workers at the site. In an intimidating statement sent to workers by text message and email, agency Des Johnston Recruitment said on behalf of the contracting company:
"We have been informed by our client, SIS Systems, that today will be your last day on site. Please make sure you take all your tools off site at the end of your shift today as you will be removed from the Winvic scanning system at 13:15 hours. Furthermore, our client has made it clear that if there are any issues of threatening behaviour, sabotage or any trouble whatsoever then nobody will be paid by SIS for the week."
SIS gave no official reason for the sacking, though it was apparent that it was for taking part in the picket. The company had made a huge miscalculation by taking on the electricians, who united in response on the picket lines for three days from June 21 to 23. A meeting with the union Unite on Wednesday, June 23, resulted in an email from the recruitment agency retracting the sacking:
"Following meetings with our client SIS Systems Senior Management over the last few days regarding the present situation on site, we have now been notified that things have been resolved and we are in a position to offer you the opportunity to return to work with immediate effect, starting tomorrow morning if you wish to do so. As you are all aware there is only a short matter of time left on the Project and matters were taken out of my hands last Friday but your daily attendance would be much appreciated."
Despite the official silence, it is clear that the electricians were sacked for their audacity to stand up for their rights and conditions. As with the recent similar victory of electricians at the Hinkley nuclear power station construction site , those at the Amazon site set their full weight in motion. This significant battle is part of the general struggle to guarantee the rights of all workers and uphold the dignity of labour. The action was a step in the direction of workers exercising control over their conditions, livelihoods, and destiny.
The fight for such control is in the context of and is opposed to the general disequilibrium that exists in the social relation between worker and employer, in this case manifested in the unilateral attempt of the employers to deskill the role of electrician, or elsewhere in the form of such measures as "fire and rehire".
The workers had dared to challenge company decision-making power. They rejected the fact that tasks were given to those for which they were not trained, jeopardising the safety of all. In attempting to wash its hands, Amazon has merely exposed its disregard for employees working under its ultimate control.
Employers should not be allowed to terminate employment at the drop of a hat under any circumstances. The workers fought to maintain their dignity and defend their right to have control over their lives and the future of their livelihoods. They are saying employers cannot continue to exercise arbitrary power in this way, and their authority will be challenged.
(Sources: Chronicle Live, libcom.org, The Northern Echo.)
1. "Electricians Win Victory in their Fight for their Dignity and Rights", Workers' Weekly, June 26, 2021