From Socialist Voice, February 2010

Unions must gear up for coming battles

Since the onset of the recession, workers in the construction industry have been in the forefront of those worst affected by the economic crisis. Since 2008 employment in the industry has haemorrhaged, and it is now down to around 200,000 workers. At the same time, however, employers in the industry, led by the Construction Industry Federation, are engaged in a campaign to dismantle the practice of union-negotiated registered employment agreements (REAs) and to drive down wages and conditions in the industry as a whole.
     On the 25th of January the CIF announced that it now wants a 20 per cent pay cut across the board on the REA rates. This is a doubling of the 10 per cent pay cut it was seeking at the Labour Court last year. Furthermore, the CIF is now seeking to introduce a new entry grade for construction workers that would be 60 per cent of the top craft rate under the REA. Those entering the industry would be on this rate for a year but would get a 5 per cent increase each year for four years until they reached grade D, at 80 per cent of the craft rate (at present the lowest rate for operatives).
     However, should the employers have their way and the 20 per cent wage cut is secured, the new grade would be 60 per cent of the newer, lower rate at €8.92 per hour—a paltry 27 cents above the minimum wage. New workers entering the industry on this rate would effectually displace those now in employment.
     On top of this the CIF also wants to restructure overtime rates in such a way that overtime would not apply after workers have completed nine hours per day, Monday to Thursday, and eight hours on a Friday. At present overtime is applied after eight hours per day. Other changes sought include a restructuring of starting times, to begin at 7 a.m., at the discretion of employers. Crane drivers (who at present start before other workers) are now to start a maximum of two hours before others. Travelling allowances for city-resident workers are to be paid only after five miles, with a maximum one hour per day to apply for longer distances. At present Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford have various travelling allowances, with some offering up to 2½ hours for the longest distance and most offering something for less than one hour. Furthermore, individuals must work at least eight hours to qualify for the travel allowance. The CIF is offering no concessions in exchange for this, in the form of either job security or further employment.
     Ultimately, the CIF strategy on dismantling the REAs exhibits the same elements of short-termism and profit-motivated greed that created the construction industry crisis in the first place. However, the CIF’s claims on needing to “restore competitiveness” in the industry do not stand up. In contrast to such sectors as manufacturing, construction firms do not compete internationally with rivals in low-wage economies. This is clear from the massive profits they made during the boom years, from 2003 to 2007, when profits rose by 66 per cent. During the same period wages rose only by 22 per cent.
     Not alone are wages a smaller element in this industry but employers have also enjoyed the benefit of falling prices for building materials. Far from facing wage pressure, they have enjoyed a de facto pay pause since September 2008, when they refused to implement the terms of the last national agreement.
     The logical conclusion of the CIF strategy will be to drive down construction industry standards generally and to see such companies as GAMA re-enter the market, with all the negative repercussions this will have for Irish building workers and the wider society.
     The coming year must be one in which union members show a preparedness to step up and mobilise against recalcitrant employers in this industry to protect their pay and conditions. Ideally, such a campaign should adopt a twin-track approach. It should not just operate to defend negotiated agreements but should also be allied to a broader movement for an alternative social and economic strategy. At its core would be a state-led stimulus package geared towards socially necessary construction, which would in turn protect, and create, jobs in this industry.

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