Engineering union Amicus and employers are on a collision course over industrial agreements. It is a dispute that could have profound implications for construction in its approach to London's 2012 Olympics. Russ Lynch reports
A BITTER battle of wills between industry bosses and union Amicus is under way with the potential to cause chaos just at a time when the industry should be gearing up to begin Olympic construction work.
For a start, employers in the steelwork sector have outraged the union's shop stewards by proposing a major overhaul of the Naeci 'blue book' agreement.
Meanwhile electrical contractors want to water down the JIB working rule agreement's commitment to directly employed labour, with similar moves proposed in the heating and ventilating sector.
For the bosses, the Naeci is an outdated agreement - high on expense and low on productivity - while the recognition of more agencies simply ref lects the working reality of the electrical sector.
Amicus, on the other hand, sees such moves as a direct attack on terms and conditions and its members are gearing up for a fight.
The Naeci has largely kept the peace on engineering construction sites for 25 years, following the crippling strikes of the 1970s. But the employers' body and Naeci guardian, the Engineering Construction Industry Association, has sounded the death knell for the blue book in proposals for a new Industry Framework Agreement, which went out to consultation this month.
The ECIA's document, A New Framework for a New Future, states bluntly: 'During the negotiations for the 2006 Naeci wage review, the employers expressed their view that the Naeci was no longer sustainable beyond April 2007.
'There is a growing sense that specifying the Naeci has not delivered sufficient levels of cost controls or increased performance.'
Employers want a move to salaries from an hourly rate and an increased use of agency and foreign labour to tackle skills shortages. They also want to scrap supplementary payments made under the Naeci - such as extra cash for working at height, a specialist crane driver's allowance and abnormal conditions money.
The union is utterly opposed to the changes. Its shop steward committee has already rejected the document once and is set to do so again at the meeting of the ECIA's national executive construction committee next week.
One shop steward said: 'They are saying that the Naeci is far too expensive. But we agreed to a review of the Naeci, not driving a coach and horses through it.
'The National Shop Stewards Committee wants to know the details and we haven't seen any yet.'
He added: 'As for scrapping the supplementary payments, that's a joke. Try and tell that to the bloke working at Sellafield who has to wear a rubber suit all day and see how far you get.'
The talk from Amicus site officials is of protest marches, petitions and stoppages in a trial of strength with employers.
They warn that an end to a national agreement could mean costly site-by-site agreements - and they are more than ready to use their increased leverage on projects with a fixed, immovable deadline like the Olympics.
In the electrical sector, the Electrical Contractors Association's plans for an 'employment business forum' to give more representation to agencies have caused similar outrage.
Rule 17 of the JIB's working rule agreement states that agency operatives can never be in the majority under normal circumstances, but employers want to replace this. Under the proposals, agencies on the forum must Amicus source offer the choice of direct employment or 'indirect hire' under rates no less favourable than JIB rates.
Amicus sees this 'choice' as a fantasy unlikely to be given in practice and considers the move another assault on the principle of direct employment. Its shop stewards committee - elected from the site f loor - has taken a harder line on the proposals than the union's electrical contracting officer Tom Hardacre and assistant general secretary Les Bayliss.
Both the ECIA and the ECA have been reluctant to discuss the proposals while the negotiations are underway, although the ECA's head of employment relations, Alex Meikle, has said the arrangements were designed to account for incoming agency workers to deal with an industry skills shortage - while benchmarking JIB terms and conditions.
But is there a skills shortage? In the electrical sector at least - according to CITB-ConstructionSkills' latest predictions - the industry will need more than 8,000 electricians a year between now and 2010.
This certainly suggests a demand. But the Home Office's accession monitoring report, which tracks the incoming workforce from the eight eastern European countries that joined the European Union in May 2004, does not point to an inf lux of overseas electricians through agencies.
According to the figures, just 390 electricians have come to the UK under the Government's Workers Registration Scheme. And as other EU countries lift their restrictions on accession workers over the next two years - in particular France and Germany's recovering construction market - there are no guarantees that the pace will pick up.
Amicus sources are more cynical about the situation.
One said: 'There is no shortage of electricians - thousands more apply every year than are given places. The men on site read the stories in the tabloids about Poles and Bulgarians and they're worried about their jobs.
But I've never come across a Polish electrician - they're mostly in civil engineering and the biblical trades.
'From the point of view of employers, this is more about productivity and readily available labour from agencies to keep wages down.'
The source added: 'The ones who will get hurt most by this are the travelling men - the Scots and the Irish - and they are the bedrock of the membership.
'They are not going to stand for it and they will come out fighting.'
Steel erectors threatening a staunch defence of the Naeci and electricians gearing up to repel an increasing agency presence could lead to volatile sites in the coming months.
With the 'Wembley factor' meaning that bidders for the Olympic stadium are already thin on the ground due to the potential risks of the project, the prospect of costs being pushed up by sky-high wage demands and unrest is hardly likely to encourage competitors into the fray.
But the political pressure to keep costs under control - coupled with the pressure to recruit workers from the five host boroughs - means there will be difficult decisions ahead for the Olympic Delivery Authority, as venues built largely on overseas agency labour would hardly be an advert for a sustainable Olympics.
The outcome of this current clash is likely to act as a barometer for the industrial relations climate as 2012 construction gets on the starting blocks.