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O'Rourke gets the bum's rush


Workers on Terminal 5 can earn more than £50,000 a year and enjoy site conditions that are unequalled in the industry. But another three-day strike brought work to a standstill this week. So why are the workers revolting?

Grant Prior looks at the story behind the stoppages

LAING O'Rourke bosses expect to look out of the site offices on their flagship job at Heathrow's T5 and see the highest-paid construction workforce in the country battling hard to get the airport terminal finished on time.

What they do not expect to see is a picket line at the gates and the job turned into a ghost town as workers stage strikes over pay demands.

Another three days of stoppage began on Tuesday as O'Rourke's entire 928-strong workforce downed tools, adding to the four days that have already been lost to industrial action since December.

The question is why? Why are the best-paid builders in Britain staging disputes at a site where everyone is directly employed and enjoys welfare facilities that are the envy of the rest of the industry?

The answer lies in a combination of old-fashioned militancy, an inter-union poaching war and competition between the trades to be the highest earners on site.

The latest row has been rumbling on since late last year, when O'Rourke's civils workforce started demanding ext ra bonus payments of £1 an hour.

Construction workers are often exploited, so calls for extra pay are nothing unusual. But T5 is home to a special wages deal, under which skilled tradesmen can pull in more than £50,000 a year.

An O'Rourke source said: 'We are talking about the best-paid workers in the business here. They are certainly not exploited and you only have to look round the site to see how good the conditions are. There are showers, changing rooms, cheap and decent canteens. Everything here, including the wages, is premier league.' So why strike over pay? Well the simple answer is that it was a direct reaction to similar demands by the electricians and steel workers on the job.

Sparks who were unhappy about bussing arrangements on the site threatened a strike last April and received £1 an hour extra dressed up as a 'performance bonus'.

The erectors followed a similar strategy and won an equal increase in November.

One union source said: 'The O'Rourke lads saw what had gone on with the other trades and wanted a piece of the action, so they put in a similar claim.

'They had been grumbling about the bussing arrangements on the job for a while but had just been putting up with it. Then the sparks got on the job and had only been there five minutes when they were given the £1 extra to keep them quiet.

'Civils workers aren't usually the most militant but a few ringleaders quickly emerged. The loudest calls for a strike came from the travelling men, in particular the lads from Scotland and the north, who seemed most up for a row.

'They have made a fortune on the job already and that money goes even further when they go back home, so they aren't unduly bothered about losing a few days to strike action. They treat it as a bit of a holiday and take the view that they can probably make the money back in over time later anyway.' The O'Rourke insider said: 'We can't just give in to that because the workers had a special deal with the company. We are doing our bit in terms of wages and conditions and aren't going to be held to ransom.

'Usually on jobs the sparks and steel erectors are the best-paid trades. That was different at T5 because the original O'Rourke deal meant the civils were top dogs.

'That balance changed when the others started getting extra bonuses and our lot wanted to reclaim their position at the top of the tree.' A simple pay row like that can usually be sorted out with a few meetings and the traditional game of bluff and counter-bluff between unions and the contractor.

But this one got embroiled in union politics as the GMB and T&G took the lead at site level and used the dispute as a way of luring members away from Ucatt.

Only 530 of the 928-strong workforce were originally union members and 259 voted in favour of the first two days of strike action over Christmas.

Ucatt officials were lukewarm on backing the first strike because of the low numbers involved. Even though they eventually came on board, the other two unions were first to back industrial action and exploited their more militant line to try and convert new members.

T&G regional organiser Alan Brkljac said: 'More people on the site are joining the T&G by the day as they see us fighting back for them.' And GMB construction organiser Tom Kelly said: 'Since this began more than 300 new members have joined the unions taking action.' O'Rourke had offered an extra 22p an hour bonus, which was rejected, sparking the first strike. Another two days of action were pencilled in for January 20 and 23 but talks resumed again after Christmas and the contractor tabled a revised 67p offer.

That's when the whole affair started to descend into farce. National officials from the three unions met with O'Rourke and agreed to recommend the 67p deal to their members just days before the second stoppage was due.

All sorted, you might think. But no ? the two-day strike still went ahead as union officials at local level refused to toe the national line.

Construction News has seen an email from GMB national secretary Phil Davies to O'Rourke deputy chairman Bernard Dempsey confirming that the deal was acceptable and that, following a successful ballot, the strike would be called off.

But a row over how to ballot the men meant the strike still went ahead without a mass vote. O'Rourke was confident the men would agree to a peace deal once a site ballot was finally organised last Friday. But the mood had hardened and union officials continued their campaign of defiance against the company.

The toughest line has been taken by GMB officials, including branch secretary Steve Kelly, who was a leading figure in the steel erectors' strikes in the late 1980s and a shop steward on the Jubilee Line Extension, which was crippled by industrial action.

His boss, construction organiser Tom Kelly, said:'Any disruption to the construction of Heathrow's T5 will be placed directly at the door of the employer.' Strike action could easily escalate to a weeklong stoppage and client BAA will be keeping an extremely close eye on the situation. A site source said: 'O'Rourke's contract is on a cost plus basis, so all the extra money doesn't worry them because they can just claim it back. But BAA won't want to pay up because, as soon as the civils lot get extra money, then the M&E workers will come back in for more and the whole thing will be never-ending.' The affair has left O'Rourke bosses wondering exactly what's in it for them to employ people directly and offer them industry-best pay and conditions.

One rival contractor said: 'You can see what's in it for the workers because they are getting paid better and treated properly on site.

'But most of us are going to look at T5 and think 'why should I bother?' All O'Rourke's workers are on the cards on that job and pulling in top money, yet there are still strikes. It costs them a lot more and in return they just seem to get the same old grief. There just doesn't seem a lot in it for us to follow that example.'