- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
On Thursday, the original tapes of Builders Crack: The Movie will be premiered online.
The film, which has been lost for decades, tells the story of the London Joint Sites Committee (JSC), an organisation of construction workers who began organising against appalling conditions, bad pay and management gangsterism in the London building trade in the early 1990s.
With their rave culture and football-inspired fanzine, Builders Crack, the workers held construction employers to the heat, by naming and shaming dodgy employers, utilising irreverent humour, and pushing a class war message. It was also used by the JSC as a way to organise successful strike action by workers, which was often illegal under anti-union and bogus self-employment laws.
Ahead of the screening, Tribune’s Marcus Barnett spoke with Sean Prophet, the pseudonymised ‘Ned Ludd of the JSC’, to discuss the film and the movement.
What was the average London building site like in the nineties, what was the sort of conditions a worker could expect?
The safety and welfare facilities were a disgrace. When we started, three workers a week were dying on building sites – equivalent to a Piper Alpha Disaster every year. No firms would take anyone on directly, so virtually everyone was working on some form of bogus self-employed scheme.
When were the first moves made to set up the London Joint Sites Committee? Was there a key moment that set off the decision of workers to organise?
The JSC was set up by a bricklayer called Mick Dooley and a labourer called Chris Clarke in 1991. The real push to organise it was the absolute collapse of the economy that year. Being self-employed, our wages were determined by supply and demand – and after the late eighties property boom came a huge crash. We went from ‘loadsamoney’ to poverty. Wage rates for us in London were cut in half – they literally fell from around £100 to £50 a day in about 18 months. Our slogan was ‘Enough is Enough’!
When you started putting out Builders Crack, what sort of effect did it have? What could you expect of an average issue?
Builders Crack wasn’t like normal union publications. It was a fanzine, and was very much influenced by football and rave culture at the time. It was deliberately funny and provocative at the same time. Some on the Left hated it – building workers loved it.
Every issue had a print run of 5,000 that always went within a couple of weeks. Builders Crack reported disputes on site, but it also helped to organise action. With low levels of union membership, and virtually the entire workforce being nominally ‘self-employed’, the JSC organised and led industrial action in its own name. There were no secret ballots, it was smash and grab: flying pickets, tower crane occupations, blockading site entrances. And we won, time after time.
Towards the end of the decade, when the big millennium jobs started – like the Jubilee Line, Royal Opera House, The Dome – JSC activists became leading union reps on these big projects and Builders Crack was all over them.
The trade press used to report all our disputes and reprint articles from Builders Crack.
As construction sites across London were kept open during lockdown, and it appears that the Tories intend for workers to pay the price for their bungling management of the pandemic, what relevance would you say something like Builders Crack has today?
The construction industry has a tradition of rank-and-file networks of activists who took the lead in campaigning for safety but also organised and led industrial action (rather than the official unions).
Electricians, steel erectors, bricklayers – they all organised unofficial disputes in the late nineties, mobilising thousands of workers, not just in London but across the UK. These ad-hoc committees were not anti-union, most of the activists were union members, but they just operated outside the official structures – and circumvented the anti-union laws.
In 2012, rank-and-file electricians set up the Construction Rank and File, which led the biggest industrial dispute in the sector for over a decade when employers tried to introduce a 35% pay cut.
Every industry will be facing massive job losses and pay cuts after coronavirus – the movement needs to relearn the lessons of organic rank and file led union organising from our past.