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Rank and file union organising and employers’ counter-mobilisation: The role of activists in the mobilisation of 'self-employed' construction workers

Smith, Dave

Rank and file union organising and employers’ counter-mobilisation: The role of activists in the mobilisation of 'self-employed' construction workers Thumbnail


Authors

Dave Smith David23.Smith@live.uwe.ac.uk



Abstract

The unlawful blacklisting of union members by the UK’s major building contractors is well documented. Yet despite having a low union membership density, the sector experiences periodic explosions of industrial action that are almost always unofficial and led by rank and file activists rather than the official unions. Scholars have highlighted the lack of research into employers’ anti-union strategies and the methods by which workers attempt to overcome the difficulties they impose.

The author is a leading blacklisting campaigner and this thesis adopts a participatory action research approach, where findings have already been used to support emancipatory change. Over 100 interviews with activists, union officials and industrial relations officers were carried out; whilst documentary evidence from blacklist files, witness statements and internal police reports were analysed. The author’s positionality allowed access to both the interview cohort and primary source documentary data that would be denied to most other researchers.

Using mobilisation theory as its theoretical framework, this thesis investigates a systematic industry wide employers’ counter-mobilisation strategy orchestrated by senior executives of multinational corporations, with direct involvement of the police. It also documents the experiences of the construction activists; evaluating how an expectation of victimisation combined with precarious employment relations which results in little legal protection for workers and a business friendly approach adopted by unions, has shaped their activism. Starting from the mid 1980s, the thesis acts as a 30-year longitudinal qualitative case study.

A previously unresearched model of union organising that combines covert organising techniques with informal networks of activists operating outside formal union structures is documented. These rank and file groups led some of the most significant industrial disputes of the past three decades, often involving self-employed and non-union workers. Though heavily influenced by structural factors, human agency by activists is key to understanding the patterns of industrial action in construction.

This thesis argues that blacklisting is a pre-existing feature of the employment relations landscape rather than a response to specific instances of union organising. As such, counter-mobilisation, within the construction industry at least, should be placed at the start rather than towards the end of any collective mobilisation process. The thesis suggests that a more explicitly dialectical view of mobilisation theory, where structure and agency and the actions of employers and unions constantly interact throughout the mobilisation process, provides a fuller understanding of the phenomenon than a sequential ‘theory of stages’ in which it is too often presented.

Citation

Smith, D. Rank and file union organising and employers’ counter-mobilisation: The role of activists in the mobilisation of 'self-employed' construction workers. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/1490832

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 26, 2020
Keywords union organizing, mobilization theory, rank and file, covert organising, unofficial industrial action, blacklisting, counter-mobilization, construction, precarious work, participatory action research, public sociology, Economic League, The Consulting Asso
Public URL https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/1490832

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