Industrial relations

The construction industry in Britain was generally unorganised; only  around a third of the industry workforce were members of one of the  twenty or so trade unions that were organised into the National  Federation of Building Trade Operatives during these decades. On the  whole, industrial relations in construction were less volatile than  industries such as mining and the docks, but major disputes did occur  and some became extremely bitter.

The industry employers were part of a  collective bargaining framework, but often held also to a unitarist  concept of industrial relations, with some regarding trade union  activists as trouble-makers who had no place in the industry. On  non-unionised sites, this approach was rarely challenged but on  well-organised sites—and many large sites in this period were  unionised—the situation was different. The trade union activists we  interviewed spoke of the constant struggles that took place on some of  these sites to establish good conditions and decent levels of pay. They  argued that there was a clear connection between the degree of  organisation on a site and the wages and conditions which workers gained  as a result.

In this clip, Richard Organ recalls a strike by plumbers on the Barbican in the late 1960s.

On occasion, this struggle led to conflict, strikes and  lock-outs. The research we conducted revealed the real factors that lay  behind some of the major disputes of this era, such as the  thirteen-month lock-out on the Barbican, and how workers in Stevenage  had to fight hard against the contractors and the sub-contractors in the  early 1950s to establish the conditions and rights that would later  become the hall-mark of sites in the new town. It was also a period of  change within the building unions, one that heralded the end of  old-style craft unionism and placed on the agenda the needs of those in newer occupations, such as plant operators and those who worked in  concreting, who were increasingly important to the industry but who  suffered from inadequate trade union representation.

Barbican workers strike meeting.

Barbican workers strike meeting.

Workers on the Barbican redevelopment project.

The Barbican

The Barbican re-development embodied new ideas about living and working.

Picket on Myton site.

Barbican images

Find more images in our gallery.