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.