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BiFab: Workers’ decisive action secures a breakthrough

Philip Stott

Workers at the three threatened Burntisland Fabrication – BiFab – yards have won a guarantee that their jobs and wages will be secured, at least until April 2018. Their decisive action over the last week, and those of the GMB and Unite trade unions, have delivered this important breakthrough.

Last weekend, 12th November, the company said it had no money to pay wages and was giving notice that it intended to enter administration. The threat to 1400 workers who either work for BiFab or who rely on the company for work via contractors was hanging by a thread.

At mass meetings on Monday of last week workers agreed to a “work-in” in order to complete the contract – without being paid – but also to ensure they occupied the sites to prevent any attempts at asset-stripping.

As Gary Smith, Scottish secretary of the GMB, told the rally outside the Scottish parliament: “If you had not occupied those yards on Monday then your jobs would have gone and the yards shut.”

The decisive action taken on Monday in occupying the yards, beginning a “work-in”, the mass march on Thursday to the Scottish parliament to demand government action has paid off.

The major companies involved in the project have agreed to provide BiFab with money that will allow the work to continue and workers to be paid. Unite and the GMB said following the announcement: “Make no mistake these yards would be closed today if it wasn’t for the dignity and determination of the workers and their families in Fife and Lewis to save their jobs and industry.”

Open the books

The threat of BiFab entering into administration, management claimed, was due to money going unpaid to them by the Dutch company Seeway Heavy Lifting. SHL are contracted by the Scottish power giant SSE whose Beatrice Windfarm Project the BiFab workers are employed in.

As a result of the action of the workforce, the Scottish Government and the main companies involved agreed an arrangement that would ensure wages were paid and the jobs guaranteed until the end of the project. The fact that the completed wind turbine platforms would not be released by the workers would have been an important factor in SHL and SSE agreeing to a deal.

However, as Socialist Party Scotland has called for, only an opening of the books of all parties involved in this project for inspection by the trade unions would get to the bottom of what was really going on. The unions should demand full access to this information to get a real picture of what is happening to BiFab. 

March to parliament

1,000 workers, their families and trade union supporters marched to to the Holyrood parliament building on Thursday to demand action. More than 600 workers walked off the job at Burntisland and Methil in Fife to travel to Edinburgh for the demonstration. However, dozens of workers stayed behind to blockade the gates of the yards to ensure none of the completed work could be moved. 

The GMB convener for BiFab, Mike Sullivan, called on the Scottish Government to take the plants under their control and to ensure wages were paid. With the political pressure for action growing. The day after the demonstration, SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon flew back to Scotland from Germany to broker meetings with the major companies.     

Public Ownership 

Socialist Party Scotland members distributed hundreds of leaflets in the last week to workers in support of the struggle and calling for the books of BiFab, SHL and SSE to be opened to trade union inspection. We also called for the public ownership of BiFab to defend the jobs and skills, and for workers control and occupation of the yards. 

As is the norm today in these big projects a labyrinth of contractors and sub contractors are used by big business to lower costs and increase profit.

Contractors continually attempt to drive down costs, targeting wages, sick pay, holiday entitlements, safety etc. That’s why Socialist Party Scotland calls for the nationalisation of the major energy and construction firms to guarantee full rights and the rate for the job across the industry.

With renewables, oil decommissioning and waste to energy projects increasingly important for jobs, public ownership and democratic control by workers and the government is essential. We need an end to the blatant profiteering of the multi-nationals and a public owned sustainable energy sector.

While this victory for the workers at BiFab is welcome, the future of the company is still uncertain after April 2018. The jobs and the yards could be secured with a programme of massive investment into the renewable industry and public sector control of the energy and fabrication industry. BiFab should be brought into public ownership by the Scottish Government to secure the skills and jobs there.

Over the last week Socialist Party Scotland called for:

  • Defend every job. No cuts to pay and conditions at BiFab
  • Open the books of BiFab, SHL and SSE for trade union inspection
  • Scottish Government must act and bring the company into public ownership
  • Workers control and occupation of the yards to stop asset-stripping
  • Strike action and stoppage of work on the project if no agreement
  • Active solidarity from all trade unions for the BiFab workers