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Proletarian issue 40 (Februrary 2011)
Capitalism kills people in Britain, too
Book: Tony O’Brien, Construction Safety Campaign: Over 20 years fighting for workers’ health and safety, Upstream, September 2010 (£10).
The murderous foreign adventures of the British ruling class and its successive governments, nowadays embarked upon in collaboration with their senior partner in crime, US imperialism, are well documented and have given rise to mass, if sporadic and unfocused, opposition. One need only recall the two-million-strong march in London that took place in February 2003 in the run-up to the genocidal attack on Iraq.

Far less well-known is the record of monopoly capitalism in sacrificing British workers’ lives on the holy altar of profit here at home, and this is nowhere more obscene than in the construction industry.

The Construction Safety Campaign (CSC) was established in 1988 by grassroots trade unionists and their supporters in response to the fact that, in that year alone, 157 workers had been killed on building sites and, as the book under review succinctly points out, “leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party were unwilling to do anything about it”. This should, of course, come as no surprise to anyone who reads Proletarian.

The book – lavishly illustrated with facsimile leaflets, letters, newspaper reports, portraits of activists, and photos of demonstrations and picket lines – is essentially a chronicle, which relies on articles from a variety of sources, including the CSC’s own journal Construction News, to chart the progress and achievements of the campaign in the 12 years since its foundation.

Those achievements have been significant, among them a “reduction in injuries and fatalities in the UK construction industry”. The campaign’s actions, asserts the book, “have led to improvements in: safety legislation; worker participation; trade union involvement with safety; the banning of asbestos imports; the introduction of improved asbestos protection and some gains made with the introduction of corporate manslaughter legislation”.

The 28th of April has also been established as Workers’ Memorial Day, dedicated to construction workers killed on the job and increasingly observed in the broader trade-union movement.

But, in the CSC’s own words, fully tackling this industrial carnage “will require a fundamental change in our society, so be relentless. That’s why the campaign has to continue.”

There is no beating about the bush here; the author is anything but soft on capitalism. The book highlights a wonderfully class-conscious speech to the court by the late building worker Des Warren, a Communist Party member jailed for three years on trumped-up ‘conspiracy’ charges in the wake of the 1972 national construction strike and subsequently blacklisted along with his co-worker and fellow political prisoner Ricky Tomlinson, now the well-known actor of The Royle Family fame.

And we read later on that the CSC “and other workers’ organisations have been unable to resolve the ongoing major reasons for the horrendous death and serious injury toll.

Nor can it [sic] – without large-scale involvement of workers themselves taking action to bring about political change. We need politicians in power who are totally committed to our demands. The workers’ movement in the UK and internationally must prepare the groundwork for successful direct action to force a major shift of power in favour of workers rather than those who own and control the system of society we live in – namely capitalism.”

No mention here of the need for a vanguard Marxist-Leninist party, but the class enemy is clearly identified – as is the historical need for expropriating the expropriators. This in itself is an important step forward, particularly at a time when social democracy continues to hold such sway elsewhere in the British working-class movement.

It strikes the reader that, while the Union of Construction and Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) is proudly affiliated to the capitalist Labour party, and has on occasion sought to sabotage the work of the CSC, these rank-and-filers are under no illusions as to the insidious and corrosive role played by Labour in the workers’ movement.

In his introduction to the book, CSC chair Peter Farrell writes: “With all parties already sharpening their knives to cut vital services, from the NHS to pensions, jobs and safety, nothing will be safe in any of their hands.” [Our emphasis]

Finally, mention should be made of the Construction Safety Campaign’s proletarian internationalism. We are told that the secretary and chair both travelled to the United States in 1993 to establish links with fellow safety campaigners in that country, and CSC-led protests continue to highlight the Canadian government’s ongoing global trade in asbestos.

Proletarian readers will find this book a valuable addition to their libraries. It recounts an important thread in recent working-class history, exposing – if any further exposure were needed – the ruthlessness of bosses hell-bent on turning a profit at the cost of workers’ lives. It is also an inspirational testimony to the fundamental importance of class consciousness, unity and militant resistance in the ranks of the proletariat.

Construction Safety Campaign: / 07747 795 954
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