Opinion: Balfour folds a winning BESNA hand

Grant Prior 12 years ago

Industrial relations is always a game of bluff and double-bluff.

But Balfour Beatty seems to have folded a winning hand with its dramatic withdrawal from the new BESNA agreement.

The U-turn by Balfour Beatty Engineering Services stunned the industry and has left the six remaining BESNA-supporting contractors facing a real dilemma.

They can either tough-it-out and implement the new pay and conditions deal regardless, or follow Balfour’s lead and abandon the reforms completely.

There is no doubt that the six feel badly let down by Balfour who took the lead in BESNA talks.

It is now a question of whether they take on the unions and rank-and-file opposition or throw in the towel as well.

To many it seemed the main battle had been won before Balfour’s eleventh-hour capitulation.

Nearly 90% of electricians had already signed-up for BESNA and the rank-and-file protests were running out of steam beyond a core of hardline opponents.

Balfour was facing strike action from Unite members over the deal. But the strike mandate was carried by a vote of 295 to 145 Unite members among the firm’s 3,063 employees.

The high-profile backing of Unite by the US Teamsters may have spooked the Balfour board and protests at power plants would have cast a shadow over nuclear expansion plans.

But industrial relations experts are still puzzled as to why the contractor handed victory on a plate to the union at the eleventh hour.

The six M&E giants left backing BESNA for now are busily sorting-out the best way forward.

One thing is for sure, they must remain a united front or opponents will pick at any perceived cracks.

Thousands of sparks have signed the BESNA forms under the promise of better pay and conditions which makes it very difficult to revert back to the old JIB deal.

It has taken years for M&E firms to modernise working agreements to better reflect the changing nature of the industry.

Those changes seemed only weeks away until last Friday when Balfour dropped its bombshell.

If the employers all fold now then the electricians will be holding all the aces for a long time to come.

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