UCATT was formed in 1971 to represent all building trades. UCATT’s true foundations, like those of fine buildings, run deep below the surface. The four unions which came together to create UCATT, the ASW (Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers), the ASPD (Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators), the ABT (Association of Building Technicians) and the AUBTW (Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers) were themselves the products of mergers among construction trade unions, some of which could trace their pedigree back over two centuries or even claim to be the descendants of the craft guilds of medieval times.
UCATT’s birth proved to be a baptism of fire, the summer of 1972 saw Britain’s longest and biggest construction industry dispute. The 13-week strike, characterised by a surge of rank and file organisation and action on building sites around the country, was for a minimum wage of £30 a week. Many employers settled for that sum during the course of the dispute. The rest were eventually brought into line by the national settlement which gave craft workers an immediate rise of £6 a week and labourers £5 – the biggest ever increase in the industry. Further instalments of the two-year deal took the craft guaranteed minimum weekly earnings rate to £32 and that of a labourer to £27.20.
The strike confirmed UCATT as a force to be reckoned with in the construction industry. It produced one of the causes celebres of the trade union movement of the 1970’s – the jailing at Shrewsbury Crown Court months after the end of the strike of six building workers found guilty of common law conspiracy as a result of their picketing activities. And through the activities of groups of strike breakers, it also brought to light the extent to which lump labour and the new phenomenon of labour-only self-employment had taken root in the industry.
Over the subsequent three decades UCATT has been forced to devote more and more of its time and resources to campaigning against the negative effects of the self-employed status of the majority of Britain’s private sector construction workers. Self-employment enables employers to avoid sick pay and holiday pay and to attempt to deny basic employment rights and protection against unfair dismissal. It undermines safety and training standards and it erodes trade union organisation. The union finds it harder to persuade the new breed of self-employed building workers, most of them forced to accept a CIS4 classification in order to get a job, of the benefits of collective organisation.
The public sector has fared little better during these past three decades. Stringent curbs on spending, along with the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative and Best Value, and the sell off of much of the nation’s council housing stock, have depleted local authority direct labour organisations. This has been bad not just for UCATT, but has depressed training and skill standards throughout construction.
But there have been gains as well as setbacks. The legal status given to safety representatives through the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act was a major breakthrough for UCATT and unions in other industries with historically high accident levels. The stream of construction safety regulations which has flowed since then, many of them as a result of UCATT lobbying in Britain and Europe has without doubt saved countless lives and limbs of building workers.
UCATT has started to make progress on a fully registered workforce following the launch of the Construction Skills Certification Scheme in 1995. A skills register for building workers was one of the key demands of UCATT during the previous two decades as a means of stamping out the unsafe cowboy element of the industry which has prospered as a result of casualisation.
UCATT itself is now well placed to seize the opportunities presented by these positive changes. The new lay Executive Council, elected in 1995 following a rule change a year earlier, has brought the union closer to the rank and file building worker. Most of the debt accumulated during the 1980’s has been paid off and we are now operating on a financial surplus. UCATT has much to look forward to in the future with your help and support.