As millennium deadlines approach, workers on high-profile schemes are demanding better pay and getting it, but are they really blackmailing bosses? And how can contractors ensure that they beat the clock?
The news that workers on the Millennium Dome are threatening industrial action sent shudders through those involved in the prestigious £800m project.

Steel erectors are angry at their union's failure to achieve a higher pay award than the £7.40 an hour agreed before Christmas. They are insisting that the union, the AEEU, holds a national ballot on the agreement. If the AEEU ignores their protests, the stage looks set for unofficial industrial action on the highest-profile building site in the world.

Threats of action at the dome are only the latest in a spate of incidents on high-profile schemes, including the Jubilee Line Extension and the Royal Opera House, where workers are flexing their muscles to squeeze better pay deals. On all these projects, the workforce has the same powerful bargaining tool: the jobs have to be completed before the millennium.

And sentiment among workers is running high. "There's a lot of discontent at the moment and the feeling among steel erectors is that we should be getting better deals while the work is here," says one of the 35 steel erectors working on the dome.

"There's a government moratorium on constructing gas-fired power stations that will hurt our trade badly. That's why we need to get good deals now. This is the time to do it," he continues.

However, dome project director Bernard Ainsworth and development director David Trench downplay talk of industrial unrest affecting the site. "Everything that impacts on the dome concerns us," says Ainsworth. "But we have a culture of working together and overcoming industrial relations difficulties on this project. We don't envisage any problems."

Alternative solutions

Having said that, Trench hinted that the dome management was not without alternatives in the event of industrial action by the steel workers.

"Hypothetically, a lot of the exhibitions [the remaining steelwork] could be built with modular components," he says. "We could also use other exhibition steel contractors, but we haven't had to go down that route so far, and we don't expect to." But another dome steel erector is unimpressed: "At the moment, we have the muscle to get a decent deal for everyone in the building game. The JLE sparks have shown that actions speak louder than words, and if they can do it, so can we." Problems on the much-delayed JLE are well documented. Without the JLE, there is no easy access to the dome. Sensitivities on the project are such that US troubleshooter Bechtel, brought in at considerable expense to deliver the JLE this side of the millennium, refused to discuss the project with Building.

Quite frankly, I believe the men are cutting their own throats

construction union official

In addition to earning wages in excess of £1000 a week, JLE electricians will also receive a £2263 golden handshake if the project meets the millennium deadline. And all this after they staged a two-week strike and were accused by management of attempting to sabotage the project.

"As far as industrial relations are concerned, the decision to build the dome has given the men on the JLE an incredible negotiating advantage over the people running the project," explains a JLE insider. "The millennium deadline must be met, workers know that, and they are demanding the earth to enable it to happen." The insider's view is not shared by AEEU general secretary Ken Jackson. He believes that problems on the JLE have been entirely of the management's making. "There have been very few industrial relations problems on the JLE," he says. "The finite date has led to some frayed tempers on the project, but every job has deadlines. The JLE's problems in reaching its deadlines have been down to bad planning by the people in charge.

"Let's face it – they nearly collapsed Big Ben during the tunnelling at Westminster and then opted to install an untried signalling system. The whole scheme was already massively over budget and over time way before last year's strike. Better management would have prevented all the JLE's problems, including industrial relations ones." Barring a disaster, the first phase of the JLE should be open by Easter. A spokesman for beleaguered M&E contractor Drake & Scull says: "Once the Stratford link is open, a lot of the pressure will be off. That route guarantees access to the dome and means we can't be held to ransom on the rest of the line." But if the JLE is slowly moving towards a strife-free future, the impact of the JLE sparks continues to haunt other projects with immovable deadlines.

Royal Opera House headaches

The Royal Opera House is scheduled to open to the public in December after its £220m refurbishment. Encouraged by the success of their colleagues on the JLE, opera house electricians are already talking about demanding a golden handshake similar to the one being paid to JLE sparks.

In addition, they are still threatening industrial action over the transfer of a former steward to a site in Wales by M&E contractor Balfour Kilpatrick, which is subcontracting the project's electrical work. Balfour Kilpatrick correctly says it is entitled to transfer employees as it sees fit. But the rights and wrongs of the dispute will count for little if the project's 200 electricians walk out over the issue, further endangering the project's deadline.

Stanhope director Peter Rogers, who is advising the opera house, says: "We have done our best to ensure that everything within our control has been done to keep people on site happy, but the opera house doesn't have the extra cash some projects do to buy its way out of industrial relations problems." Rogers adds: "At the end of the day, a touch of cowardice, or flexibility, is often the better part of valour for managers on millennium projects. Strictly entrenched positions are not viable on projects like this and the workforce knows it." But one construction union official offered the electricians and steel erectors a word of warning: "All this hard-nosed attitude will do is convince more clients and contractors to do away with the human element in building and switch to off-site fabrication.

Projects in the line of fire

Millennium Dome Deadline November 1999, although some testing of the facility will take place during December Progress report Has enjoyed a charmed existence so far, but clouds are forming Odds on meeting deadline Evens Jubilee Line Extension Deadline Three-phase opening – Stratford to Greenwich, late spring 1999; Waterloo to Greenwich, late summer 1999; Green Park to Waterloo, autumn 1999 Progress report Latest phased opening deadlines should see part of the line open to allow access to the dome. But travellers will probably have to go via Stratford Odds on meeting deadline 1-2 for Stratford to Greenwich; 8-1 for west and central London link Royal Opera House Deadline September 1999. First public performances December 1999 Progress report Odds lengthened when electrical contractor Balfour Kilpatrick ran into industrial relations problems with its employees, and structural problems were revealed in its fly-tower. Insiders concede that it might not be over when the fat lady sings Odds on meeting deadline 4-1 Cardiff Millennium Stadium Deadline June 1999 Progress report Problems with everything from local residents to design changes have created additional work and increased costs. Contractor Laing says the stadium will open with a reduced capacity in June, before becoming fully operational in time for the Rugby World Cup in October Odds on meeting deadline 2-1

The view from the site

During the recession, half of us were out of work. If you were lucky enough to stay in work, your wages were cut 40-50%. Subbies and the big contractors didn’t throw their hands up and say how terrible that was. Instead, they used the lack of work to drive down rates, ignore health and safety and treat people like dirt. Now the boot is on the other foot. On millennium projects, where there’s a fixed completion date, building workers have got the upper hand in the bargaining game and can drive up our money. No one shed any tears for us when the mortgage had to be paid in 1992, and I don’t intend to cry for some poor subbie who can only afford three holidays this summer or has to keep his R-reg Merc for another year. Sean Prophet, London Joint Sites Committee

The view from the office

Technical problems have been the biggest headache on the Jubilee Line Extension. However, when industrial relations problems occur on a project like this, there is an immediate pressure to solve them as quickly as possible. Fixed deadlines mean you have no slack to adopt a wait-and-see approach and the workforce can take advantage of that. I don’t think the demands of electricians on the project have been entirely unreasonable. They have done what they can for their members and succeeded in getting them a very good deal. But, ultimately, the time demands of this and other millennium-sensitive projects have put all the cards in their hands and we have little flexibility to argue with them. We have to deliver on time. JLE manager

How to ensure a happy ending

Dr Jan Duker, director of research at the University of Greenwich business school, offers five tips for millennium project contractors. 1 Review less urgent operations and programmes to see if they could provide any back-up or support. 2 Involve employers and subcontractors in the project. Encourage commitment to the project and pride in work, not just compliance. Everyone wants to be valued. 3 Are employers and subcontractors aware of the longer-term benefits of association with your company? Does everyone on the project stand to benefit from a timely completion? 4 If you plan to offer incentives, it’s better to do so early in a project to avoid being forced into concessions later. 5 Learn from the experience. Working with people is always important, not just for the millennium.