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BUILDING THE BARBICAN: Industrial disputes and the men who built a cultural beacon

Published: 2 August, 2012

If you’ve ever found yourself lost in the middle-class citadel of the Barbican and wondered how Europe’s biggest centre of arts and culture came to be so labyrinthine, well, the answer is that they sort of made it up as they went along.

The last-minute design changes, and flaws, were just one irritant that led to constant tension and industrial action between workers and construction firms on the sprawling site, which had far-reaching effects on the British building industry.

In fact, the importance of the disputes at the Barbican, which was built between 1962 and 1982, was a milestone in the nation’s social history on a par with the 1984 miners’ strike – although not, until now, as well documented.

Site workers were engaged in an almost constant conflict with managers – resulting in strikes, lock-outs and black-listing of the most troublesome (or successful) union organisers.

Now, an oral and pictorial history of the workers who built four 43-storey residential tower blocks and a cathedral to culture that most of them would never go to, has been created by Westminster University as part of a series of great public building projects started between 1950 and 1970.

The others are the construction of the M1 motorway, the South Bank Centre, Sizewell A Nuclear Power Station and Stevenage New Town.

Linda Clarke, a professor of European industrial relations, launched the project – which took two years and includes the testimonies of former workers – with a symposium at the university in Regent Street, attended by some of the former workers and union representatives.

The Barbican project employed 1,000 workers from all corners of Britain and the world – including Irish, Jamaicans and Sikhs.

Prof Clarke described how the showpiece project, which at its peak employed more than 1,000 workers, quickly became mired in industrial strife.

In a booklet produced about the project, Vic Heath, a scaffolder from Camden Town, described the conditions.

“There were no proper toilet facilities,” he said. “The site was enormous, covering a lot of ground, a lot of mud, and set in three different places were toilets. That was wooden boxes with a chemical toilet inside. You had nowhere to wash your hands.

“There was no canteen as such. We was expected to have our tea sitting on the scaffold or wherever and bring it with you.

“In a very short period of time we decided that we needed flush toilets, that was the first thing, and management said the job had to be two storeys high before they’d do that.”

The workers responded by using the toilets at St Paul’s Cathedral – which was quite a walk away – which led to a constant procession of workers leaving the site.

That was just the beginning of the trouble, however.

“Large constructions acted as a catalyst for social change,” said Prof Clarke. “At the Barbican there was poor coordination between the construction firms and architects. There were lots of design changes and design flaws which caused continual problems.”

Other bones of contention were bonuses – scaffolders, crane drivers and technicians weren’t represented by trade unions – and health and safety on the site.

The construction industry had seen 271 deaths in 1964 – and there were fatal accidents on the Barbican site.

“The most notable dispute was the Myton dispute,” she said. “It went on for 18 months, in 1966 and 1967. It was the longest dispute in British history.”

The Myton lockout developed from a failure to resolve a dispute over scaffolders’ bonuses which led to a work-to-rule. This led Myton, one of the construction companies involved in the build, to sack three workers, resulting in a walkout of the entire workforce.

Myton responded by shutting down its section of the site and locking the workforce out – even though the strike was just two days old and the workers had agreed to return.

Some workers believe the lockout was a ruse to deflect attention away from the company’s financial problems and difficulties that late instructions from the architects were causing.

The locked-out workers were not only not supported by national trade unions, but suffered from collaboration between trade unions and management.

In February 1967, the union leaders and employers tried to agree a settlement that would see six works committee members left out in the cold. Unions also agreed to “scab” labour entering the site, which led to pitch battles between police and strikers when attempts to reopen it were made.

It eventually took a government Court of Inquiry to settle the dispute – with the six committee members not only dismissed, but also blacklisted.

“There was a failure of the trade unions to represent the majority of the workforce, unregulated wage-to-skill levels, weak training systems, and blacklisting of union organisers,” Prof Clarke said.

“The result of the disputes was the building workers’ charter, registration of all workers, demand for a 35-hour week and three weeks paid holiday, and a single building union – the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Engineers.”

For the workers who contributed to the Westminster project there are mixed feelings about the Barbican.

Richard Organ, a plumber, who was at the talk, said that he was blacklisted and had to leave the building industry as a result.

“I ended up working in the Post Office,” he said.

Vic Heath said he “doesn’t even think about” the Barbican. And Pat Bowen, who was a plumber on the site, said in his interview for the project: “I think the Barbican was a good site. I think a lot of people cut their political teeth on it, and, if you looked closely enough, you’d find loads of people got their first experience of trade union militancy on that site, some for good, some for bad.”

• For more information on the Barbican visit


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