The biggest conference of rank and file trade unionists for two decades took place in London last Saturday. Over 1,000 trade unionists from across Britain came to the event organised by the Socialist Alliance, which will be standing hundreds of candidates at the May local elections. The Scottish Socialist Party also supported it. The conference signalled a further step in the deepening rift between the government and trade unionists.
It outlined a serious campaign to democratise trade unions' political funds so ordinary members can debate giving money to socialists who challenge New Labour from the left. And it bristled with what delegate after delegate described as a 'new spirit of militancy' among trade unionists. Very large numbers want to see a fightback against the employers and a government that is married to big business.
That spirit entered the hall with a delegation of 30 Post Office workers who had come from a march against postal privatisation. They received a standing ovation. It was as much in anticipation of big battles ahead as it was for the march they had just been on.
People rose to their feet again and applauded wildly for a group of medical secretaries from the north east of England who are striking against low pay. Teachers inspired the conference as they described the vibrant rally that had taken place in the same hall two days previously when over 40,000 of them struck in London.
Running through every contribution was the same bitter feeling that the New Labour government is sticking the boot into working people-and getting money from trade union political funds to do it. Fran Choules, a post worker from Exeter, said, 'I voted for the Labour Party in 1997. But last year I stood against the Labour Party. I could not stand by while they attacked working people and hounded asylum seekers.'
Blair's alliance with the most right wing leaders in Europe added to the outrage. 'We have a Labour prime minister in Barcelona making an alliance with Spanish prime minister Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi to roll back workers' rights across Europe,' said Yunus Bakhsh, a member of the Unison union. 'Aznar's party was founded by remnants of Franco's fascists. Berlusconi has fascists in his government. We have an alliance. It's not with them, but with the hundreds of thousands of anti-capitalist protesters on the streets of Barcelona.'
Three themes came together in a powerful combination throughout the day-strengthening the new militancy, extending the argument in the unions for a socialist alternative to Blair, and making connections with the wider revolt against neo-liberal policies and the drive to war. The conference broke up into workshops covering different industries and unions. They discussed practically how to pursue the arguments in their own unions about the political fund.
There was overwhelming agreement to campaign to democratise the funds. Firefighter Matt Wrack won huge applause when he attacked the idea peddled by TUC leader John Monks that the unions could form links with the Liberal Democrats or even the Tories.
'We have no truck with that,' he said. 'Union aims and objectives are against privatisation and attacks on workers. That rules out support for parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. We want to strengthen working class political representation. We want to democratise the fund, to break Labour's monopoly over the fund, to give workers a choice and a voice. Our strategy should embrace the widest possible numbers in the campaign. When Tory millionaire Shaun Woodward stood for Labour in St Helens and firefighter Neil Thompson stood for the Socialist Alliance, FBU members couldn't even consider giving some fund money to Neil. Thompson or Woodward-that's the choice.'
The significance of the event and the scale of the debate about the political fund were not lost on anyone in the hall. Disgust with New Labour is growing. But that should not lead to abstention from politics. Nor is it enough just to fund general union propaganda or single issue campaigns.
The sharpest challenge to New Labour will come from democratising the fund, and activists arguing to give a portion of the money to socialists such as the Socialist Alliance or the Scottish Socialist Party.
Voices from the rank and file show the anger and the hope
POSTAL worker SIMON MIDGLEY said, 'I put a motion to my union branch in favour of only supporting candidates who support union policy. 'My branch is known as a right wing branch. I thought we would hit a brick wall. In fact member after member spoke about their frustration with New Labour. 'The motion is going to conference, along with six others on the same thing from other branches. If it is possible to do it in my branch it is possible anywhere.'
PAUL HASTE, who organises casino workers in London for the TGWU union, said, 'This conference is brilliant. The debate needed to have happened some time ago, and now it is. We've got a big uphill battle in the TGWU. It's a big union, with the leadership tied to Labour, and little organisation between activists and the left. But today marked the beginning of something radical. The TGWU members here decided to campaign to defend the local government branch in Lewisham, south London, that voted to support socialist candidates in the election.'
CHARLIE BALCH, a member of the post workers' CWU union, told the conference how he had received a letter from a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly. John Marek from Wrexham wrote, 'I'm appalled at what has happened to the Post Office. What amazes me is that trade unions continue to give money to the Labour Party.'
He then advised unions to hold back money from New Labour! Charlie was a member of the Labour Party for 20 years but left to join the Welsh Socialist Alliance before the last general election. 'Yet', he said, 'some of my union dues still go to a party that is privatising the post and the tube, and conducting a war in Afghanistan and against Iraq which I cannot agree with. We are being wrecked by this government. That's why seven CWU branches have submitted motions to the union's conference to democratise the political fund.'
FRED LEPLAT, a member of the Unison union, captured the frustration of seeing union leaders on Labour Party bodies voting with the government and against policies agreed by union conferences. 'The only time we have got concessions from this government', he said, 'is when we have mobilised. We have a challenge of starting to present a credible alternative to New Labour.'
JOHN McLOUGHLIN from Unison described how a one-day strike of 3,000 council workers in Tower Hamlets, east London, showed the 'growing sense of solidarity' at the bottom of the unions. He said it went hand in hand with questioning union funding for New Labour. 'We will not be able to change the union's rules before the May council elections,' he said.
'I want my union branch to hold hustings for candidates, including the Socialist Alliance. We are looking to get together with the teachers and other groups to host big debates over the elections. That's something people can do everywhere.'
United action needed
MARK SERWOTKA, the general secretary elect of the civil servants' PCS union, closed the conference. His call for coordinated action between unions and activists received enthusiastic support. He has written to the general secretaries of all the public sector unions asking them to call a joint national demonstration against privatisation.
'Activists should have identical motions at conferences calling for action,' he said. 'We have a chance for real May Day rallies against privatisation. London trades councils and Globalise Resistance are doing that. We can do it elsewhere.'
'The privatisation of London Underground will not bring new trains or wider platforms. It will just mean a Knickerbox and a Sock Shop on every station. After all the betrayals from Blair, union members are sick of feeding the hand that bites them.'
MAC McKENNA, union rep, London Underground
'I'm a Labour Party member. My father was a Labour Party member and union member from 16 to 96. In 1997 we both cheered when Tony Blair kicked out the Tories. But one year later we vowed never to vote Labour again.'
BOB TANNER, Unison, London Guildhall University
Industrial and political
'WE ARE seeing a fightback, both industrially and politically. The Socialist Alliance has to be central to both sides, building solidarity for workers on strike and stimulating a debate about the political fund.'
London firefighter Neale Williams was just one of the delegates who stressed the link between the fight to democratise the unions' political funds and winning industrial action. He also argued, 'Many Labour left wingers supported the motion to democratise the fund at our conference. 'We can win people who still look to Labour and are still Labour Party members to the campaign to democratise the fund.'
Nick Rogers came to the conference from Glasgow. He is in the TGWU union and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party: 'I was in the Labour Party for 20 years. I think the unions should become more political, not less. We should campaign for fighting unions. Part of that campaign is to link the debate about the political fund with the industrial struggle. We have to link up at the grassroots level to push that forward.'
Derek Milligan is a shop steward at a Remploy factory in Dundee: 'We have just had a ballot for industrial action. It was 75 percent in favour of striking. People know that Labour doesn't represent working people'.
An Aslef rail union member from Manchester, Peter Grant, argued that the Socialist Alliance should campaign for unity between unions on the rail:
'The Socialist Alliance should campaign against division and for the repeal of the anti-union laws. Let's put the politics back into the political fund.'
'Medical secretaries earn a maximum of £13,000, and that's after ten years in the job. In our strike ballot 93 percent voted in favour of striking. Our chief executive is an ex sergeant major in the army. He says he won't give in to a bunch of militant women. But we deserve better.'
LINDSEY KEMP, one of the striking medical secretaries from Sunderland
'I am a part time worker in the voluntary sector. I think it is important for young people and women to get involved. I am very worried about Blair meeting up with Berlusconi. I think their plans will really disempower people in the workplace. I am very impressed with the number and the range of people here today. It is so good to see union members talking to each other and getting organised.'
FARAH REZA, who has just joined a union
Don't drop politics
THROUGHOUT THE main sessions and the workshops for different unions there were discussions on what democratising the political funds would mean. Andrew, a GMB and Labour Party member, argued, 'I am a member of the Capital Transport Campaign. If we got some fund money we could actually do something useful with it.' Kevin Flynn from Newcastle explained that the campaign wasn't about moving away from political activity:
'We want to be able to use fund money to organise more activity, more campaigns, demos and lobbies.' GMB union leader John Edmonds has withdrawn £2 million from Labour.
GMB union members argued that some of this could be spent on unionisation campaigns, and donations to campaigns like CND and the Stop the War Coalition. Henry Rajch, a GMB member from Barnsley, argued how it was very important to demand the political fund be opened not just to campaigns 'but to fund socialist parties and candidates'.
GILL LEE: 'There's a new generation of teachers who are keen to fight, as we saw on the demonstration in London last week.'
YUNUS BAKHSH: 'We are in alliance with the protesters in Barcelona. Blair is in alliance with the most right wing forces.'
MATT WRACK: 'Our leaders may want to be abused, but why should they use our money to pay for the privilege?'
Sink Blair's mate
'KEN JACKSON is Blair's favourite union leader,' explained Ian Allinson. He is a member of the new Amicus union, made up of the AEEU and MSF unions, which is holding an election for general secretary. 'Jackson is facing a real contest for the position of general secretary. Blair's strategy is to build a right wing block inside the unions to counter the left wingers being elected. The New Labour leaders need Jackson. Derek Simpson is standing against him. Campaign for Derek. Let's derail New Labour's plans.'
Derek Simpson came to the conference to speak to Amicus members. He told them, 'I think there is a mood of change in the country, certainly politically, and in the trade union movement too. If I beat Ken Jackson then the main trade union prop for the Labour government will be gone.'
For more on the Amicus general secretary election see page 15.
'Things are really changing. At the Independent journalists voted 99.6 percent in favour of unionisation. Journalists in Bradford won a 14 percent pay rise after a strike. Now others are voting for action. There has been a strike vote at the Express. Like some other unions, the National Union of Journalists doesn't yet have a political fund. We need a fund to campaign for public services. We will be arguing for a fund in our union.'
KATE SIMON, NUJ union rep, the Independent
'There is an international neo-liberal programme of privatisation. The most extreme views are expressed by the new front of Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar. We want a different Europe-a Europe of social rights and peace. I want to invite everyone here to the European Social Forum. It was called following the World Social Forum in January in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and will be in Italy in the autumn.'
LUCIANO MUHLBAUER from the Italian party Rifondazione Comunista
Focus for debate
The new Socialist Alliance pamphlet, Whose Money is it Anyway? went down a storm at the conference. Socialist Alliance supporters working for Greenwich council bought 150 copies of the pamphlet.
Ade Walter explained that they had won support for the alliance by taking round petitions against the war, and defending asylum seekers. 'Every payday we go round and collect money for the alliance. More people support us now, because they see the Socialist Alliance is there campaigning, not just after their vote during elections. There is a massive audience for the pamphlet. It can sell thousands in workplaces and union branches.'
The Socialist Alliance in Southwark bought 200 copies. The pamphlet can be used as the focus for a meeting to discuss the question of the political fund.
Whose money is it anyway? The case for democratising the trade union political funds By Matt Wrack
A Socialist Alliance pamphlet price £1 available from the Socialist Alliance, Wickham House, 10 Cleveland Way, London E1 4TR. 020 7791 3138