'There is a great deal of discontent among our rank and file with Labour.' That is how Billy Hayes, leader of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), summed up why the union last week threatened to withhold £1 million from its donations to the Labour Party.
Hayes threatened to stop the money if New Labour refuses to back off from plans to privatise the Post Office. The CWU represents nearly 300,000 postal and telecommunications workers, and union leaders know they are furious with the seemingly endless betrayals of the Labour government.
The CWU's announcement follows a similar threat by the GMB union to stop £2 million going to Labour over the next four years. It comes as a debate is raging throughout the trade union movement about whether unions should continue to unquestioningly hand money to New Labour. Scottish trade union leaders said at the weekend that donations to the fund for next year's Scottish Parliament elections are in jeopardy.
They were speaking to journalists minutes after support for private involvement in public services was narrowly voted through the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth. 'It is very hard to get our union members to support Labour when Labour ministers are privatising their jobs,' said one top trade unionist. Robert Parker, the Scottish secretary of the GMB, suggested his union might withdraw funding for any Labour candidates who failed to back the union's opposition to private companies running public services.
At the conference the GMB, TGWU and Unison unions voted against key documents on local government, health and education. All three documents support continued use of PFI.
They were narrowly passed only because the leaders of the Amicus (engineering) and Usdaw (shop workers') unions supported the party leadership. Many trade unionists were particularly angry that Scottish Executive ministers refused to promise an end to two-tier employment in hospitals and schools.
Under present plans most nurses and teachers will remain NHS or local authority employees. But ancillaries, domestics, janitors and other staff will see their pay, conditions and pension rights cut by private companies running schools and hospitals. Just days before the conference it was rumoured that public services minister Andy Kerr had done a deal with union leaders.
They were to support the policy documents, and in return ministers would guarantee public service conditions for anyone transferred to a private contractor.
This pact (a rotten one for trade unionists in any case) fell apart when Scottish Labour leaders decided to 'take on' the unions in the sprit of Tony Blair's recent 'wreckers' speech. Conference delegates did vote to reject any form of privatisation of the Post Office.
CWU delegate John Brown told the conference that the Post Office was facing 'privatisation by stealth'. 'We have seen the sad situation in Railtrack and the ill conceived plan for privatisation of air traffic control. We must not allow the Post Office to become the Railtrack-or even the Mailtrack-of tomorrow.'
Debate it here
Over 500 trade unionists have now signed up to come to the Socialist Alliance sponsored conference on the trade union political fund.
The agenda is: 11am-12.30pm The political fund-where should it go? With activists from the CWU, RMT and Unison. 12.30pm-1.30pm Workshops: How do we campaign? 2.30pm-4pm Supporting the strikes, stopping privatisation With Bob Crow (general secretary RMT), Carolyn Leckie (branch secretary North Glasgow Hospitals Unison), Mark Serwotka (general secretary PCS), Angie Thompson (joint branch secretary Dudley Hospitals Unison). Chair: Jane Loftus (Merseyside Amal CWU). Guest speaker from the Italian left wing Partito Comunista Rifondazione.
All speakers in a personal capacity.
Who should we fund?
MANY RANK and file trade unionists are arguing for opening up their unions' political fund, which currently goes exclusively to the Labour Party. Democratising the fund has received widespread support. The conferences of several unions voted for reviews and discussions on the issue last year. But this raises a further question about where else the money should go. The GMB union is diverting the £2 million it has withheld from Labour into a poster campaign against privatisation.
George Monbiot's Guardian article last week argued that 'it doesn't really matter which of Britain's small progressive parties' the money should go to. He included in his list the Liberal Democrats. But the Liberal Democrats are not a 'progressive party'.
Councils run by the Liberal Democrats have pushed through cuts and privatisation. In Liverpool, for example, the council is closing local schools to make way for a city academy. As former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley says, city academies are a form of far-reaching selection and privatisation. The Liberal Democrat party supports privatisation.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesperson, recently attacked the rail strikes and called for a change in the law to allow passengers to sue the rail unions.
It is right to argue for opening up the union's political funds and for unions to fund other political parties, and not just to divert the money into campaigns.
There is also an argument to be won that money should not go to pro-capitalist parties such as the Liberal Democrats, but to those offering a genuine alternative to New Labour.
Lyons made a poor case
An article in the Guardian last week by anti-capitalist campaigner George Monbiot sparked a debate about the trade unions' support for Labour. He wrote, 'It is time for the trade unions to embrace their role as wreckers. The party they created has disowned them, so they must disinherit it. They must destroy the system which guarantees that power remains the preserve of big business.'
This provoked a response from Roger Lyons, general secretary of the MSF section of the Amicus union. He claimed, 'In the real world the choice at the next election is not between Labour and the Socialist Alliance, but between New Labour and the same old Conservatives. To give up on the party in power and leave the field entirely clear for corporate lobbyists would be to sacrifice the interests of people at work today for the vague hopes of a reconfiguration of British politics tomorrow.'
Ian Allinson, an Amicus/ MSF branch secretary at ICL in Manchester, said in response, 'Lyons' slavish support for Blair means leaving the field open for corporate power. 'He sounds like the people at the start of the 20th century who opposed setting up the Labour Party. Lyons is one of Blair's most loyal supporters-and he puts his loyalty to Blair above loyalty to his members. We've had thousands of job losses in manufacturing across the country. Blair stands back and does nothing. Lyons should be putting pressure on Blair, not covering his back. We need a wide debate about where trade unionists' money should go. Should we pour everything into the Labour Party, or should we be opening up the union's political fund to also back parties which stand up for workers' interests? This is a debate with resonance throughout the trade union movement. That is why the conference on the fund called by the Socialist Alliance is so crucial. My branch of Amicus/ MSF Greater Manchester, is backing the conference, and we're sending a delegation of six people to take part in the debate.'
Dozens of other union delegations will be coming to the conference to hear the arguments and join the discussion.