Tony Blair has gone too far even for the leaders of the Trades Union Congress. They have been reluctant to criticise Tony Blair. But union leaders at a TUC general council meeting last week were fuming about Tony Blair's agreement with right wing Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. Blair and Berlusconi met two weeks ago and agreed to try to push through 'economic liberalisation', 'flexible labour markets' and 'minimum labour standards'.
The statement was sent to the right wing prime minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar. According to the Financial Times, 'This marks the start of a three pronged assault to speed up labour market reform and block EU [European Union] directives strengthening workers' rights.' One union leader was quoted as saying that the statement was tantamount 'to tearing up the European social model'.
'Several leaders voiced their anger that Mr Blair was forging ties with another leader who was at war with the unions,' said the Financial Times. For years TUC leaders have urged workers to put their faith in EU legislation to give workers more rights. Now Blair is throwing that in their faces. This latest row can only deepen the already growing discontent so many union members feel at the Labour government.
Against this background, the biggest gathering of rank and file trade unionists for many years will take place in London on Saturday of next week. The conference, organised by the Socialist Alliance, will discuss the issue of the political fund and the unions' financial links with the Labour Party. Over 700 trade unionists have now signed up to attend the conference. Organisers expect over 1,000 trade unionists to attend on the day.
The conference will bring together shop stewards, branch secretaries, and rank and file union members to discuss the link with the Labour Party, and how to build a fight against privatisation. There will be delegations and representatives from nearly every trade union. Over 60 union branches have passed motions to send official delegations to the conference.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, and Mark Serwotka, general secretary elect of the PCS, will both be addressing the conference, along with a range of rank and file activists and trade unionists.
Make sure you've booked up to come to the conference. You don't have to be delegated by your trade union to come along-all trade unionists are welcome. Turn to page 3 for details of how to sign up.
Strikers short changed
The political fund was a central question in a strike by Tower Hamlets council workers last week. One striker told Socialist Worker, 'At a mass strikers' meeting our branch secretary, John McLoughlin, made the point that Mittal can give Labour £128,000 and get favours. Our union, Unison, is giving Labour £2.5 million and we get nothing. This Labour-run council is closing a centre for elderly people, privatising the youth service, selling off the whole housing stock, and pushing through PFI schemes in 27 schools. I suggested we send a delegation of 100 to the Socialist Alliance's conference, so all sections could be represented. I don't know if we'll get that many, but people were queuing up to sign up for the conference. Everyone sees what business gets for its money. We get nothing. The conference is a chance to talk to people in other unions, and to organise a real campaign to fight back.'
Bet Williams is a care worker in the GMB union in the north west of England. She told Socialist Worker, 'Our union has made a stand against New Labour's privatisation. It is putting the money it is withholding from Labour into a poster campaign. But I think there should be a debate about whether we should give it to other parties too, such as the Socialist Alliance or the Green Party. We want at least some of the union's money to go to parties which back the policies of our union.'
Less than 8 weeks to council elections
Socialist Alliance supporters in Hackney and Tower Hamlets were out last weekend leafleting key wards to kick off their local election campaigns. The Socialist Alliance is standing in key wards across councils in England in the elections on Thursday 2 May.
The alliance will be standing on principled socialist policies and putting a clear alternative to New Labour and the other mainstream parties in the election. Key slogans for the alliance's election campaign include:
- Tax the rich to fund public services.
- An end to privatisation.
- Renationalise the rail.
- Stop attacks on asylum seekers and fight racism.
- Stop Bush and Blair's war.
Local Socialist Alliance groups have been selecting candidates to stand in key wards in their local areas.
For example, in Huddersfield six candidates have been selected, and in Waltham Forest eight candidates will be standing. Local groups are picking key wards to target for leafleting and campaigning, as well as being at the forefront of fighting council cuts and supporting workers fighting back. In the south of Bristol Socialist Alliance members have already delivered 5,000 leaflets, and are planning more leafleting in the coming weeks.
Socialist Alliance supporters have set up a local theatre group, called 'Sappers', which is planning to perform in the city centre and at bus stop queues to drum up support for the alliance. In Lancashire the Socialist Alliance is campaigning against the closure of 14 elderly people's homes by the Labour-led council.
Kambiz Boomla, a local GP who is standing in Tower Hamlets in east London, was applauded by strikers after his visit to a picket line to support council workers in the area last week.
The London Socialist Alliance has called an important meeting to coordinate the local election campaign in the capital. Thursday 21 March, 7.30pm, ULU, Malet Street, London.
Everyone talking about the fund
THE QUESTION of the political fund has now become a mainstream issue for debate. Even those who defend the trade unions' financial links with the Labour Party have had to acknowledge the depth of the anger against New Labour. Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, wrote a recent article in the Guardian defending the link.
But he acknowledged, 'It is New Labour with its agenda of crypto-privatisation and of seemingly valuing links with big business more than those with affiliated unions which has brought the relationship into question. Is it any wonder that union activists are getting increasingly uneasy about New Labour?'
The call for the democratisation of the political fund has received widespread support throughout the trade union movement. 'We are not against the political fund as such,' says a member of the printers' GPMU union from the Newsfax print works, which prints papers like the Financial Times. We are against that money going entirely to New Labour when it is stabbing us in the back. My union chapel unanimously passed a motion for debate on the political fund, and there are four of us coming to the Socialist Alliance conference. I just put the argument that we gave money to CND, but if it went pro-nuclear then we would question our support. The same applies to New Labour.'