There is a deep crisis in the postal workers’ CWU union that centres on its political fund – but reflects much wider troubles in the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party.
There are also “rumblings within the GMB union” over the union’s link to Labour, according to a report in last Sunday’s People newspaper.
Questions about union funding of Labour have emerged in every trade union that has taken strike action under New Labour – and on a scale not seen under previous Labour governments.
At the root of the crisis is the way the Labour leadership has wholeheartedly embraced privatisation and neoliberalism – the ideology behind Gordon Brown’s public sector pay freeze.
According to the Electoral Commission, between February and June this year the CWU donated £277,627 to the Labour Party – yet with every cheque signed, attacks on the union have increased.
In the week of the first postal strike in June, the Labour Party accepted £3,500 from the CWU to help pay for its leadership contest.
Within days Brown was condemning the postal workers and telling parliament that their union must show restraint.
“The question of Labour and our strike has been massive in Scotland,” says Tam Dewar, area delivery rep for the CWU’s Glasgow Amal branch.
“I know of at least four unit reps in my branch that have left the union’s political fund during the course of the strike. I’m not at all surprised by that because it’s not just Brown and the ministers who are against us.
“I wrote to eight local MPs asking them to support our strike and only got replies from four – that’s a disgrace. If we want to stop the haemorrhaging of the political fund, we must ensure that we only financially support those who support us.”
This feeling is now widespread in the union. At a mass meeting during last week’s unofficial postal strike in east London, the greatest cheer went to the rep who said she would take forms to leave the political fund around all her workmates at the end of the dispute. “There must be no more money for Gordon Brown,” she said.
She was absolutely right. The union should not be funding those who are attacking it. Money should only be going to those who broadly support the union’s policies and back it in key confrontations – even if that means battles with government ministers.
This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning the political fund. But it does mean radical change.
Political funds do not exist simply to fund Labour – more broadly, they give workers a collective political voice.
There are some within the trade union movement who believe that unions and politics should not mix. They would like to see unions concentrating simply on economic issues and ignoring the ways in which politics impacts upon every workplace struggle.
This would be a major mistake. For example, where working class people are divided by racism, it undermines our ability to fight back in a united way. Therefore it is good that the CWU is affiliated to anti-racist campaigns such as Unite Against Fascism.
But anger against Labour is now so strong that without significant changes to how the CWU’s political fund is used, it may well be abandoned – leaving the union without a political voice.
The firefighters’ FBU union is an example of this. The union voted to disaffiliate from Labour in 2004. This followed a prolonged strike in which Labour ministers played a critical role in backing employers.
But when the union broke with Labour, it had no alternative political project in mind and has since played no significant part in the creation of new voice for working people.
The CWU can do much better than that. Across Britain many CWU activists are demanding change. They want action now that enables the union to fund left wing MPs and councillors from parties other than Labour, such as Respect.
There will be strong resistance to this move from some in the CWU’s leadership. But without such a change, the numbers of union members leaving the fund will become so great that the potential political voice that it offers will be gravely weakened.