Over 300 trade unionists, students and unemployed workers came together in London last Saturday to build a united response to the crisis that threatens millions of people with unemployment, job insecurity, low pay and poverty.
Delegates at the Fight for the Right to Work conference were in a determined mood. Recent struggles – and, importantly, victories – shaped the day.
Time after time people referred to the reinstatement of sacked Unite union rep Rob Williams, the occupations at Waterford Crystal and Visteon, unofficial walkouts at Tower Hamlets College in east London and the solid strike by workers on London Underground.
The conference was a chance for people to discuss their struggles and also the debates that they generated – such as the importance of rank and file organisation or how to deal with the divisive “British jobs for British workers” slogan.
“There were a lot of different experiences about how to organise,” said Martin, a student from Sheffield. “I’ve been to a number of events and it can sometimes seem that you’re hearing the same things. But this was different.”
Tim Wilkinson, an unemployed worker from Chesterfield, said, “Hearing about things like Visteon lifts you. What’s really important about today is that it is a call to unite the employed and unemployed. It gives people confidence to know we can get results.”
Imelda from east London told Socialist Worker, “I lost my job as a secretary in April. I am in my 50s and I don’t know if I’ll find another job.
“The process of signing on is demeaning for people on both sides of the counter. I want the unemployed and those in work to see that we have the same fight.”
Trade unionists involved in various struggles spoke at an opening meeting to kick off the conference.
A Unite member, who is also involved in the National Shop Stewards Network, said, “Last year the big question was, will workers fight back?
“But now people have started to fight. I think Visteon has marked a turning point. There is a new trend developing of effective resistance.”
Glenroy Watson from the RMT transport union was cheered when he spoke about the successful tube strike in London last week.
“If you listened to the media you would’ve thought that we were all depressed on the picket lines,” he said. “But the reality was that we had a very strong and successful strike.”
Russ Ball, the senior Unite (T&G section) union steward at the B&Q contract for DHL, Welwyn Garden City, told Socialist Worker, “The conference is a good start to get us back on track. We need things like this to make our movement more cohesive.
“The union movement has got to get back to the grassroots. The leadership has lost sight of what class struggle is all about. Why should we be affiliated to a Labour Party that attacks workers?”
Lynne, a Unite steward from Fujitsu, said, “It’s clear from most people who are at the conference that we need a fight that unites workers, the unemployed, and workers in the public and private sectors to take things forward.”
Delegates gave standing ovations to Pat Phelan from Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Ron Clark from Visteon.
Pat, a Unite shop steward, told Socialist Worker, “What we learnt from our occupation is that you have to trust the union membership.
“Rank and file workers took over the occupation and ran it themselves. They have a lot of experience and knowledge that the shop stewards don’t have.
“Fighting back always has an impact regardless of what is won – it means that people start demanding to be treated with dignity and respect. There is always a benefit to resisting.”
Pat talked about the threat of racist ideas winning a wider hearing in the recession. “It’s the easy argument to blame someone else,” he said. “But that racist argument has to be confronted at a trade union level.
“If employers are using immigrant labour to drive down the cost then the unions have to fight that by arguing that everybody has to stick together.”
The discussion on opposing racism and fighting for jobs for all workers continued throughout the conference.
As Stalin Bermudez, a victimised union rep from Soas, part of the University of London, put it at the opening meeting, “We are workers wherever we come from. Some people want to blame us for the problems in this country. But the only enemy we have is the capitalist.”
The conference voted on a general statement of principles and to focus on building a demonstration over jobs at Labour Party conference on 27 September, which has been called by the UCU lecturers’ union and backed by the NUJ journalists’ union.
Delegates elected a steering committee to mobilise for the protest and initiate Fight for the Right to Work meetings in cities across Britain.
To get involved go to » www.righttowork.org.uk