The Right to Work conference of resistance and solidarity was a resounding success. It was the most significant gathering of rank and file workers and campaigners since the start of the recession.
Over 900 people took part in the conference in Manchester – trade unionists, unorganised and unemployed workers, students, pensioners and campaigners.
There was a tremendous determination to forge fighting unity, strengthen rank and file organisation, and to deepen political trade unionism.
Workers came from many of the most important recent disputes. They included the Visteon and Vestas occupations, Fujitsu, South Wales signallers, postal workers, Tower Hamlets College, the London cleaners, bus strikers, Premier Foods, the fight against blacklisting on the construction sites and many others.
Rank and file workers and their struggles shaped the conference. But the politics of solidarity and resistance go much wider than trade unionism.
So there were also important contributions about combating the BNP Nazis and the English Defence League. Anti-war activists including Sue Glenton, the mother of Joe Glenton who refused to fight in Afghanistan, and campaigners against climate change.
The speeches from a delegation of migrant workers from various London campaigns was one of the highlights of the day. They inspired everyone present with their searing contributions against racism and union-busting, and their record of courageous struggle.
The pensions discussion brought together those forced to live on the meagre state pension, and those fighting to defend private and public sector schemes.
Workshops took up all these issues and many more, including how to organise the unemployed, how workers can get a genuine political voice, how to halt the jobs massacre.
The conference became an organising centre with students and college lecturers discussing how to take the battle against education cuts forward.
The president of the UCU lecturers’ union cdebated with rank and file lecturers. They discussed with college and school students. All were committed to a fighting programme to defend education.
The opening rally was chaired by Ian Allinson, fresh from recent picket lines at Fujitsu.
Tony Kearns, senior deputy general secretary of the CWU union, said, “I’m really amazed by the turnout here. It shows there’s a growing awareness among ordinary people that it’s time to come together.
“We’re going to see the biggest concerted attack on the working class we’ve ever seen. There are no mainstream politicians saying anything other than ‘there will be cuts, and they will be deep’.
“They’ll try to pick off groups one by one – that’s why we need to build a coalition to defend the interests of the working class.”
He also added that the Copenhagen climate change talks were “the biggest political betrayal of the people of this planet by the world’s governments” and that the fight for a million climate jobs was very important.
Clara Osagiede, from the RMT cleaners’ campaign, said, “The only way to overcome suffering is to organise. It’s a hard task but our battles have shown it can be done.”
Pete Murray, from the NUJ journalists’ union executive, said, “Figures came out yesterday about the increase in suicides of working people across Britain. They increased for the first time in a decade – and follow exactly the trajectory of the recession.”
Vestas occupier Mark Smith said, “When management closed our factory we decided to make a stand. We occupied it for 18 days.
“The amount of support and solidarity we’ve had has been incredible. And we’ve been out and supported other workers on their picket lines too.
“That’s the only way things are going to change – if people stand together and stand up for each other.”
Simon Englert, a student from Sussex university, said, “There’s a violent attack on our education. But there are also the examples of people coming together to resist – at Tower Hamlets College, Liverpool university, London Met.
“Students and workers are coming together. At Sussex students stormed the Senate meeting chanting ‘strike, strike, strike’. We’ve formed a joint campaign committee.
“If we’re going to oppose the destruction of our education we have to oppose all public service cuts.
“The cuts in education are no different from those faced by bin workers or postal workers. We have to fight together.”
The Right to Work conference was an idea whose time had come. It brought together many networks of resistance formed during campaigns and strikes.
But it also showed how broad unity is possible in the battles to come. The Right to Work campaign is not designed to eliminate other organisations and campaigns. It is an attempt to embrace wider unity and to give a voice to rank and file activists.
As an example, it specifically set out to encourage participation, and around 300 people spoke during the day’s workshops and plenary sessions.
The challenge now is to create permanent organisation at national and, crucially, at local level to carry forward the struggle.