Socialist Worker

Right to Work conference: workshop reports

Issue No. 2187

How can we stop the jobs massacre?

by Tom Walker

Ian Crosson, membership secretary of Tower Hamlets UCU, said, “My college is right next to Canary Wharf. Every day you’re reminded of the injustice. We were striking to defend not just jobs, but courses for people who want to learn English – who need to.

“I want to thank you all. We got £25,000 in solidarity during our all-out strike. Without that we wouldn’t have won. We may be teachers, but you helped us teach our bosses a lesson.”

Jerry Hicks, who is standing for Unite general secretary, introduced the session. He said, “This conference is vital. The bosses are using bullying and union-busting against us – all the weapons in their armoury.

“But we’ve got our tools to fight back – our tradition of solidarity, the trade union movement, the labour movement. Some of our tools have been blunted. They need to be resharpened.

“The link with Labour is an albatross around our necks. And many union leaders have become part of the problem, not the solution.

“My union, Unite, told its officials to go nowhere near Vestas. Trade union members should have been there and formed a ring of steel around that occupation. We need fights like that.

“There will be another Vestas, another Lindsey. We need to have the networks so they’re there when it matters.”

Kieran Crowe, from London Underground RMT, said, “Not one RMT member was willing to scab on the Alstom workers. The drivers weren’t going to take the trains out when maintenance work hadn’t been done – it’d be unsafe. It didn’t even come to a strike but they won £3,000 each.

“Now we need to organise solidarity for the tube signallers. London Underground is organising a scab workforce. Drivers should say it’s not safe with people who don’t know what they’re doing in charge of the controls.”

Colin Trousdale, Manchester Campaign Against Blacklisting, said, “I’m a blacklisted construction worker. I’ve been a member of Unite for 35 years, since February 1975. But I’ve had no support whatsoever from my trade union officials.

“We knew about the blacklist, we just couldn’t prove it. The union ignored us. We got hold of a copy of the list, 3,223 names. I’ve read the files – it’s got name, national insurance number, and then source.

“And the number of people who’ve got files where the source says ‘full-time trade union official’ is unbelievable. That’s why they’ve tried to sit on it.

“The list has people who are guilty of such heinous crimes as being safety reps – in an industry more dangerous than mining. There are shop stewards. For that they’re kicked out of work.

“I’ve sat unemployed while there are cranes on every street corner. I’ve just been reinstated – I start back on Monday at one of the biggest construction jobs in Britain at the moment, the Mediacity site in Salford Quays. Not one of the workers there is organised.

“Four times I’ve been made redundant from that job in the last year. I’ve been trying to organise. I’ve made pleas to the full-time officers to support me.

“I’ve got a job there till February so I’ve got a few weeks to try to organise that site. But I’m not going to be able do it on my own. People should get onto their officials and say, hey, why aren’t you helping to organise that site?”

After BA – defying the anti trade union laws

Around 80 people packed into a workshop on defying the anti-union laws.

They heard introductions from Charlie Kimber and Linda Bartle, who was centrally involved in the occupation of Visteon in north London.

Linda Bartle said that she had been amazed and angry to be told by her union leaders that it was illegal for Visteon workers to fight for their jobs and to have an occupation. “I’m fed up with companies being allowed to get money from the government and then move off when they like, but workers can’t do anything in return.” She described the immense solidarity that the workers tapped once they had shown it was possible to fight.

“People came from many different organisations and from different communities,” she said. “The whole thing opened my eyes to a lot of new issues in society, and I am never going to forget that.”

“Our fight continues. We are not going to stop pushing for justice over our pensions,” she said.

Charlie Kimber said the union movement faced a huge challenge after a series of recent legal rulings that had granted injunctions against strike son minor technical issues.

“The anti-union laws the Tories brought in and that Labour has kept are bad enough. But now if bosses use all the legal means open tot them then almost every strike can be ruled illegal,” he said.

“The cases of Metrobus v Unite, or EDF v RMT, and BA v Unite are very high-profile examples of what’s going on.”

He added, “We need to campaign against those laws, but no major party shows the slightest intention to repeal the laws. Indeed the Tories and Lib Dems want more of them.

“So the crucial issues is defiance of the laws – which can be successful. The Shell tanker drivers, the construction workers at more than 20 sites last summer, the Visteon workers – all of them defied the law and won. We need to build a movement that can encourage and sustain more of that.

In the discussion that followed 25 people spoke.

Jane, a council worker from Derbyshire said that it was wonderful and inspiring to hear experiences of struggle like Visteon and Vestas, and that we had to find a way to bring that same spirit of resistance to workplaces where workers were less confident or demoralised.

“That’s the importance of collections for disputes and delegation work around people like Fujitsu.”

Two London bus drivers spoke of how there pay battle had been broken after bosses went to the courts and the union called off strikes.

They both said that it was essential to build rank and file strength so that offcials could be pressured not to call off strikes and if they still backed off then there was independent organisation to carry forward the struggle anyway.

A teacher said that at his school they had broken the law by taking action without a ballot when management failed to address workers’ concerns. “It’s important to have meetings which bring people together across grades and across unions, and to act quickly and decisively,” he said.

Dave Chapple, a postal worker and chair of the NSSN, said that there have been repeated examples of unofficial action in the post. He agreed that the battle against the anti-union laws was a fundamental question and that “we should all cooperate in destroying those laws”.

Don’t let them rob our pensions

by Mary Brodbin

The pensions workshop kicked off with a Dot Gibson, national secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, running down how pensioners had been let down from nearly every quarter in recent years.

In nearly every European country the unions negotiate state pensions. But in Britain unions agreed to go with occupational pensions to the detriment of state pensions.

“We have to stop being mealy-mouthed,” said Dot. “Unless unions take up the fight for state pensions the future of their members is at stake.

“There are 2.5 million pensioners below the poverty line – the same rate as when Labour took over in 1997.

“We have half the average pension of most European countries.”

Dot revealed that by 2050 on current plans, the pension will be only 6 percent of people’s salaries, and as early as 2030 the majority of pensioners will be on means tested benefits.

At the moment 88 percent of pension funds are in the red and it looks like the new wholly inadequate pension scheme being pushed by the government is supported by the TUC.

The TUC has produced a booklet costing £20, which most people can’t afford.

“What’s needed,” Dot argued, “are millions of cheap pamphlets and leaflets to organise a fighting campaign.”

Dennis Varney of the Visteon Pension Action Group spoke about how his pension has been stolen by Ford Motors.

When Ford transferred the workers to Visteon they guaranteed terms and conditions. They have broken their promise and Dennis lost 42 percent of his pension after 37 years service.

Dennis said that they had a job getting their union Unite involved but they have now put some fight into the campaign and hopefully they will take Ford to court.

From the floor, Anna said, “How do we force Ford to the table, a company which gets massive subsidies from the British and US governments?

“We are going to have to generate a massive fightback in the coming year as they are coming for us.

“Solidarity with Visteon and Fujitsu workers is part of this fightback.”

Jackie Cook, a Unite rep from Fujitsu, said that Fujitsu was the first company for several years to propose the closure of its final salary scheme to existing members.

The Fujitsu fight must be supported by everybody as many other employers would like to follow suit. “Solidarity is vital as our fight is everybody’s,” she said. “Take collection sheets and support further strikes on 1, 5 and 8 February.”

Dot Gibson closed the very lively meeting by saying we everybody should pass emergency motions at union branches and get the TUC to build a real fighting campaign.

She urged everyone to come to the march and rally in London on 10 April called to defend the welfare state and public services.

After Copenhagen, the fight against climate change

by Julie Filer

Forty people attended the workshop on climate change and 27 people contributed to a wide-ranging discussion.

Issues from health and safety at work to the way some oil companies are trying to present themselves are green were discussed.

A central theme was that the bosses need to start making sacrifices to save the climate, not workers.

Jobs not bombs

by Mark Krantz

Nahella Ashraf introduced the session. She explained, “A sister told me last week that her 27 years old brother, unemployed, married, with a little baby had signed up to the Army and is going out to Afghanistan.

“He thinks the war is wrong, but he was really desperate and needed a job’.

Although army recruitment is up overall by 14 percent, Keith, unemployed from Glasgow, reported that although recruiters were in the jobs centers, and military jobs were now being pushed more, one recruiter had told him that there were few takers, ‘because of the Rose Gentle effect.’ Rose, whose son was killed in Iraq, has campaigned relentlessly against the war and has spoken in schools.

Gareth said, “When an Army showroom opened in Hackney, one of the poorest and blackest areas of London, our STWC group got a lot of support protesting outside. Student protests at the local college forced management to withdraw an invite to the army.”

Sue Glenton, mother of rebel soldier Joe Glenton, said, “I used to work for a big training company for 18 to 25 year olds, but it was not real training on offer, it was a just holding centre. The boss had a big new car but the kids on the scheme were being ripped off.”

Nahella said, “While the three main parties talk of cuts in public spending, they never talk of cuts in military spending. The £100 billion for Trident replacement could be used to build 30 new hospitals of create 5,000 new fire fighter jobs.”

“Jobs Not Bombs! will be one of the key slogans of the election campaign in Sheffield.” reported Maxine Bowler. She will be standing in one the poorest part of the city.

“Why is it that our working class kids are in the front line in Afghanistan?” asked Nahella, “We need real jobs not war jobs!”

The lost generation? Students and young workers fighting back

by Ken Olende

Glasgow call centre worker Bryan told more than 60 people squeezed into the students and young workers workshop how he unionised his workplace.

He talked of the constant pressure to work harder and how the 1,100 workers could be reprimanded for taking a toilet break longer than three minutes. Workers at his workplace won a lot more respect from management and paid overtime once they were in the Unite union.

He explained that a call centre worker can has to train for six to eight weeks before being fully competent. Bosses can’t easily sack all their staff and start again.

Sixteen-year old school student Jamil Keating said that students are being pressured to avoid political activity, but they can’t afford to give in to that pressure.

At his Manchester school many students walked out in opposition the start of the Iraq war in 2003. All were excluded for a day, and that dampened down activism at the school for a number of years. But now a spirit of militancy was returning, especially in the fight against the fascists.

He said that the level of education cuts meant there was no choice but to become active.

Alys, a student nurse from Liverpool, said that young people are often dismissed as naïve, but those who have been radicalised in movements against war or fascism can go on to be good organisers for workers.

Another contributor explained that, as 80 percent of students now work, there is less of a division between students and workers than in the past.

Mark from south London said, “We can go back to our local areas and set up local committees to organise people. We should talk to young people at local job centres. Lots of them are angry at the government’s crap ‘New Deal’ policies.”

A student from Southampton was frustrated that unions like Unison don’t seem to be interested in recruiting part-time workers.

He said, “The unions are missing out of a big section of potential strength, when they dismiss people who are students or only work eight hours a week.

“Because they’re not working all the time it can make it easier to organise outside or to help at other workplaces. They could approach people and ask them to join or just say, ‘Did you know that you can join a union?’

“I was a Woolworth’s worker. One of the problems there was that most workers were part time and non-unionised. So when the closure came they didn’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Another speaker said that rank and file workers can start recruiting themselves and then push their union to get more involved.

Martin, who teaches English as a Foreign Language in south London, was thankful that this conference had given him a chance to meet people who might give him the information and confidence that would allow him to try and unionise his workplace.

The participants agreed that local RTW groups could help co-ordinate unity between students and workers, and help to improve conditions for both.

Against racism and the scapegoating of migrant workers

by Viv Smith

Over 130 people crammed into the workshop against racism and the scapegoating of migrant workers.

The central issues raised were strengthening the organisation of migrant workers and asylum seekers and linking up with other workers to build unity.

Juan Carlos Piedra, one of the leaders of the London cleaners campaign, spoke from the platform. “We need more than understanding, we have to all come together and organise,” he said.

“We need to mobilise publicly and work together. Cleaners are an important part of workers organisation and we all have to stand together, struggling for wages but also for decent treatment and conditions.”

More than 20 people spoke in the workshop from a range of organisations and workplaces.

Migrant workers spoke about the difficulties they faced in organising: the high levels of victimisation, being sacked for joining a trade union and the constant threat of deportation.

The importance of organising hard to reach and vulnerable workers was also emphasised.

Sandy Broadhurst from Refugees and Asylum Seekers Participatory Action Research (RAPAR) spoke about working with the Roma Gypsy community and the levels of exploitation workers face.

“Most are employed well bellow the minimum wage at around £2 an hour,” she said. “These people have nowhere to go to get support or to report abuse.”

Delegates spoke about the impact of cleaners’ organisation on raising conditions for other workers.

Elane Heffernan who has been helping to organise London cleaners spoke about the success of the RMT cleaners in raising wages. “We have to tackle the myths about immigrant workers undermining other workers wages and conditions.”

She gave the example of a cleaner on the London underground who managed to get her legal papers and decided to leave her job to work in an office on a higher wage.

“She ended up on a lower wage in an office job and has now come back to work on the underground.”

She said that what the cleaners on the underground had achieved was to raise the wages and conditions for all workers. “Where there is union organisation that includes migrant workers, we can raise all wages and defend conditions.”

Many people spoke about standing up to the hatred against Muslims, immigrants and asylum speakers being spread by the English Defence League and the Nazi British National Party.

“We have to tackle the myths that the media and government constantly push out about asylum seekers and migrants,” said journalist Janine Griffiths.

“The press are drip-fed lies and distortions all the time. We have to come together and counter these lies.”

The session put forward a number of proposals for the conference:

  • The launch of a national “Hands off My Workmate” campaign, following the successful London conference.
  • A call on all workers to support cleaners in their campaign for wages, decent conditions and organisation.
  • That everybody living in the UK should get equal right to work and receive benefits, regardless of their immigration status.

Clara Osagiede summed up the mood of the workshop. “We are not the criminals,” she said. “We have a right to work here. If there are no boundaries for capitalism then there should be no boundaries for workers.”

How can workers get a real political voice?

by Mark L Thomas

Over 150 people attended the workshop.

Sue Press, one of the a vice presidents of the Labour Representation Committee, said, “There are half a dozen MPs that can be described as principled socialists. We hope other socialists will help out in their campaigns. But the left needs to work together in campaigns and on a day to day basis in workplaces.”

Michael Lavalette, an independent socialist councillor in Preston, said, “We want to be represented by people who defend the interests of workers and the movement. If you’re evicted, or if your hospital is being cut, they should be standing with you fighting back.

“Candidates in this tradition will be standing in some places at the general election. But where there aren’t left candidates we face a choice between Labour or the Tories. Labour still has a link to the working class. They are not the same as the Tories. But after the election we need to look at what a real alternative would look like and start building it”

Eighteen people contributed to the discussion

Activists at the workshop agreed that we need an electoral alternative to Labour, but acknowledged that this doesn’t yet exist on a national scale.

Most people felt an alternative would emerge from struggles against the cuts all the main parties are promising.

There was disagreement about whether where there is no left candidate standing, socialists should take sides between Labour and the Tories.

One contributor called for left candidates to avoid standing against each other and was well received.

Tom Woodcock, secretary of Cambridge Trades Council said, “We have to take elections seriously. They provide a chance to talk to people on the doorstep.

“In Cambridge we’ve stood consistently in one ward, but its had an impact beyond that. It has boosted campaigning around cuts and against the war.”

Jess Edwards, president of Lambeth NUT, said, “Recently, people at my work who hate New Labour are starting to see the Tories as a threat and are worried that things will get worse. Fear makes them cling to this disgusting government as the lesser of two evils.

“We need hope, but we can’t just announce a fully formed alternative. We need to unite around a common agenda and work out the question of political representation in practice”

The welfare reform agenda, fighting for our rights

by Esme Choonara

A 50-strong workshop on welfare reform brought together benefits advisers, civil service workers, benefit claimants, council workers and others to discuss how to fight current and future attacks on welfare and benefit provision.

John “Snowy” Bradley from Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre introduced the session, outlining how public attitudes towards claimants have worsened under New Labour.

He spelled out how Labour has tried to shift the blame for unemployment and poverty on to the poor themselves, aided by media stories of benefit “scroungers”, and gave some examples of the terrible human costs of an increasingly punitive benefit system.

Several themes emerged in the discussion – the cruelty of the current system, the threat of even greater attacks following the general election, and the need to link up unions, claimants and welfare workers in a united struggle.

Everyone agreed that a key priority for campaigners should be to stop privatisation in the welfare state – and several people warned of the impact privatisation is already having on disabled and unemployed benefit claimants.

A PCS union member from Manchester who works on the social fund – emergency welfare payments – explained how difficult things are for those seeking crisis loans.

“Efficiency” savings in the service mean that many desperate people are not getting the help that they need, they added.

Anna, a GP from east London, talked about the impact that changes to disability benefits, and the privatisation of medicals to assess benefit entitlement, have had on some of the poorest and most marginalised people at her practice.

Others at the workshop highlighted the specific impact of attacks on welfare on young people and people with mental health problems.

Trade unionists from Glasgow and Southwark spoke about campaigns in their areas that have successfully linked up service users and workers.

“Change is up to us,” Snowy told the group at the end of his introduction. “We have to organise, and solidarity is the key.”

Cuts in education

by Terry Wrigley

More than 30 people spoke during a lively debate on resisting the attack on education, out of 100 in the room.

Staff and students have won major victories when they have united in struggle and won the support of local people, as they did at Tower Hamlets college.

The national demonstration in Glasgow is called “Don’t make our children pay” because parents and workers won’t foot the bill for the bankers’ crisis.

Peter Mandelson’s launched the government’s assault on universities before Christmas. His proposal for two-year degrees would reduce any opportunity for thoughtful and critical learning. The only expansion planned is in training designed by employers.

From primary school tests to university degrees on the cheap, New Labour is reducing education to rote learning. For all their talk of a “knowledge economy”, education is being hollowed out.

Many speakers emphasised the need to create spaces for critical understanding. Defensive battles had to be fought hard but, as a working class, we need education for liberation.

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