It’s hard to ride two horses with one arse. That was one of the more insightful comments by Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the Unite union, when he addressed a Unite4Labour meeting in central London last night.
He was referring to the Labour Party’s attempts to back big business and workers at the same time. But he could just as easily have been talking about some trade union leaders who should be fighting for the interests of their members but who are worried that any struggle might rock the boat for Labour in the run-up to the election.
Simpson is joint general secretary of the biggest union in Britain, Unite, which is currently embroiled in a serious dispute at British Airways.
Cabin crew members of Bassa, the cabin crew section of Unite, have taken seven days of strikes so far against bullying boss Willie Walsh’s plans to slash jobs, attack pay and conditions and smash their union organisation.
Unite is currently in talks with BA and has called no further strike dates. But many members are increasingly angry with their union leaders for keeping them in the dark and failing to take a strong stand against Walsh.
Simpson was clearly feeling the pressure at last night’s meeting. It was supposed to be a rally for Labour to involve Unite members in election campaigning.
But Simpson took up a significant section of it to defend his conduct in the BA dispute and to respond to the furore over previous comments he has made about BA workers.
At a Unite4Labour meeting in Edinburgh last week, Simpson called BA workers “deluded” for thinking that they could win and referred to some Bassa union reps as “clowns”. This was reported in » Socialist Worker last week.
Initially at last night’s meeting, he seemed to be trying to smooth things over. He did say some positive things about BA workers and their dispute. He acknowledged that the vote for strikes at BA was “massive” and called the 90 percent turnout and vote “unprecedented”.
He condemned the fact that an “unelected judge” had stopped workers from taking action in December by granting BA an injunction.
Simpson even acknowledged the anger that Gordon Brown’s denunciation of the strikers had caused, asking, “Why does Labour identify too quickly with business and not its core voters, the working people?”
Yet he was also defensive about the fact that his previous comments in Edinburgh had been reported and that thousands of Unite members had read them. He complained about the fact that “people seem to want to pick over any comments I make about BA”.
When the meeting was opened to the floor, a Unite member asked him to explain the comments. He didn’t deny making any of them. Here is his response in full:
“I’m not going to reply about BA because the meeting’s not about BA dispute.
“I think I’ve been asked a question because it’s been printed in Socialist Worker when the question was brought up at the Edinburgh and it’s been misrepresented in that paper and I think the young lady’s asked a question to try and do the same at this meeting.
“So I’m not going to get involved in it. It’s not about BA what I or anybody else think about it.
“The colleagues at BA know full well what I and Tony Woodley are doing to try and resolve that situation and a very difficult dispute.
“But what you seek to misrepresent is that I’ve publicly said, it’s been reported in the wider press, that I didn’t think declaring 12 days strike at Xmas was a very clever decision. I thought it handed a PR goal to the other side, it attacked the wrong people, families who were going away at Xmas.
“BA’s money is made by business travel across the Atlantic.
“In my opinion it wasn’t a very clever decision.
“I think a lot of the public have lost support there otherwise would have been for the workers, it’s also lost support of other colleagues in BA.
“The colleague were on about the democratic vote and the reality is that there’s more people in BA than are cabin crew and some of those are outraged by some of the things that are being said in the name of good people in Bassa by some of the Bassa committee.
“So for example, putting a statement out that they badly maintain aircraft – and all the engineers who maintain those aircraft are members of our union – who are absolutely outraged.
“At lashing out at BA they’ve actually lashed out at our members. When I make those points, some people who think this dispute is a good fun, makes column inches in ultra-left wing press like to start arguing, they’ve now got some clown, I’ll name that one, running round BA on the Bassa website starting a petition to get me suspended for the comments misreported by the SWP.
“Out of context.
“Now all I can say is, I can’t name the people that were in the crowd up there, but the overwhelming meeting applauded what I said, what John said, and it was just these few individuals trying to pervert the meeting down a particular path for a particular purpose.
“Now I’ve said I’m not answering her – that’s my answer.”
Another Unite member who emailed Simpson to ask him to clarify his position got a somewhat shorter reply. The three-word response from Simpson’s BlackBerry read, “Get a life”.
Cabin crew at BA are right to be angry with their union leadership. Unite has been in talks with Walsh for over a week—yet there has been no report to members of what is going on.
Meanwhile crew face continuing harassment and hardship, with some even finding it hard to afford to get to work since Walsh removed their travel discount, yet their union seems to have vanished.
Cabin crew have shown their strength and they have the power to win this dispute. Workers must pile on the pressure to their union reps and demand that Unite names further strike dates now and spread solidarity.
For full coverage of the Unite4Labour meeting see next week’s Socialist Worker.