Socialist Worker

Unite conference: Afghanistan, pensions and global organising

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2204


Delegates at the Unite union conference have called on the British government to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan.

They backed a motion which said that withdrawal of troops would “remove a symbolic factor contributing to the recruitment of terrorists in Britain” and that “the Afghan people must determine their own future”.

Robert Nunn opposed the motion. He said, “No one wants wars and loss of life. But our British troops are fighting to defend this country from terrorists who want to destroy democracy.

“Afghanistan is now a fragile democracy. It’s not fair to leave it in this state without planning a phased withdrawal, which this motion does not mention.”

Mike Thompson argued for the motion. “Why is it that people are resisting in Afghanistan?” he asked. “It is because they are being occupied.

“Colonial occupation brings with it corruption and oppression. The Karzai regime is not a fragile democracy – it is the opposite of democracy.

“The bulk of people in the US do not support continuation of this war and occupation. The majority of people here do not support it. There is nothing progressive about colonial occupation.

“People have a right to self-determination. Colonial oppression has no right to exist at all.”

Delegates voted overwhelmingly to support the motion.


The Unite union executive suffered its first defeat on Wednesday morning as delegates voted against executive advice to back two motions on pensions.

They also voted down an executive statement.

The union leadership wanted conference to remit the two motions (send the m off without a vote to the executive) and back the executive statement instead. When delegates moving the motions refused to remit them, the executive advised conference to vote them down.

But delegates rebelled.

Janet Fellows moved the motion on women and pensions. It pointed out how women still spent more of their lives caring for dependents and working part time than men, which damaged their pensions.

The motion called for reform of the law to give women better pensions – including allowing part time earnings from more than one job to be combined for National Insurance purposes.

Janet asked, “To get a decent pension do I have to, like my sisters before me, chain myself to railings or throw myself in front a horse?

“I don’t want to be condemned to poverty in my old age by the ConDem coalition.”

She spoke about the impact of low pensions on women. “My mother is 74 years old and has to work as a cleaner to supplement her pension,” she said. “Why should this be?

“Why should women who have worked hard all their lives, both at home and in employment, be penalised in their retirement?”

Angela Reed, seconding the motion, condemned the low level of women’s pensions and said, “I am not prepared to accept this for my daughters and granddaughters.”

John Traynor from Ireland moved a motion calling on the union to ensure that pension funds and trusts were “managed independently of the ‘parent’ company” and that the boards of trustees were properly independent.

Delegates supported the two motions.

In a vote 202 delegates voted against the executive statement compared to 137 for with 31 abstentions.

Current attacks on pension schemes and the threat of worse attacks to come shaped the debates on pensions.

David Mathieson from the executive council said, “There will be a recovery in the future. So why should pensions be in a permanent depression?”

He also pointed to the contradictions of the Tory government’s position on pensions saying, “The government is planning to pay for increased costs of pensions by increasing the state pension age which Unite will oppose.”

Many delegates pointed to specific battles over pensions, in particular at Visteon.

“Visteon workers are not greedy – they just want what’s owed to them,” said Ian Smith from Wales.

“In 2000 Ford created a company called Visteon and spun off workers. It told them they would keep their Ford terms and conditions for life.

“The only winners were the Ford bosses. There are people with over 30 years’ service with Ford now losing £200 a month from their pension.

“The government expects us, the workers, pay the price for the crisis in the economy now and in our retirement.”

Delegates anticipate a growing assault on pensions. “Employers are looking for any excuse to withdraw from these schemes,” said Martin Carroll.

David Mathieson reaffirmed the union’s support for workers fighting to defend pensions. “We will not stand idly by and let our members’ pension schemes be plundered by employers or governments,” he said.

“The executive council reiterates its support of members who take action to defend their pensions.”

Organising globally

Delegates passed a composite of motions calling on Unite to develop existing links with the United Steel Workers (USW) in the US and other unions around the world “with a view to forming a fully operational global union”.

It said, “More and more decisions affecting millions of workers are now taken at a global level by transnational companies and organisations” and argued for a global workers’ organisation to aid the fight against these companies.

Jerry Fenandez, from the United Steel Workers, addressed conference about the importance of links between unions across the globe.

“Workers uniting started out as a vision of a way to combat the global economy, global finance and global corporations,” he said.

“There are no US transnationals, British transnationals or German transnationals – they are just transnationals.

“Workers united is a vision of being able to take them on and follow them wherever they go.”

Jerry cited the dispute at British Airways as an example of how international solidarity could make a difference.

“BA is a large corporation that has fingers all over the world,” he said. “And to take a large corporation on you need help.

“The USW, in recognition of this fact, has pledged £100,000 to BA cabin crew.”

Solidarity between the USW and Unite has been shown both ways.

“We received a great deal of help from Unite with our strike in Sudbury at Vale Inco,” said Jerry.

“There are not many unions that can go on strike for 11 months with no pay.

“Our Achilles heel has always been nationalism. We have to reach out to each other and show solidarity.

“It’s a cliché but it’s true – solidarity wins. It’s an easy word to say but a hard word to implement. We want to make it not a cliché but a verb that describes real action.”

Delegates gave Jerry and Bill, a Vale Inco worker, a standing ovation.

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