Some 1,200 trade unionists and campaigners gathered at the Royal Horticultural Halls in central London last Saturday for the Unite the Resistance convention.
The convention was organised to discuss the public sector general strike on 30 November, the fight against the government’s austerity programme—and how to rebuild working class organisation.
Activists travelled from around Britain to be part of the day.
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT union, delivered stark figures about the scale of the government’s attacks on public sector pensions.
“We’ll be paying more, working longer and getting less,” he said.
“Their intention is that any worker in public service who is 34 or under will have to work to the age of 68 to get a full pension.
“And that’s not the end of it. Some accountancy firms are suggesting that for people who are 26 now, the state retirement age by the time they get to retirement will be 70 or 72.”
Paul Holmes from Unison’s national executive was one of many who spoke about how 30 November had put the question of class back on the agenda.
“Following the Second World War people assumed that the world was getting better for working people,” he said.
“Now we’re faced with a situation where the ruling class have put their debts onto workers.”
He added that working people needed to learn to stand together against the ruling class. “David Cameron’s class understands solidarity. They spend years at Eton understanding that. But if our class, the 99 percent, can be solid, we can get rid of their society and bring in a decent one.”
A key theme was the potential of 30 November to permanently alter the political climate. The experience of three million public sector workers striking together, across different unions and workplaces, would generate more confidence to fight back.
Jess Edwards, a teacher and NUT member from south London, said the strikes could also make “the government feel the heat and feel the pressure”.
She added that a solid strike can’t be taken for granted. “We need to push and fight to get everyone out the door. But we don’t just want everyone out on strike—we want an active strike, a political strike.”
The fact that the strikes will take place in a wider context of resistance and a global crisis of the system was marked throughout the day.
The convention opened with a report from Hannah, an activist with Occupy London Stock Exchange. She described how the protest camp outside St Paul’s cathedral had become a “space for connecting campaigns” together.
Many speakers, including John McDonnell MP and Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, pledged their support for the Occupy camps. They called on workers to show solidarity with the protesters against threats to evict them.
People were buoyed by the prospect of the strikes. But there was also a widespread understanding that this would not be enough to block the government’s attacks.
Sean Vernell from the national executive of the UCU union argued action had to escalate. “We cannot wait another five months before the next day of action,” he said. “That would just allow the other side time to reorganise. And it would send the wrong message to our members.”
Mark Serwotka (see page 4) called for another TUC-coordinated day of action “as early in 2012 as we can”.
He said this would “send a clear signal” that workers were serious about fighting.
There were also calls to make future strikes even bigger, and in particular to involve more private sector workers.
Steve Kelly, secretary of the Unite union’s construction workers’ branch, reported on an ongoing campaign by electricians to defend their terms and conditions.
He underlined the importance of organising workers at a rank and file level to push trade union leaders into taking action.
Other speakers argued for unofficial action to challenge anti-union laws.
The conference heard from a variety of campaigns over specific issues including defending the NHS, disability rights, opposing racism and fighting for decent housing.
The convention also heard from Leia Petty from Occupy Wall Street (see page 5), Rehad Desai, a South African climate change activist, and a Greek trade unionist (see opposite).
The convention sent a message of support to those in struggle in Egypt after hearing an inspiring message of solidarity from Egyptian trade union leader and doctor Mohammed Shafiq.
Karen Reissmann, a community nurse in Manchester and member of Unison’s national executive, said there was “a sense of class presence being rebuilt in our movement”.
She said there was enormous support for the strike. “One patient I met while leafleting about the strike realised his operation was due on 30 November,” she said.
“I was worried about what his reaction would be. He just said, ‘Never mind. You need to strike and if you don’t win then probably no one will having operations on the NHS in the future.
“I think we’ll be amazed by the difference that 30 November will make.”
The 30 November strikes will rebuild union organisation
Several speakers at the Unite the Resistance convention stressed the importance of using strikes on 30 November to rebuild trade union organisation.
Caroline Johnson, a Unison union member from Birmingham, described an ongoing dispute over Birmingham council’s attempts to impose new contracts on workers.
Council workers in Birmingham have struck twice against these plans.
Caroline said, “The mood is uneven. But the most confident strikers are the people who went on the 26 March demonstration against the cuts.”
She added that large picket lines on strike days had helped transform workplaces that hadn’t had a reputation for militancy or organisation.
Anne Drinkell, a nurse from London, spoke of the importance of explaining what the strike was about and what it involved to people.
“Lots of people aren’t in the union and thought they could strike anyway,” she said. “So we’ve recruited lots of members and now we’re organising serious picket lines.”
Mark Wood, Unite union convenor from Southampton city council, spoke about his union’s ongoing dispute with the council. He said that Unite and Unison have adopted a “three pronged strategy” of political, legal and industrial action.
“We’ve jointly staged a number of mass meetings with Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis. We’ve delivered around 100,000 leaflets to residents in Southampton. We’ve put out full page adverts in the local press.”
The council unions have coordinated their industrial action with other workers’ struggles in the city, he added.
Dave Carr, who organises health workers in Unite, said that the wider climate of resistance had changed the mood in the workplace.
He said, “There’s a shift inside people’s heads. They don’t just want to go on strike—they want to know how to win.
“They want to know how to escalate. They’re talking seriously about what do we do next. They like the idea of striking with other health workers, with teachers, with other unions.
“But they’ve also seen what’s happening with Occupy, in Egypt, in Tunisia. We want to harness the energy of the youth, the students and the Occupy movement to the engine of the working class.”
Jane Aitchison from the PCS union also spoke about the need to escalate the action. “Size matters,” she said.
“Why are we so confident about 30 November? Because it is so massive it’s now virtually unstoppable.
“After 30 November we must widen our aims to fight every cut, and to unite every public sector worker with every private sector worker.
“We could take almost eight million trade unionists out on strike in January. We must now force the TUC to call another strike date imminently.”
Public and private need to stick together
A cabin crew worker from British Airways at the convention spoke to Socialist Worker:
“Whether you’re a public or private sector worker, it’s important to stick together. At the end of the day, we’re all workers. I hate to think what pension I’ll get. It’s appalling.
At British Airways, they’re trying to make us pay more in and get less. It’s like what the government is doing in the public sector. Our scheme has been chipped away at.
If public sector workers stop the attacks on their pensions, private sector employers will come under more scrutiny. There will be more pressure on them to give workers better pensions.
We’ve got to resist this divide and conquer rhetoric. We should all get better pensions.”
‘Know our own power’
Alex Sioutzouk, from the Greek power workers’ union, said:
“First the government cut our wages and pensions. It disturbs the whole structure of your life. You can’t plan things and you have to cut to make ends meet.
You don’t have the money to pay back mortgages and loans for example. That’s a huge problem.
In mid-September a new tax came in. It was unfair and we said we’d fight it. To collect it they added the amount to your electricity bill. If you didn’t pay the tax, your electricity would be cut off.
So we escalated our struggle. First we blocked the system that sends out the bills. We occupied workplaces. But the energy company said they’d outsource these databases.
So we occupied IT services where the notices to cut electricity were sent out. Then, along with volunteers from local government, we went to where people had been served with notices. People stood outside homes to prevent the tax being collected.
On 6 September we announced our plans to tackle this tax. It was in the newspapers and became huge. Some called us terrorists. Others said we were like Robin Hood.
We now have a new government and some people want some time to see what it is like. But most people are still very angry.
Our trade union wants to protect people who can’t afford to pay the new tax. We’re not interested in stopping the rich paying their tax—they can afford it. We stand shoulder to shoulder with those who can’t afford to pay.
We have more big fights to face. The government has just announced it will make it easier to sell public utilities—so we have to fight the privatisation of public services.
Our union will respond with rolling strikes. We also plan to occupy power plants.
There’s an old saying—‘Power to the people’. People have got power and we need to be conscious of that power.
From the industrial revolution in Britain onwards, the worker has been crucial in social transformation. That’s what’s important today too.”
Postal workers: ‘We need to spread the solidarity’
A group of post workers from the CWU union in Oxfordshire joined the convention. They wanted to stress their support for the strikes—and said post workers would visit picket lines and join rallies on the day.
Keith said, “Whenever anyone takes action the press either say no one supports it or ignore it. But we’ve always supported other unions.
“We need to spread that solidarity.
“A storm is brewing and we really needed a mass gathering like this to prepare.”
Steven Gill added, “If these strikes aren’t a success it will have a severe impact on all unions—public or private sector.
“The government will laugh at the CWU if we come out against privatisation.”
Anthony Gurdass said it was important for workers to reassure first-time strikers and to “show people they don’t need to be scared. If you strike, you’re not doing anything wrong.”
CWU members were frustrated that their union wouldn’t be out on strike on 30 November. Keith said, “Our union should have balloted. We should be out with the rest.”
Paul Garraway added that there was widespread support for taking action. “Our branch took a motion to CWU conference for a general strike,” he said. “It was passed unanimously. This is getting towards a general strike. So why aren’t we out?
“We’ll be supporting the strikers. They are our partners and family members.”
Workers also discussed the best way to beat the Tory onslaught.
Frank said, “We should ignore Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws and the trade unions leaders.
“Working people should wake up and use their biggest weapon.
“We should take unofficial action.”
The Unite the Resistance conference was called by a group of trade unionists across the PCS, NUT and UCU unions.
It aimed to build support for the strikes on 30 November and develop a grassroots network of trade unionists to support and sustain future action.
Go to www.uniteresist.org for more information