The theme of how workers can challenge the Tories’ austerity has run through this year’s union conference season. Everyone, from union general secretaries to rank and file activists, agree that we need action against the cuts.
So Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, told its annual conference that the union would “smash the pay freeze”.
He promised “the biggest campaign this union has ever seen” including “strike action across our whole union and across the public services”.
And Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union, told the union’s conference this Monday that unions would lead “fierce resistance” against attacks on workers’ rights.
Unison delegates were united behind the leadership’s proposals for a fight over pay. But the rallying call was met with less enthusiasm than that heard for the pensions dispute last year.
This is because those union leaders who have signed up to the government’s pensions offers have opened the door to some cynicism about their commitment to fighting.
Now workers are asking how they can organise to hold their union leaders to account and push struggles forward. These questions brought together hundreds of activists at a conference organised by Unite the Resistance in London last weekend.
Strikers from all the main industrial disputes of the moment sat alongside pensioners, students and hundreds of fellow trade unionists. The discussion was urgent and focused as people brought together experiences of recent disputes.
“It’s all about solidarity,” a London bus worker told Socialist Worker. “It was the first time I’ve been to anything like this. It was good to hear from workers facing the same problems.
“We’re all under the same attacks. We have to put up with the same crap everyone in the public sector has to put up with, the same erosion of our rights at work.”
There was much discussion about the fight to defend public sector pensions. Many activists were angry at the way some union leaders tried to sell a shoddy deal just days after last year’s magnificent strike on 30 November.
Mark Serwotka said that asking why the leadership of some bigger unions had blocked further action after 30 November is “not just bitterness”. He said, “If we don’t learn, we’ll repeat the mistake again in the autumn.”
His point was echoed by one PCS activist who compared the leaders’ cowardice to the sense of solidarity among rank and file workers. “We are united at the grassroots,” they noted. “So why aren’t the union leaderships? We need hard hitting action.”
People left the conference determined to learn lessons from the last six months and build for action in the autumn. The TUC’s London protest on 20 October in particular will be a priority for everyone.
Activists in rebellious mood
The spirit of rank and file rebellion at austerity marked the Unite the Resistance conference in London last weekend. More than 500 people packed into the conference.
For many it was the array of union activists who spoke from the floor that made the event special. Unite member Russ Ball from the threatened Coryton oil refinery talked movingly about the battle to save jobs.
Two GMB members from Veolia recycling plants in Sheffield announced, “As of this morning we are now on all out strike”, to cheers.
The entire audience rose to its feet as Spanish miner Segundo Menendez Collar described the scale of the battle that he and his workmates are engaged in. “For the whole working class community in the whole world there is one simple truth,” he said. “We have to fight.”
Voices in struggle
- “When things go well, you fight. When things are just about okay, you fight twice as hard. And when you are on the edge of disaster you fight, fight and fight some more.”—Segundo Menendez Collar, Spanish miner
- “Let’s build a huge demo against austerity on 20 October and an unstoppable programme of industrial action. We can win.”—Jane Aitchison, PCS
- “The company was surprised to see us go out—they thought economic necessity would starve us back to work. But we are lucky to have a union that fights.”—Anthony Augustin Benjamin, BFAWU union and striker at RF Brookes pie factory, Leicester
For videos from the conference go to uniteresist.org