The Unite the Resistance conference saw around 1,000 people fill London’s huge Emmanuel Centre for a lively debate on the way forward last Saturday.
In the opening session Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the teachers’ NUT union, addressed the fallout from the mass strikes being called off after 30 November last year.
He said it was “absolutely fantastic… and yet we didn’t win. That lack of victory is now eating away at people’s confidence.” He talked about the action short of a strike the union is currently taking over workload, and the importance of building it. But he added, “We do need further national strike action. We need to build the confidence that we can do it.”
Other speakers came back on this point throughout the day. Health worker Gill George from the Unite union argued that leadership is key to regaining the initiative in the fight with the government.
“When the pensions fight was sold out on 19 December last year I saw Mark Serwotka of the PCS union angrily denouncing the sell out,” she said.
“And I asked, where is the leader of my union, Len McCluskey? Answer? He was sitting on the fence. And it’s that lack of leadership that feeds lack of confidence.”
Gill said that activists could not afford to sit back and wait for the TUC. “The ongoing strikes by admin and clerical NHS workers in Yorkshire show what can be done. We cannot wait for others to give a lead. We have to create victories.”
The conference brought together trade unionists, pensioners, disabled campaigners and students from across Britain and beyond. A key theme was how to raise the level of struggle in Britain so it matches that of southern Europe, which last week was gripped by a general strike.
Jane Aitchison of the PCS union said, “Wasn’t it great when you woke up on Wednesday morning to learn there was a general strike across Europe?
“But wasn’t it also disappointing for us that we were not part of that strike. If our trade unions in Britain were half as determined as we are here today, then we would have been on strike with all those workers.”
She added that every trade unionist needs to argue for action now, saying, “We have not lost confidence—it’s our leaders who have lost their bottle.”
All sorts of campaigns were represented at the conference. Hillsborough justice campaigner Sheila Coleman got a big round of applause when she said, “We had to take on the whole establishment to get the truth. We fought the police, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and the coroner… and we won.”
South African miner Tumi Moloi received a standing ovation when he spoke. And all speakers were united in expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza under attack from Israel.
Speakers from the floor highlighted a wide range of causes. They included trade unionists, welfare and justice campaigners and a Camden traffic warden, who talked about their recent strikes. All were agreed that the scale of the cuts to come is massive.
Left wing Labour MP John McDonnell talked about how George Osborne’s autumn budget statement in three weeks’ time will change “the terms of the struggle we’re facing”. It is expected to include a further £10?billion in welfare cuts.
“A few weeks ago I was collecting for a food bank in a supermarket,” he added. “What surprised me was not the numbers giving—it was the numbers asking ‘where can I get the food?’. This is the line in the sand. This is the time when we will all be tested.”
Those who came to the conference came away with a fresh supply of ideas, tools and inspiration to throw into that struggle.
‘We need to rebuild now’
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary NUT, spoke to Socialist Worker. “We’ve got to find ways of rebuilding the confidence we had on 30 November last year,” he said.
“We need to build it at a national level. Trade unions need to take some responsibility for creating it. It was right to involve as many unions as possible in the 30 November strike.
“But it did give some union leaders in big unions a lot of power. Some union leaders weren’t confident about the dispute even on 30 November.
“The NUT and NASUWT are taking action that allows people to take a stand and win something. We’ve got 500 new NUT reps since the summer. Taking action can rebuild confidence.”
Where now after the conference?
The conference ended by electing a steering committee and passing a statement committing Unite the Resistance to “support resistance to all the attacks on working people”. This includes a range of protests, pushing for more strikes and campaigning for the TUC to call a general strike.
Over the next few weeks there will be:
The NUS student protest this Wednesday
A protest to mark George Osborne’s autumn statement on Wednesday 5 December—assemble 5.30pm, King’s College to march to Downing Street
A lobby of the TUC general council, 8.30am, Tuesday 11 December for a general strike
The statement also commits the group to start building local Unite the Resistance networks. An amendment was defeated.
Unite the Resistance has published a new pamphlet, Trade Unions and the Fight Against Austerity. Order from uniteresist.org