Socialist Worker

New mood for change slaps union leaders in face

Issue No. 1698

Revolt at civil servants' conference

New mood for change slaps union leaders in face

By Hassan Mahamdallie

"THE MULTINATIONALS are undemocratic and unaccountable. They are more powerful than some countries. We see opposition growing globally," Sian Ruddick from Birmingham told a conference last week.

Sian praised the anti-capitalist demonstration in Seattle last year, before ending, "We need to force this government to put our people, our planet and our children's future before profit."

A sea of hands then went up to vote overwhelmingly in favour of Sian's resolution against the World Trade Organisation and for the scrapping of all Third World debt.

Where was Sian speaking? At an anti-capitalist teach-in? No. The debate took place last week in Blackpool at the PCS civil servants' conference. A sea change is taking place amongst civil servants. The PCS was formed after a merger between the "lower" grades CPSA union and the "executive" grades PTC union.

For many years civil service trade unions, especially the CPSA, have been locked into a battle between right wing leaders and a small left whose strategy concentrated wholly on winning union positions.

The right wing could always rely on a block of delegates from sectors such as the immigration service, the police staff, the Home Office and prisons to fight against the left on the conference floor. This year, however, the whole axis of the union shifted.

A hint of this came on the first day of the conference when Barry Reamsbottom, the union's joint general secretary who is famous for red-baiting, made an anti-Blair speech. But this did not save him. The other right wing block in the union moved against him.

On the second day of the conference they forced through a motion forcing Reamsbottom to re-stand for joint general secretaryship. Later on his sidekick, ex-president Marion Chambers, was humiliated when the conference voted against giving her honorary life membership of the union.

Having got rid of Reamsbottom, the ascendant right wingers thought they would have a grateful conference brought to heel. Nothing of the sort. Delegates overturned their Blairite agenda time and time again.

Huge majorities voted in favour of left wing motions that would not have stood a chance in years past.

Debate on refugees inspiring

Many union members work in the Home Office or in immigration. In the past they have formed a powerful block against motions defending refugees. But this year there was only a faint, half-hearted echo of these arguments. Sue Bond from Manchester opened the debate. "The Tory hysteria and the government's new measures are fuelling racist attacks," she said. "As a trade union we have a powerful voice-to stand up to injustice."

Many other speakers called for support for asylum seekers against the witch-hunt launched by the Tories and much of the press. Then John Oliver from the Home Office immigration branch took the platform. Many people were expecting him to be hostile to a motion calling for Labour to repeal its recent Asylum and Immigration Act.

But he started by saying, "My branch opposed the 1999 Asylum Act. My branch utterly deplores racism. Our view is this government has been happy to raise the temperature on the asylum debate."

His only defensive argument was, "What would you put in place of immigration controls?" PCS leader John Sheldon delivered a stirring speech. He had already signed the national statement in defence of asylum seekers.

"Every trade union has a responsibility to express their concern about the inflammatory language used by politicians and the press," said Sheldon. "In the PCS it's our view that Britain can afford to support asylum seekers." When it came to the vote, the number of delegates who opposed the motion could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Keep air safe

ONE OF the big issues at PCS conference was New Labour's plan to privatise air traffic control. Chris Rogers represents air traffic control staff. He told Socialist Worker, "I have been a Labour Party member for 29 years, a Labour councillor for 12 years and the Labour leader of Hillingdon council for three years. "They are now threatening to expel me. In my 12 years as a Labour councillor we fought off Tory privatisation. We spent years and years defeating them, one after another. We thought in 1997 we'd see the end of that. People are now demoralised. In Hayes and Harlington, where I come from, to try and get people to vote Labour in the London elections was virtually impossible. We couldn't enthuse Labour Party members to try and get the vote out. I think we need a programme of strikes to stop air traffic control privatisation. The union leaders talk about partnership with this government, but there is none."

Forget partnership

CIVIL SERVICE leaders have argued hard that "partnership", not "confrontation", is the way to get concessions out of New Labour. They even forced through a "partnership agreement" with the Cabinet Office. This talks of signing up to the "aims of government" and of a "more positive relationship between the PCS and the Labour government, despite occasional difficulties".

While this "dialogue" has supposedly been going on, the government has been privatising civil servants' jobs hand over fist. "Innovations" such as call centres run by private firms have multiplied. Delegate Karen Williams from South Wales told a hushed conference how terrible conditions are in the call centre where she works. We have just a half hour break. The callers are often irate, having been stuck in our system for two and a half hours. It is a very difficult and stressful job."

In the debate on partnership and privatisation delegates ripped into their leadership. Chris Bough from the north west of England quoted a senior manager from the National Maritime Museum who had said, "The public sector trade unions have to be dealt with. 'Partnership' is largely a figment of their imaginations." Executive committee member Peter Lamb pleaded with delegates, "Social partnership is not a con trick. It's a practical working relationship."

But as Val Chick from Hertfordshire said, "The Blair government isn't listening. It's too busy loving up to the bosses." The top table lost the argument, and the vote.

ANL wins hearts and minds

ONE OF the most stirring debates at the conference was on affiliation to the Anti Nazi League. For years civil service union leaders used all sorts of false arguments to stamp on ANL affiliation. Not this year.

Jim Smith from the Department of Social Security reminded people of the 1970s and "the ANL's innovative approaches to attracting the support of particularly young people to the cause of anti-fascism".

He talked of how the success of Haider in Austria and increasing racist attacks in Britain showed that "the fight is not yet over".

Black delegate Clayeon McKenzie leapt in to say that he had been a member of the ANL for 25 years. "I've lived in east London all my life. I'm proud of the history of the ANL. Whenever the Nazis march, the ANL have been there." Clayeon was followed by Sharon Green from Manchester who said, "As a Jew I can think of six million reasons to affiliate to the ANL and, as a trade unionist, one million more."

The top table tried to argue against ANL affiliation, but were given a bloody nose when delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour.

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Article information

Sat 27 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1698
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