Union leaders offer nothing
THE DEMONSTRATION last Saturday was a fantastic show of solidarity. Up to 100,000 ordinary working class families and trade unionists marched through Birmingham because they want to stop people's lives, futures and communities from being ripped apart. The marchers listened intently to the speeches in the park at the end of the demonstration. They heard a succession of leaders from some of the most important and powerful trade unions in the country. And they were offered nothing.
Bill Morris of the transport workers' TGWU union, John Edmonds of the general workers' GMB, Ken Jackson of the engineers' and electricians' AEEU, and Roger Lyons of the white collar and technical MSF all bombed. None spoke for longer than two minutes and each got virtually no applause. They said nothing about how to resist. Tony Woodley, the TGWU union's top car industry official, even said, "There should be no false hopes of what we can and cannot achieve. There will be many thousands of job losses."
Richard Burden, the Birmingham Labour MP for the Longbridge area, was so bad, and was booed so much, that he could not finish his speech. Attempts to blame "the Germans" did not cut. The booing from furious Rover workers at the front of the crowd was, "What are you going to do?", "What are you going to do, Tony?" and, "Nationalise!" The only speaker to be cheered by the crowds was Carl Chinn, a local historian who has made clear his opposition to the sell-off of Rover in the pages of Birmingham's Evening Mail.
He got the only massive cheer of the rally when he said, "This is not just a fight for Rover workers. We are fighting for the future of the British working class." He said, "We will march through the streets of London. We will take our fight to the doors of Westminster," adding, "If BMW try to take the Mini from Birmingham we will stand in a line across the gates of Longbridge." Chinn is right. Stopping the Mini from leaving Longbridge is the way to fight. There is a growing audience for that argument amongst the workforce at Longbridge.
But union officials like Tony Woodley are determined to stop it from growing. It is likely that there will soon be a second march for Rover in London. But Woodley says any strike action would put off an alternative buyer to Alchemy. Woodley and local TGWU officers have been blocking a mass meeting at Longbridge. Thousands of workers are to be sacked in a matter of weeks. Their factory is to be asset stripped. Alchemy boss Jon Moulton admitted last week that thousands of jobs will go immediately, but added, "We can make a great deal of money."
Yet the people whose lives will be wrecked as a result are so far not being allowed the basic democracy of a mass meeting to discuss what they can do about it. They are left in the dark, getting snippets of information from the media. "What are they afraid of?" says a Longbridge worker who has helped collect hundreds of signatures on a petition demanding a mass meeting. "They are afraid it might erupt. They are afraid the people who want a fight might win the argument."
The same do-nothing strategy is being offered to Ford workers at Dagenham who also face closure. Tony Woodley says any strike or walkout will only make Ford more likely to close the plant.
Union leaders are turning sense on its head. The only thing that will save either Rover or Longbridge is a fight-and a determined one at that. There were many brilliant things about Saturday's march-like the fact that the Nazi National Front was turned away from joining the march by car workers stewarding the demonstration. But the most brilliant thing was that it made one fact absolutely undeniable-any fight, either at Rover or Ford, would win the determined backing of working class people. It would provide a massive focus for working people right across Britain who know their futures are nearly as insecure as Rover workers'. And it would throw Blair's battered, brutal New Labour even deeper into crisis.