Socialist Worker

'The political mood is shifting in my union'

Opposition to war, racism and New Labour struck a chord at this year's GMB union congress. Delegate Danny Faith describes the change in political atmosphere

Issue No. 1856

THE POLITICAL level of this year's GMB congress was great, with really heated debates on issues like tackling racism and the war on Iraq. The congress voted to change the rulebook to expel racists from the union and to oppose the Nazi BNP.

We also voted to back the Stop the War Coalition and to call for Blair to resign if a public inquiry finds he lied over weapons of mass destruction. I have been to four other congresses, and I have never seen a queue of people waiting at the rostrum to get in on the debates. This year it happened over the issues of racism and the war.

Even better was the way the political arguments combined with people's real experience of life under New Labour. Delegates at the congress showed the human face of the statistics. In the debate about safety at work, one delegate just read out a list of the names of everyone who had died at work in the last few months.

The votes and the atmosphere are very significant because of the nature of the GMB. The GMB is a general union. It organises workers in the public and private sectors, as well as those such as AA workers who other unions don't reach. This means the conference gives a richer view of what is happening across the working class, especially the sections that are suffering worst under Blair. The traditions of the union work against rank and file or left wing organisation.

Because GMB members are not all doing the same kind of jobs, regional structures are very important in the union. Traditionally it has been hard for left wing groups to organise in the GMB. The regional secretaries have a lot of power, especially in the debates at the congress.

It is not exactly the thrusting activists who even get to conference. The right wing has well established structures and traditions - the left has no equivalent.

There was a sense that something is changing. It was Kevin Curran's first conference as general secretary. The turnout in the election was really low, no more than about 15 percent. Curran talked left.

He said he was against privatisation and for more openness in the union. But behind the talk was a clear intention to line the union up behind New Labour. Curran kept raising the spectre of the Tories and talking about the need to keep Labour in.

At the same time, Curran spoke in support of a motion the left had put in backing the firefighters. He announced Alan Milburn's demise with real relish, linking it to opposition to foundation hospitals. He had to keep talking left to keep with the delegates.

On Iraq, it was clear the union leadership were attempting a coup against the anti-war motions. I spoke for the emergency motion calling for a public inquiry over weapons of mass destruction, and saying that if it is established that Blair lied he should resign. There was a huge round of applause for my speech. Then the union president announced we were breaking for lunch straight after. This was to give the other side time to write their speeches. They argued that the union should worry about pay and conditions and they did get a real resonance.

But the motion was carried. It showed Curran tried to back out of passing a motion so critical of Blair but couldn't because of the depth of feeling among delegates. The delegates from the north east of England made a contribution to the discussion about taking on the BNP.

They have been involved in a joint union initiative up there. It is very important to commit the union to opposing the BNP because the union has organic roots in run-down, working class estates, the sort the BNP could target.

Traditionally, the anti-racist argument has been carried by left wing members, many of whom work for other unions. This time it was different. It was people from manual backgrounds saying we must take on the BNP - it was Old Labour against the Nazis.

Loads of the speeches from the floor and conversations in the bars were about how rotten working life is under New Labour - poverty pensions, long working hours and privatisation.

But people do respond when the threat of the Tories is raised and things like the minimum wage did make a difference to people in the union. So outgoing leader John Edmonds could talk about reclaiming Labour and getting people back into the Labour Party and get a big clap. But in practice people talk about how rubbish Labour is.

The motion to democratise the political fund was defeated - but only after Kevin Curran had announced a wide-reaching review of the union's link to Labour. Lots of speakers reminded delegates that the union had already switched money from Labour to union-organised campaigns.

We passed a motion threatening to withdraw support from GMB-sponsored MPs who oppose union policies. There is still a lack of industrial action.

A woman from the AA talked about how her bosses tried to close the final salary pension scheme. They organised mass meetings by text message and got a 93 percent vote for industrial action.

This was one of very few examples of people being prepared to take action. Paul Kenny, London region secretary, replied to the debate for the union executive. He spoke positively about taking industrial action to defend pensions. Usually socialists want unions to be more political. I wish the GMB would narrow the gap between the high level of politics and the low level of industrial action.

A survey the union commissioned showed that the second biggest reason why people leave the GMB is because the union has not done enough over pay and conditions. One of the few times the executive was overturned was when delegates voted to raise strike benefits.

A delegate said, 'You don't get anywhere by talking, you get there by action.' His speech turned the conference. It shows there is this feeling that people want someone, somewhere to fight, even if they don't feel confident enough to do it themselves.

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Sat 21 Jun 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1856
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