THE CONFERENCE of the TGWU manual workers' union in Brighton last week provided further evidence of the shift to the left amongst rank and file trade unionists. Many delegates spoke about the reality of their working lives (see page 7). Almost every motion at the biannual conference was critical of New Labour, whether it was foundation hospitals, privatisation, the war, anti trade union laws or low pay.
It took place in the wake of the election of left winger Tony Woodley as the union's general secretary. Woodley, and the rest of the union's leadership, had no choice but to articulate the angry mood. He criticised the previous union leadership under Sir Bill Morris.
'We're seen as being too close to the gaffers,' said Woodley. 'How many times have I heard people say, 'Why are you forcing us to have more ballots when we have said no to a pay offer?' We have to stop finding ways to make people vote to accept deals in ballots. It is an illusion to say that if we pull our socks up the employers will be nice - I have never met a generous employer.'
There was a debate about the union's political links with Labour. Woodley combined a passionate denunciation of New Labour with an argument that the left must reclaim the party, not look to left wing alternatives. The conference voted to review the union's links to the Labour Party and to hold some 91 TGWU-sponsored MPs more accountable to union policies.
In a debate over the war on Iraq delegate Jen Douglas said, 'Where will be next - Iran, Colombia, Cuba? The US has no road map or world map, just a map for profits. When I went on the big anti-war rally I saw a placard saying 'War is terrorism with a bigger budget'.'
Isobel Cassidy added, 'I work for Nobel's explosives, now part of ICI. 'We just used to produce dynamite. Now we produce safety airbags for cars, which shows our kind of work can be diversified. We use some of the same machines as Tate & Lyle, and we would much rather be producing marzipan than weapons.'
The conference agreed to work more closely with the Stop the War Coalition. One group of workers delighted with the new mood in the union are the 23 workers sacked for striking against poverty pay at Belfast airport. The workers earned as little as £4.75 an hour without overtime or holiday pay when they went on strike in May 2002.
The strike was repudiated by the union, and 23 workers including shop stewards Madan Gupta and Gordon McNeill were sacked. Woodley has taken up their cause. Gordon told Socialist Worker, 'It has taken us 13 months to get this far. We call Bill Morris 'Bill Sir Lie-a-lot'. Now we are planning to renew our pickets and are talking to the CWU and FBU about respecting our picket lines.'
'BNP are a threat to all of us'
THE UNION held a very serious debate about opposing the British National Party and racism against asylum seekers. Theresa MacKay said, 'We should not use language that criminalises any workers as illegal. At the Bernard Matthews factory near me there was some xenophobia. But when the migrant workers started joining the union it really began to break down.'
Steve Leniec said, 'The Labour government is afraid of the Daily Mail leader writers and pander to the lowest common denominator. Vouchers, detention centres, camps in Albania - not in my name, Mr Blunkett. We must recruit and organise exploited workers, wherever they come from.'
Ken Farrington, a bus driver from Huddersfield, said, 'I have been in the garage for 30 years. Forty percent of the workforce were born outside Britain, in Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, Pakistan, Bangladesh and France. The BNP and the racists are a common threat to all of us because I don't want anything to ruin the harmony that exists in my workplace'.
Another delegate said, 'I encountered the BNP for the first time when they stood in Bristol in the last elections, and it was very unpleasant. We must stand full square behind the RMT's decision to kick the racists out of our unions.'
'WE'VE BEEN on the picket line for eight weeks and solidarity has kept us going.' Those were the words of Steve Acheson, one of the 11 sacked electricians on the Piccadilly Gardens site in Manchester. The electricians faced late payment of wages and breaches in health and safety. Labourers were brought on site, some on £5 an hour, and forced to do electrical duties.
The workers were employed by a subcontractor, DAF Electrical. They demanded to be employed by the site's main contactor, Crown House. It conceded, but a week later it announced redundancies. The company claimed it had spoken to the Amicus union about the redundancies. But the workers chose to be members of the TGWU union. The company says it will only recognise Amicus.
When the workers walked out the company sacked them for taking unofficial action. Steve says, 'We're outside the site every day and are getting loads of support.'