There was a defiant mood at last Saturday’s Unite the Resistance (UTR) conference in central London.
Up to 500 trade unionists and anti-austerity campaigners shared lessons from a year’s struggle against the employers and a Tory government.
Workplace delegations such as those from Bristol NHS, Donnington Defence Support Group, Doncaster and Portsmouth councils plus groups of fast food workers joined the debates. Others included disabled rights and housing activists, migrant workers and students.
Combating the Tory anti-union laws was the dominant theme.
The firefighters’ FBU union general secretary Matt Wrack reflected the tensions within the TUC over strategy to fight the laws.
He argued against appealing to 330 Tory MPs instead of looking to the power of 6.5 million trade unionists.
He said, “If we’re serious about beating this law we’re going to have to build a mass movement that can ultimately make the law irrelevant.”
Employment rights barrister John Hendy warned that anyone who thinks the effects of the Trade Union Bill could be defeated in the courts was “living in a wonderland”.
Michael Bradley from UTR’s national committee recalled the unofficial action from below that smashed anti-union laws in the past and said the TUC should act.
He said, “The first time they use the legislation we need to make sure they think twice about using the legislation ever again.”
Discussions drew on the experience of some of the key industrial struggles from the last year.
Reinstated National Gallery PCS union rep Candy Udwin said, “It’s completely obvious that we need national coordinated action. But the lesson from our strike is that we can’t just wait for that national action to be called.”
One workshop explored how strikes can win. Discussions ranged from how to win official backing from your union to using social media to boost campaigning.
It emphasised solidarity—how it can boost striking workers’ confidence and sustain their fight but also how organising it helps build workplace organisation elsewhere.
And it was also an opportunity for newer reps to learn.
“Forums like this are hugely beneficial,” Pete Edwards told Socialist Worker. He recently became a PCS union rep at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). MCA is planning 30 percent cuts that could mean office closures.
Pete said, “I’m trying to work out the way forward in my workplace. So it was great to get questions answered about getting organised and draw on the collective experiences.”
St Mungo’s Unite union rep Stuart spoke in the workshop.
He told Socialist Worker how regular mass meetings strengthened workers to take on arguments and build the action.
He said this was “fundamental” to the success of their strike last year.
Stuart thought there was a lesson in that for the fight nationally.
He said, “This government is scared of the unions—we have the power if we stand united.”
‘Fight for better leadership’
The conference hosted a number of workshops, including on fighting racism and defending benefits.
The workshop on defending the health service took place against the backdrop of a growing NHS crisis.
But people were boosted by the junior doctors’ revolt.
Many health workers were frustrated that other union leaders are not leading a fight.
But Karen Reissmann of the Unison union’s health service group executive urged people to push for it.
“We have to fight for better leadership in our unions,” she said.
The session on unorganised workplaces was very practical.
Activists discussed how to contact workers from the outside and overcome the “fear factor” that puts people off joining a union.
Nando’s worker Jade Clarke said, “People see trade unions as a scary thing—they’re worried they’ll expose themselves to victimisation.”
But she said that the best way to overcome that was to talk to co-workers about how being in a union can help improve things. And she said protests outside by other campaigners helped too.