Socialist Worker

Battle for democratic control of political fund

Issue No. 1801

THE FUTURE of the political fund and the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party were major issues at three union conferences last week. Debates at conferences of the TSSA rail union, the civil servants' PCS union and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) showed the continuing mood of anger with New Labour.

Arguments over democratising unions' political funds are becoming more intense, as TUC and most union leaders battle to defend the Labour Party's monopoly on union money. Delegates at the traditionally 'moderate' TSSA conference voted by 47 to 46 to hold back money from the Labour Party.

The motion supported 'the principle that funds which would previously have been given to the Labour Party be withheld in the future to the extent that the policies of the TSSA and the Labour Party diverge'. It said that the executive of the union 'should also consider donating any retained money to campaigns in line with TSSA policies'.

David Lyons from TSSA's Railtrack North London branch moved the motion. He emphasised it was coming from traditional Labour supporters who do not consider themselves to be radical. The PCS conference approved a motion calling for the union to have a political fund.

The vote is a significant step forward. Activists in a union of 280,000 members will now be balloted about setting up a fund. The FBU conference last week showed how hard union leaders who support the Labour Party will fight to prevent any democratic opening up of the political fund.

Delegates at last year's FBU conference voted by 27,000 to 21,000 for the union's executive to prepare any rule changes necessary to democratise the fund.

Instead FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist called on delegates this year to keep backing only Labour Party candidates. This followed a year of intense pressure from Gilchrist and other FBU leaders to overturn last year's policy. It paid off, with many delegations mandated to vote with the executive.

Gilchrist told the conference that democratising the political fund is the same as disaffiliating from Labour. 'If we support an independent or Socialist Alliance candidate we will be flung out of the Labour Party', he said. He accused delegates of dishonesty in not coming forward with motions for disaffiliation.

Mark Symmonds from Kent was one of a number of Labour Party members who were incensed by that. He told delegates, 'I have been a Labour Party member all my life. Last year's motion did not call for disaffiliation from Labour.' Andy Gilchrist also played on the betrayals by 'Old Labour' to argue that New Labour was little different.

Just as the FBU stuck with Labour then, it should stick with New Labour now. Kenny Ross from Strathclyde claimed that it was 'the splits in the left vote in France that allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen to waltz through the middle.' Answer The following day TUC general secretary John Monks went further, blaming the Socialist Alliance for the success of the BNP in Burnley. There was little opportunity to answer Andy Gilchrist in the debate. Delegates voted heavily with the leadership.

Some delegates did answer John Monks's claims the following day in an emergency debate on the far right. Dick Duane from Essex told delegates how the BNP had got a councillor in a traditionally Tory middle class ward in Burnley, Cliviger. It had also got one in the Rosegrove ward, where the only opposition to Labour came from three right wing independents and the BNP candidate.

Its third councillor was in Gannow, one of the three wards contested by the Socialist Alliance. Labour's vote plummeted, although it was not challenged by the Liberals. 'What's happening, is disillusionment with the Labour Party,' said Dick. 'That's where the BNP is picking up support. It's not from people campaigning for socialist policies.'

Many delegates pledged to organise support for anti-Nazi activities from their areas, and expect John Monks and every union leader to do the same. Delegates know bitterness with the government is not going away, and nor will the debate about building socialist opposition to New Labour.

FBU on offensive

THE FIRE Brigades Union has opened up an offensive over pay for the first time in 25 years. The last pay fight, in 1977, led to a nine-week strike and also came under a Labour government.

The delegates at last week's FBU union conference in Bridlington voted unanimously for a resolution submitted by the executive calling for 'an improvement in the basic pay for firefighters to £30,000 by November 2002.' The motion also called for fire control room staff to receive the same wages as firefighters of equivalent rank. And it demanded that retained (part time) firefighters get the same hourly pay.

'Neither the figure nor the deadline of November this year are negotiable,' says FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist. The union will submit the pay claim to the employers next week.

Speakers explained how friends and members of the public are shocked to hear how little firefighters get paid. After four years a firefighter will earn just £21,531 for a 42-hour week. A control room worker will get just £19,827, also for a shift system of unsociable hours.

Some firefighters rely on Working Families Tax Credit and other benefits. There will now be a series of local rallies across Britain organised by the FBU outlining the campaign. Every delegate at the conference understood fighting for this claim means a serious confrontation with the government, and that requires preparation now. The conference voted to endorse the call for a united trade union demonstration against privatisation, and applauded condemnation of the TUC for not having called one already.

Transforming the PCS into a real fighting organisation

'THIS IS a trade union, not a building society.' That is what Mark Serwotka, the socialist general secretary elect of the PCS civil servants' union, told the union's conference in Brighton last week. He received tremendous applause, and it became the slogan of the conference. Mark's election in December 2000 signalled that civil servants are sick of low pay, bullying management and privatisation.

They are sick of the union's right wing leadership not fighting New Labour's agenda. Mark's election gave union members the confidence to fight management and the government.

Strikes over the last 18 months have seen PCS membership increase by 27,000. Last week's conference confirmed the union's leftwards move. Although the right wing dominates the national executive committee, they were completely isolated from members. Now the right are in crisis - in three key motions they could barely muster any support.

They aimed to keep Mark Serwotka gagged, to stop the union opposing wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and to keep discredited general secretary Barry Reamsbottom on. They failed, with the conference voting to get rid of Reamsbottom and for Mark Serwotka to be the union's representative at the TUC. Despite this defeat, the right is still shamefully manoeuvring to keep Reamsbottom on as the general secretary of the PCS.

As well as calling for a political fund, delegates backed a return to annual conferences and national executive elections by over a two thirds majority. 'We need an end to the thousands of civil servants on low pay,' Mark Serwotka told the conference. 'Some 41 percent of civil servants earn less than £15,000-10,000 members claim Working Families Tax Credit.'

The conference overwhelmingly backed a campaign to fight to return to national pay bargaining, to remove the scandal of low pay in the civil service. 'The transfer of civil servants to the private sector is a disaster for our members and the public,' Peter Knight from Brighton said. All of our buildings have been sold to the private company Trillium,' said Martin Jones. 'We've had minor asbestos incidents, staff have been sprayed for fleas and roofs have been lowered.'

The conference was held after the biggest dispute in the PCS for 15 years-the strike for safety in the new Department of Work and Pensions. New Labour organised with the support of the right in the union to break the strike.

Delegates denounced the so called 'war on terror' and backed the struggle of the Palestinian people. Left wing fringe meetings were well attended-200 came to the Left Unity meeting, 120 to the Socialist Alliance meeting, 70 to an Anti Nazi League meeting and 60 to the Stop the War Coalition meeting.

Battles are brewing for PCS members in the British Museum and British Library against massive cuts. 'The election of three Nazi BNP candidates in Burnley must be a wake-up call,' said Sue Bond from Oldham during the emergency motion on the BNP. 'It has sent shockwaves through Britain. In Oldham local anti-racists stopped the BNP winning seats. We must beat them back with a mass campaign. The trade union movement is vital to uniting white, Asian and black people in the campaign.'

Delegates also voted to back the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers. The motion calling on the TUC to organise an anti-racist demonstration in Burnley and a Respect festival in the north west of England as soon as possible was passed unanimously.

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Article information

Sat 25 May 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1801
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