Chris Bambery, editor of Socialist Worker, opened a conference discussion on the struggle against neo-liberalism.
He argued that we are living in a period of intensifying competition between ruling classes in different countries. The row between Russia and Ukraine and the arguments at the World Trade Organisation summit in December show the faultlines between our rulers.
This competition leads to a “race to the bottom” as governments and bosses attack workers’ wages and conditions in order to boost their profits.
“This also leads to an attack on the standards of welfare provision across Europe that were won by workers in the 20th century,” said Chris. “If Germany raises its retirement age then all the other European countries will try to follow suit.”
Battles over this neo-liberal agenda are now taking place all over Europe, he added. “We have seen resistance and made progress in creating a new radical left in Europe.
“And there’s a much higher political level on a whole range of issues. Significant numbers of workers have broken with Labour. They are anti-racist and anti-imperialist.
“So the ideological and political level is much higher than the level of economic struggle in the workplace.”
But the left has not yet made a breakthrough on the scale of May 1968 in Paris, when a huge general strike came together with a rising anti-capitalist movement among students.
That lack of a breakthrough has led to many radical left groups becoming “caught in a vicious circle”, he said.
“In Italy, for instance, Rifondazione Comunista broke with the centre left government of Romano Prodi over neo-liberalism and turned instead to the mass movement.
“But the Genoa G8 protests and several one-day general strikes were not enough to bring down Silvio Berlusconi’s right wing government.
“And now Rifondazione is back in alliance with Prodi — there’s a pessimism and a sense that they’ve tried everything but it didn’t work.”
Turning to the situation in Britain, he argued that the same anger existed here as elsewhere in Europe. Disputes such as that by Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow last year showed the potential for the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements to break through into the workplace.
“But the trade union bureaucracy vacillated, and there was no shop stewards’ movement to act as a counterweight to the bureaucracy. If we had had that, Gate Gourmet could have been a breakthrough,” said Chris.
“We need to recreate working class organisation from the bottom up on a political basis. That’s the strategic next step.”
Later in the conference, Sue Bond from the PCS civil service workers’ union executive told delegates, “There is often a pessimism at the top of unions that underestimates the mood of the membership.
“We have lots of young union reps coming through who bring the enthusiasm of Stop the War and Unite Against Fascism with them.”
Gill George, a member of the Amicus national executive, spoke about the proposed merger of Amicus, T&G and GMB unions. “It has nothing to do with building a powerful union, unfortunately,” she said. “It has to do with building up the power of the bureaucracy.
“We can’t rely on the old layers of activists. There is a generation of young people coming through into the unions who are inspired by politics.”
Gerry, a council worker from Aberdeen, said, “The council attempted to push through an attack on council workers last August. They wanted us to have pay cuts of up to 50 percent.
“Workers who weren’t affected by the pay cut joined with their colleagues to picket the council.
“Over 400 turned up. We then had a meeting attended by over 2,000 people. We forced the council to withdraw its attack on us.”
A number of delegates spoke about the crucial role of rank and file publications and groups.
Simon, a postal worker, said, “Privatisation is opening a wedge between trade unionists and the Labour Party.
“We sold 7,000 copies of our last issue of Post Worker. By having a rank and file paper that is anti-privatisation, we can start to challenge the grip of the Labour Party over our trade unions.”
Justin, a firefighter, added, “The pensions struggle hasn’t even started yet and we’re looking at strike action. The call for action in my union is clearly coming from below.
“The lesson for us with our rank and file paper Red Watch is the way Post Worker was used by our comrades in the post. By building up the political pressure from the rank and file, we can win real gains.”