Socialist Worker


Issue No. 2000

PCS members march against the Nazi BNP in Leeds. Unions have played a key role in recent movements

PCS members march against the Nazi BNP in Leeds. Unions have played a key role in recent movements

The unions remain vital today

Socialist Worker would be making a disastrous mistake if it took Nicky Hayes’ advice and gave up hope of the unions fighting back (Letters, 6 May).

As an active socialist in the unions for more than 20 years, I share Nicky’s frustration with the misleadership by our officials in disputes and their masochistic clinging to New Labour.

However Nicky’s view ignores the real changes that are underway. Nicky assumes that the actions of the leadership are endorsed by ordinary members and that the rank and file has no influence on them.

The pensions strike on 28 March showed that this is not the case. The union leaders did not want strike action. But they knew that their members would not let them sit back and allow the government to attack their pensions.

The fantastic response by over a million workers shows that there is hope for a fight against New Labour by the unions.

It is not the case that the suspension of further strikes has been accepted without a whimper by the rank and file. In my Unison union branch we voted overwhelmingly to condemn the leadership and to demand a special conference to decide the way forward.

Nicky is also wrong to counterpose campaigns such as those against the war, around anti-racism and housing to union activity. The unions have taken part in all these campaigns. My branch’s young members officer has just returned from a trip to Bolivia as part of a delegation of British trade unionists.

Young workers like her are starting to bring the dynamism of these campaigns into grassroots activity in the unions. The pressure of capitalist exploitation, which in its neo-liberal phase is intensifying, forces workers to fight sooner or later, whatever their subjective ideas.

Giving up on the unions as Nicky advocates would leave the bureaucrats to get on with their betrayals unchallenged. Socialist Worker’s excellent coverage of trade union struggles is vital as it shows that workers are fighting back.

Building a rank and file movement by bringing the politics and life of the new movements into the unions remains the key strategy, not only for rebuilding the unions themselves, but also for the success of the wider mobilisations. These need the power of the working class to win.

Tony Phillips, East London

To say that Nicky Hayes is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water is something of an understatement.

Nicky seems to believe that unions and union members are not concerned about issues like neo-liberalism, war and the like.

They might not be as concerned as we’d like them to be and they might not be concerned with these issues in the way we’d like them to be, but we shouldn’t ignore that they are concerned.

The task of socialists is to relate to and work with these people to convince them by argument and deed of the need to take their involvement and consciousness further.

But what I find most worrying about Nicky’s line of argument is that it ignores the critical social ballast that unions represent as permanent, day-in, day-out, mass organisations of workers at the points of production, distribution and exchange.

Despite their decline, unions still represent 6.5 million workers in Britain and they are the only significant social organisations dedicated to representing workers’ interests.

It’s never been an easy task to make unions into the type of fighting organisations that socialists would like them to be. Giving up on that unceasing battle is not the way to change the unions. Convincing unions members they need to be more, not less, active is.

Here we can cite the recent examples of the NUJ, PCS and RMT unions. If other unions can join the band of “fighting back” unions, we will all be in a better position.

Gregor Gall, Professor of industrial relations, University of Hertfordshire

I’m under no illusion. The trade unions won’t get rid of Tony Blair but at least industrial action, often involving thousands of workers disrupting essential services, will place pressure on him on a much more frequent and more publicised basis than 100,000 people taking to the streets of London once a year will.

I am proud to be a trade unionist. There are millions of us involved in rank and file trade unionism who know we make a difference to workers’ lives every day.

We also march for peace and in defence of civil liberties. We campaign in workplaces on many issues, and introduce members to political movements.

There are more people actively involved in trade unionism than there are in any other movement on the left.

If there were no trade unions, every working person would be at the mercy of the capitalists. There would be an end to all the benefits that trade unions have fought for since the conception of the movement.

As long as we live in a society where bosses continue to sacrifice the rights of workers on the altar of profit, the unions will continue to play a vital role.

Emma Boyd, PCS Defra London branch (pc)

Save jobs at Peugeot

Peugeot has announced the closure of its Ryton plant in Coventry. There are a large number of workers, including myself, who wish to save the plant and their jobs. We need your help and support.

We would like everyone to visit the Peugeot website then go to the contact page. From there send a message that you drive a Peugeot/Citroen or were about to buy one.

However if Peugot were to close the Coventry plant you would not purchase a Peugeot/Citroen under any circumstances ever again or the new 207, and you would strongly urge them to keep the Ryton Coventry plant open.

Having sent the message please tell everyone in your e-mail address book about it including any foreign contacts, particularly France, Australia and New Zealand!

Hopefully this will frighten the management into reconsidering closing the Ryton plant and saving our jobs. Thank you on behalf of all Peugeot workers.

Eddie, Coventry

Climate solutions

The sustainable development commission has concluded that Britain is able to meet its energy needs without a new generation of nuclear reactors (Letters, 6 May).

There is still no long term solution for what to do with nuclear waste. Nuclear power would be detrimental to the development of localised electricity generation.

While the Chernobyl disaster did result from a lack of understanding, the point is not that this was a human error, but that the consequences of error in the case of nuclear power are more dangerous than anything else.

Renewables offer a genuine solution to climate change. Denmark and Sweden get more of their power from them than Britain does from nuclear. It is more efficient to generate power at the site of use.

This is an important part of beginning to consider the future of energy production.

Leron Borsten, West London

Clean coal is a dirty process

I can’t share Geoff Way’s optimism about “clean coal” (Letters, 6 May).

Burning coal (let alone mining it) necessarily releases contaminants in some form – whether as fly ash, air emissions, water outflow or the residual ash.

These contaminants have to go somewhere, which is why some people suggest “carbon capture” – pumping the gaseous emissions underground.

One scheme has these emissions displacing methane, which will then be used as an energy source itself. Unfortunately, methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Once you consider coal’s noxious mercury emissions – which “clean coal” is unable to prevent – this technology looks like another distraction from the urgent task of powering our planet sustainably.

Andrew Stone, East London

Lessons from 1926 strike

Neil Davidson is right to highlight that a new book on the 1926 British General Strike by Guardian leader writer Anne Perkins underplays the militancy involved in the strike (Nine days of hope, 6 May).

It also distorts the role of the Communist Party (CP) in events. The CP was right to throw itself headlong into the events of 80 years ago, rather than simply making criticisms of union leaders from the sidelines.

As Davidson underlines it did not go well, partly because the Communists placed too much faith in the leadership of the TUC.

At the same time most of the CP leaders were in jail when the General Strike broke out and thousands more CP members found themselves arrested. The state had prepared much better for potentially revolutionary events than the revolutionaries themselves. There is a lesson there for the left today.

Keith Flett, North London

Still denied entry to US

Thank you for publishing my story about being denied a visa for the US to perform the play Guantanamo: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom (Actor denied access to US, 15 April).

Can you believe that one month later, I have still not got clearance from the embassy?

If they take so much time in finding out about innocent people, what about the real culprits? Is this the war against terrorism?

Badi Uzzman, Isleworth, Middlesex

Check out the bitterness

The New Labour spin machine went into action at last week’s Usdaw union conference. Usdaw is the fifth largest trade union in Britain and represents retail and distribution workers – some of the lowest paid in the country.

Traditionally a wellspring of Labour support, the mood was subdued and sceptical when Tony Blair came to speak, desperate for a good news distraction two days before the council elections.

Many Usdaw members were furious at being part of Blair’s staged sham.

But there can be no concealing the yawning gulf between Blair’s dream world and the reality of these people’s lives.

The response to Socialist Worker was nothing short of astonishing.

We sold 402 copies in two days. Clearly the articles about the sorry state of housing, the NHS and Asbo scapegoating cut with delegates.

One thing’s for sure, the clock is ticking on New Labour’s ability to take the working class for granted.

This was palpable at the conference and brilliantly expressed in the results Respect received in the council elections.

Mark Dee and Viv Smith, London

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Article information

Sat 13 May 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2000
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