This Saturday will see the biggest unofficial gathering of rank and file trade unionists since the mid-1980s.
It represents a real desire to see an end to the attacks on trade unions, workers’ wages and conditions. It will also give activists a chance to get together and discuss how we build fighting unions. The conference couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Tony Blair’s imperialistic aims have stalled in Iraq, yet his neoliberal assault on workers in Britain goes on unabated.
New Labour has launched a wholesale assault on public sector pensions. Gordon Brown wants to implement a 2 percent pay limit across the public sector next year.
The limit basically amounts to a pay cut, below inflation and the expected rise in living expenses. Since January 2004, bills have gone up by an average of 78 percent for gas and 51 percent for electricity.
This would be the first real fall in public sector workers’ pay since the social contract was introduced by a Labour government in the late 1970s.
But New Labour is far from invincible. During the life of this government there have been two or three key moments such as the firefighters dispute and the pensions action, when a concerted effort by the trade unions could have defeated Blair.
Those chances were squandered by the supine behaviour of the trade union bureaucracy.
Yet the working class in Britain is far from dead.
Over three million people work in manufacturing industries and a growing number of white collar workers now belong to trade unions. Another new and exciting development is the number of migrant workers entering the British workforce.
Despite all the defeats of the past 30 years and the low level of class struggle today, support for trade unions still remains strong. Around seven million workers belong to trade unions.
The great mobilising forces in British politics today are resistance to imperialism and to neoliberalism. These issues have brought millions of people onto the streets.
A powerful rank and file organisation is more likely to develop out of the growing political radicalisation, rather than from the piecemeal build up of sectional organisation.
That’s how the unions in Britain revived in the 1890s and 1930s.
By relating to issues such as the war and fighting fascism, activists will draw around them the best campaigners - this can be the nucleus of a revival in workplace organisation.
But we have to go beyond just relating to big political questions. We urgently need to revitalise grassroots militancy.
It’s very important that union leaders such as Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service workers’ union and Matt Wrack of the FBU firefighters’ union are speaking at the conference.
We want union leaders who are prepared to stand alongside their members and support their struggles, but we also need to build working class organisations that can organise independently if they have to.
Around the country tens of thousands of people have marched to save our NHS. We have also seen a number of areas organise Public Sector Not Private Profit campaigns.
One of the key tasks that should come out of the conference is the need to build support for those campaigns and make sure every city and town has its own campaigning network.
We also need to bring together activists and socialists from across trade unions and industries in order to support one another in our campaigns and strikes.
If industrial action breaks out in the new year, we need a network of activists that can build support for those on strike and link up the disputes.
A local campaign to save our NHS could become a “support the bus workers’ strike” campaign or vice versa.
Put bluntly, we need a form of political rank and file activism.
There will be a debate at the conference about the question of political representation and what political organisations can best support working class people.
One of the key reasons why union leaders have shied away from directly confronting the government is their support for the Labour Party.
That support has cost the movement dear.
Socialist Worker supporters will be arguing at the Organising for Fighting Unions conference that trade unionists need to strengthen the voice of the unions in the political process.
We will also argue that it is time trade unionists broke the stranglehold of Labour and supported Respect, a party that puts working class people first.
The Workers Charter will be debated at the conference. Contained within it is a list of demands that all of us - supporters of Labour or not - can unite around.
There is a battle being waged to save public services, defend trade union rights and jobs. The Organising for Fighting Unions conference can help rebuild a fighting working class movement.
Martin Smith is the national organiser of the Socialist Workers Party
Organising for Fighting Unions conference
- Create a fighting union movement
- Discuss the issue of political representation for trade unionists
- Registration fee is £10 per delegate
Speakers include Mark Serwotka (PCS), Bob Crow (RMT), Matt Wrack (FBU), John McDonnell MP, George Galloway MP, John Hendy QC.
Conference initiated by the Respect coalition
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org phone 020 7613 5624 Organising for Fighting Unions, 9 Club Row, London E1 6JX