Some 900 trade unionists, most of them delegates elected by union organisations, met last weekend to debate political representation and organising against employers’ attacks, and to launch a Workers Charter.
The Organising for Fighting Unions conference, initiated by the Respect Coalition, took place in Shoreditch Town Hall, east London.
Chris Riley, a GMB union rep for striking workers at JJB Sports (see page 16 for report), helped set the tone for the event.
Chris condemned JJB’s millionaire owner Dave Whelan for his aggressive anti?union approach and his paltry pay offer, which amounted to 1p per hour above the minimum wage for many workers.
Throughout the day delegates spoke of the need to translate the current political radicalisation, seen in campaigns such as Stop the War, into a revitalised trade union organisation.
Jane Loftus, a postal worker who sits on the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) executive, said, “We need political trade unions. By taking up issues such as the social forums, anti?racism and the war we have helped build the CWU.
“For instance, take up the issue of climate change if you want to interest young people in the union. If we want to rebuild the shop stewards’ movement we need to be political. It’s not that people are apathetic, it’s that we don’t organise enough.”
Car worker Rod Finlayson called for unity between various initiatives to revitalise the trade unions from below. “We need a powerful shop stewards movement that can mount challenges – officially or unofficially,” he said.
He added that he supported the planned merger between the Amicus and T&G unions, saying that it would offer more democracy.
But Ted Knight from the Amicus union took an opposing view of the merger. “The result will be the strengthening of the bureaucracy,” he said.
“This will lead trade unions to become the partners of business.”
He argued that the future of the unions lay in recruiting a new generation of workers, not merging existing memberships.
While there was open and honest debate on issues such as this, there was consensus on many of the key challenges workers face.
One important issue is the attack on the NHS. Geoff Martin from campaign group Health Emergency outlined the scale of New Labour’s assault on the health service – and the growing grassroots resistance to hospital closures, job cuts and privatisation.
Noting that health secretary Patricia Hewitt has commissioned “heat maps” showing where NHS cuts might generate political opposition, he said, “You don’t draw up heat maps unless you’re worried about the political consequences of your actions. Let’s turn up the heat.”
Paul Harper is branch secretary of Maidstone branch of NHS Logistics Unison. He recounted the experience of the battle against the privatisation of NHS Logistics, which led to the first national strike in the health service for 17 years.
He said, “If you think five small Unison branches can get onto the front of every newspaper, imagine what all of the unions could do together to save the NHS.”
Education is another area where workers face battles over the government’s agenda. Mac Andrassy from Oldham NUT told the conference how militancy is growing across schools in his area.
“It really started when teachers didn’t cross Unison picket lines during the pensions strike earlier this year,” he said.
“When the teachers came out over cuts, the Unison members didn’t cross our picket lines. That’s how we were able to build up across Oldham against the attacks on us.”
There were many other inspiring stories from across the unions.
Andy Snoddy, an organiser from the T&G, recounted how the union is attempting to organise low paid cleaners, most of them migrant workers, across London.
Mark Benjamin, a PCS union member, attended the conference as a delegate from Harrow trades council. He told Socialist Worker, “I thought it was an excellent conference that brought a lot of positive energy together.
“In Harrow we have been working to bring all the trade unions together. We are also fighting against civil service jobs being lost in Harrow.
“Today was an opportunity to network with like minded thinkers.”
Opposition to Islamophobia ran through the conference. Zubada Akhtar from Birmingham Unison said, “Muslims are being referred to as ‘terrorists’. Women are seen as oppressed if they wear the veil.
“I would like to emphasise to the comrades here that they should not listen to these lies.
“My family allows me to carry out my trade union duties. I am here to show solidarity with others. We need to stick together and team up with other unions.”
Conference votes on a charter for our rights
The Organising for Fighting Unions conference voted for a Workers Charter and elected a 17 member organising committee. This committee will start coordinating a campaign to have the charter adopted by unions throughout the country.
The immediate campaigning priorities set out by delegates were:
- To organise lobbies of MPs to call for them to support the Trade Union Freedom Bill, which will reverse some of the worst aspect of the Tory anti?union laws.
- To support any group of workers who take action which is in defiance of the anti?union laws and call on their unions not to repudiate their action.
- To organise in support of the Public Services not Private Profit initiative.
- To campaign in defence of an NHS free of private finance initiatives and contracting out.
- To demand the TUC name a day for a national demonstration in defence of the NHS to take place early next year and, if they fail to do so, to support initiatives for a national demonstration from grassroots health activists.
- To organise a trade union delegation to Venezuela.