FIREFIGHTERS’ union leaders are recommending the union opens up its political funds to allow backing for non-Labour candidates. The move, to be voted on at their FBU union conference in May, is the latest sign of a dramatic shift taking place in the unions. The RMT rail union has already moved to open its funds up in the same way, a move which saw the union expelled by the Labour Party last month. Similar debates are now growing in other unions.
For a century the trade unions have provided a financial and political bedrock exclusively to the Labour Party. Now that bedrock is cracking-a process driven by the deep disaffection among trade union members with New Labour over everything from war to pay and privatisation.
Firefighters’ leaders are recommending that the union reduces its funds to Labour and allows backing for non-Labour candidates who support union policies. They are making that recommendation to head off demands that the union split completely from Labour.
Their fear of such a demand flows from the deep anger among firefighters with the government after the way it treated them during their strikes over pay. Labour’s expulsion of the RMT, a union which played a key role in founding the party a century ago, has angered people across the trade union movement. Jane Loftus, a left wing member of the postal and telecom workers’ CWU national executive, says, ‘The CWU executive voted to deplore the Labour Party’s decision over the RMT.
‘The union has got a rules revision conference coming up in June, where there will be motions to change our rules so that we can affiliate to parties other than New Labour.’
Yunus Bakhsh, a left wing member of the Unison national executive, says, ‘A number of motions are going to the union’s conference this year condemning Labour’s decision on the RMT. There will also be a debate over democratising our funds.’
‘My Unison branch unanimously passed a motion in support of the RMT,’ says Ben Drake of York City Unison. ‘The mood is that this is our union and we have to decide what happens with our money and support.’
John McLoughlin, the branch chair of Tower Hamlets Unison, says, ‘Our union branch voted to support the RMT. People were angry about the role of Maggie Jones, a union full-time officer who sits on Labour’s national executive, in kicking out the RMT. ‘The London Regional Council also voted to support the RMT. There were 110 delegates there.’
The Labour leadership is worried about the debate in the unions. It wants to continue to take the unions’ cash while privatising, attacking striking workers and pushing through low pay. Chris Lennie, Labour’s deputy general secretary, last week gave evidence at an Electoral Commission inquiry into political funding. Lennie called for partial state funding for political parties. Some union leaders are worried that state funding will be used to break the Labour-union link. Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, has met with some union leaders in an attempt to reassure them. Hain says state funding is not a ‘Trojan Horse’ for weakening the union-party link.
But it is clear that this debate can only cause more problems for New Labour. Meanwhile the pressure for union members to be allowed to decide which candidates deserve backing looks set to grow as the union conference season gets underway in a few weeks time.
THE MANCHESTER Piccadilly No 1 branch voted unanimously to support Respect at a meeting on Monday of this week. John McDonald, the branch secretary, says, ‘The Labour Party no longer reflects the needs of working people. That’s why we’ve voted to support Respect. We must not just give Respect our money, but we must support it in every way we can.’
Respect members in the north west of England now plan to visit every RMT branch in the region. RMT branches in London have invited Respect to send speakers to their next branch meeting to talk about why the union should support Respect.
‘Nine out of the 12 RMT branches in London will now be discussing whether to support Respect or not,’ says Unjum Mirza, the RMT’s London Regional Polical Officer. For speakers and other information contact Respect-see details below.
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