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Union with the unions?

This article is over 19 years, 2 months old
'We are workers and activists.' How to connect anti-capitalism with trade unionism was a theme that ran through many debates in Florence
Issue 1826

THOUSANDS OF trade unionists came to the European Social Forum. Their numbers reflected the rise in workers’ struggle in much of Europe. There were members of many British unions present, including the CWU, RMT, Amicus, Unison, PCS, NUJ, Natfhe, Prospect, NUT and TGWU. There were more than 2,000 people at just one of the meetings on trade union struggles.

French trade unionist Annick CoupŽ argued, ‘Neo-liberalism is a political choice. We have to say that redistributing wealth is possible in our own countries and across the planet.’ But a speaker from the European TUC was booed when she said, ‘We need a social market economy,’ praised the idea of ‘partnership’ with employers, and said that the European Union could be a counterweight to globalisation. Piero Bernocchi from the Cobas union in Italy replied to her: ‘There is still a basic conflict between capital and labour. Far from employers becoming more pleasant all the time, it is getting worse. The traditional left parties and union leaders who call for ‘partnership’ are letting companies get away with these attacks.’

There was shock around the hall when Marco Bersoni from the ATTAC group in Italy said, ‘There will always be a difficulty in bringing together workers and the anti-globalisation movement because anti-globalisation militants are active in their time off at work.’

There were shouts of, ‘We are workers and activists!’ Despite this bad start, Bersoni went on to call for deeper unity between movements and unions to fight privatisation, defend immigrants and stop war. The audience applauded when he described Bush’s foreign policy as being ‘to create a murderous pile of bones’.

Pat Sikorski from the British RMT union explained to the meeting that ‘there is a real change of mood in Britain. That is reflected in the election of eight left wing union general secretaries in the last three years. More and more workers want to see a fightback. The movement and the unions must work together – and this is possible. It was highly significant that at the TUC and Labour conferences there was huge trade union opposition to the war.’

Javier Doz from one of Spain’s two main union federations said, ‘The only way to get millions of people protesting on the streets is to involve the major unions. ‘In Spain in June we had 12 million on general strike, and two million marched. ‘This was followed by further action, and the movement was so powerful that it forced the government to withdraw many of the anti working class proposals it had just passed into law.’

At another meeting hundreds of trade unionists, mostly rank and file activists, discussed how best to build resistance in the workplace. One theme touched on was how the most militant activists should organise. In some parts of Europe there is a tradition that the most militant union activists form their own unions rather than fighting to build inside the main unions.

But Jane Loftus, a member of the national executive of the British CWU, argued for a different approach. ‘I am proud that our union has been won to opposition to the war and to support for the ESF,’ she said.

And she argued that, instead of splitting from the main unions, activists have to ‘build rank and file networks that can pressure union leaders to fight, and act independently of them if necessary.’

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