Fighting Unions

 I must admit that many of the meetings I go to, while necessary, are not exactly inspiring. Yesterday was different. I was chairing a meeting of Organising for Fighting Unions in London. The speakers, from a wide range of unions and industries, represented much of the best experience of our trade union movement.

A cleaner from the University of London explained how they had organised minimum wage workers from a multitude of countries, with different languages and cultural backgrounds, into the union. They have won better wages and conditions, but, more importantly, have forced the University to bring the cleaning back in-house. Their campaign was supported by the existing University staff, so they joined the same union, Unison. Jose explained, though, that what was important was to be in a union, not which union. Coming from Ecuador, he explained that there all the unions worked together. He asked why they didn’t seem to do that in Britain. Perhaps that’s a question we should all work to answer.

Another speaker was from the Executive of the Prison Officers Association. That’s not a union I would have expected to see send a representative to a left-wing trade union meeting. They are affected by the Government’s pay cuts for public sector workers, and took industrial action last summer. Peter talked about more than pay though. He talked about the disastrous effect privatisation was having on prisons. The nine of the ten private prisons are in the bottom league of prisons based on various Government measures. More importantly, the cost cutting exercises that accompany ‘marketisation’ mean that work on rehabilitation has virtually disappeared from the prison service. We are seeing similar pressures in the NHS, with some PCTs talking about specialist services being “non-viable.”

The speaker from the Executive of the Communication Workers Union talked about their dispute with Royal Mail last year. Although the dispute was formally about pay and pensions, he explained that the underlying issues were the deregulation of the industry and the Government’s plans for privatisation. The CWU increased its membership by 6000 during the strikes. That’s about 2.5% of the total membership and a substantially higher percentage of the membership in Royal Mail. Also they found reps in 31 offices that did not have them before the dispute. It makes a powerful argument that people are prepared to join unions if they see them doing something for their members – militancy can work.

Speakers from the Executives of the National Union of Teachers and the University and College Union talked about the pay disputes in education. It’s the first time the NUT in schools and the UCU in colleges have worked together over a pay dispute. Their campaign is not just about pay though. They are starting from a defence of education. With privatisation working its way through the education system as well, it’s more than just the teachers pay and conditions under attack. They argue, I think rightly, that you can’t have a decent education system if the teachers aren’t paid properly. Professionalism and pay go hand in hand.

There were speakers from other unions – Unite, Unison, RMT, TSSA, GMB – who all contributed to making it an inspiring day.

I hope we can get some of that spirit into the next Unite meeting I attend.

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