I attended a brilliant meeting yesterday – the sort of meeting that gives you the energy and enthusiasm to carry on slogging away with the hard grind that’s built into trade unionism.
The meeting was the launch meeting of United Left – the new broad left organisation in Unite. The predecessor organisations of Amicus Unity Gazette and the T&G Broad Left have now been formally closed down.
There is a real sense of urgency now in building a left in Unite. We desperately need a union that does more than lobby a rotten and reactionary Labour Government. We have a virtual meltdown in many of the key areas where our members work – in the car industry, most sharply, but also in manufacturing generally, in finance, in construction. In the public sector, market madness continues to prevail – the Government may have been forced to pretty much nationalise the banks, but they’re desperate to break up and privatise local government and the NHS.
We need a union that fights for us – a union that uses its political and industrial muscle to fight for every job and to stop every attack on our conditions. A strong left can be at the heart of building that union.
The meeting was in Birmingham, with over 200 activists cramming into the hall. I’m not going to attempt a verbatim report of a detailed and fast moving meeting, but rather to give my own impressions of what took place.
Tony Woodley, Joint General Secretary of Unite, spoke first. He was very supportive of the new left organisation, and talked about the need for an open, progressive and democratic left. He also spoke very well about the real problems our members face – about the 6000 automobile workers at immediate risk of losing their jobs, the 850 agency worker who were sacked with no notice at Cowley, and the attacks faced by so many of our members. He attacked Gordon Brown and his predecessor ‘warmongering Blair’ for thinking that it was OK to let the market decide, and for looking after the filthy rich. He talked about the need for leadership, and said our union had to put members first, not ministers.
I didn’t disagree with a word Tony Woodley said. The challenge is, of course, that we need real action now. Our members are being wiped out. Waterford Crystals stands out as a brilliant example of how to defend jobs – but in the UK we have not yet seen any comparable fight. If we’re going to save jobs, we must fight for them – and Tony Woodley has a responsibility to move heaven and earth to make sure that fight happens.
The other guest speaker was Unite member John McDonnell MP. John is an enormously well-respected figure on the left (which means, of course, that he is savagely disliked by many in the Labour Party, and by the Parliamentary Labour Party most of all). John launched a savage attack on the neo-liberal policies of the Government, and the ‘toxic mix’ of free market policies, the denial of trade union rights, privatisation, and the way people have been forced into debt. He was scathing about Labour’s ‘talking out’ of the Trade Union Freedom Bill – even this minimal protection for trade unionists was impossible for this Government to contemplate. He commented that negotiations with this Government aren’t working – it’s like having a ‘conversation with the deaf’ trying to talk to them.
John also quite rightly condemned the slogan of ‘British jobs for British workers’, saying that we needed jobs for all workers. He condemned Labour’s attacks on civil liberties, the replacement of Trident, and the ‘money laundering’ of privatisation that simply transfers public money to private sector pockets.
John gave a vision of an alternative society – a socialist society where we can end recession now and forever, a planned and managed economy, trade union rights, decent public services and so on. He talked about the launch of the new ‘People’s Charter’ – potentially an important initiative in building the fightback we need. He talked about the importance of Unite as the biggest UK union, and of the left in Unite, in fighting for the sort of world we want to see.
John is a passionate and hardworking socialist. His contribution set the positive, upbeat and radical mood in which the rest of the meeting took place.
There was a strong mood for left unity amongst virtually all of us in the meeting – essential in breaking with regarding ourselves as ‘T&G’ or ‘Amicus’ and getting on with the job of building a left in Unite. People grappled with the very real problems that can emerge in a general union – for example, the questionable policies of supporting nuclear power, and supporting the third runway at Heathrow, when so many of our members are opposed to these things.
People talked about the need to fight for jobs, and the need to break the law – Tory law and bosses law – when it doesn’t allow us to defend our members. We made a commitment to supporting the mobilisation against the BNP in Liverpool (10 am onwards, 14th March, Church Street, for a rally at noon). We pledged to build for the G20 demonstration, and in principle to support the People’s Charter.
Importantly, we also talked about the recent oil refinery dispute and the issues around ‘British jobs for British workers’. The overwhelming mood of the meeting was that we must defend jobs and national agreements – but not by making concessions to nationalism, xenophobia and racism. A large majority of those at the meeting felt that the ‘British jobs for British workers’ is divisive and dangerous – a complete dead end for our movement. (An aside – but it’s worth noting that the BNP has taken up this slogan enthusiastically, and that a BNP candidate won a supposedly safe Labour council seat in Kent last week. Trade unionists and socialists play a very dangerous game when they flirt with crude nationalism).
The meeting went on to endorse a decent set of ‘aims and principles’, and to elect a national steering committee. The work of building United Left in Unite is well underway. Yesterday’s meeting gave a glimpse of the possibilities that are there for socialists, and the role we can play in building unions that deliver for our members.
Finally, many of those in the meeting signed a statement on the need for unity to defend jobs and to build union organisation – but also to reject the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan as being divisive. Over a thousand trade unionists have now put their names to this, including 15 Unite Executive Council members, and Joint General Secretary Tony Woodley. The statement can be signed online here.