By Jeremy Dewar
“A new deal for working people, a new social settlement for the UK”
A LONDON TUC rally for the 18 June national demonstration heard speakers from a variety of disputes and strikes. Rail workers, teachers and lecturers, caterers and cleaners, civil servants were all represented.
The eve-of-rally meeting, held at Congress House on 13 June, opened with RMT President Alex Gordon and Jess Edwards of the NEU praising the magnificent mobilisation of anti-racists in Peckham, who had the previous day, stopped the arrest and deportation of a Nigerian neighbour. It was a fitting tribute to their courage and a timely reminder of the power of the working class.
Gordon went on to describe the following week’s strike by tube workers, Network Rail workers and train drivers as ‘the biggest solidarity action’ the RMT had ever mounted. Unite and now the TSSA are set to join their ranks. London and Britain will be shut down for the day.
Alex pointed out that, after years of under-performing, the unions were back on the agenda: 300 strikes this year and counting. His message was that unions now needed to co-ordinate their strikes and campaigns to achieve ‘maximum effect’.
He also made special mention of the anti-union laws. He warned that Transport Minister Grant Shapps was seeking to strengthen these undemocratic laws by allowing employers to use scab agency workforces to break strikes and imposing a ‘minimum service requirement’ effectively demanding workers scab on their own disputes.
After speakers from the NEU and UCU updating us on their own disputes, including a ballot of 33 London colleges for strike action designed to hit open days and enrolment weeks, we heard speakers from Unite, Unison and the GMB talk about their experiences organising outsourced hospital and university caterers and cleaners.
Tabusam Ahmed of Unite emphasised how contracted out workers were discriminated against, earning 15% less than those in similar grades working directly for Bart’s hospital. They won their disputes all their demands and were brought in-house after two weeks of strikes and on the eve of another round of strikes.
We heard similar tales of organising largely immigrant workforces at UCL and Queen Mary universities and at Croydon University and St George’s hospitals. All pointed out that solidarity and co-ordination were key to taking their disputes forward, with speakers from Unison and the GMB.
It was a shame, however, that the independent unions like the UVW and IWGB were not on the platform. They have led the way in this field and too often TUC unions have either ignored their efforts or even scabbed on their disputes. We have to do more to draw these unions into the wider movement and promote their struggles.
The next two speakers, Diane Ebanks of the PCS and Kevin Hussey, a veteran of the dockers’ disputes in the early 1970s, lifted the tempo of the meeting with some passionate and humorous speeches.
The PCS is facing 91,000 job cuts in the midst of a cost of living crisis. She pointed out that 40% of DWP workers were also having to claim in-work benefits themselves: the very same benefits they were administering! The PCS is demanding 10% (offer: 2%), very reasonable considering their members have lost 20% of the real value of their pay since 2007.
She called for solidarity on Monday 20 June, when the union is demonstrating outside a Tory fundraiser at the V&A museum. Here a table will cost Tory supporters £20,000. Staff working at the V&A earn just £21,000 a year. This sums up unequal Britain!
Kevin gave a great speech, recalling how he had gone to a demonstration outside Pentonville Prison in July 1972 along with his friend Vic Turner, even though there was a warrant out for Vic’s arrest for breaking the anti-union laws. Vic was unfazed. A copper approached him on the demo.
‘Are you Victor Turner?’
‘Would you like to come with me?’
Of course Vic did go to jail, but only for two days. The huge solidarity strike was threatening to ‘get out of hand’ so the Tory government had no choice but to release the five dockers. That’s the kind of movement we need today.
But the most important contribution came from Dave Ward, general secretary of the CWU. As well as outlining the union’s disputes at the Crown Post Offices, Royal Mail and BT, Ward outlined the union’s strategy for combatting the crisis.
Under the rubric of ‘Building Collectivism’ the CWU called for trade union unity, collective action and Town Hall meetings. Common bargaining agendas should unite all unions in each sector of the economy.
But he recognised that not all who wanted to take action were in a position to do so. Therefore he proposed that in October, everyone, at the same time on the same day, should come out of their workplace for 10 minutes to protest and show unity.
Town Hall meetings should promote a wider agenda — ‘a new deal for workers, a new social settlement for the UK’. Names should be collected and future meetings planned.
Next he called on unions to build connections with other social movements, singling out the renters’ organisation Acorn for particular attention. ‘Build relations, don’t take them over,’ he warned.
Finally he turned on the Labour leadership (as did several other speakers). MPs and Councillors have to earn the right to share their platforms and enjoy their patronage. While some were doing that, e.g. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, he said, others clearly had not.
This strategy, though minimal in the scope of action proposed, is not a million miles away from what Workers Power is both proposing and carrying out with our limited numbers. To have the unions on board would make a huge difference.
As Dave and others said, it’s not what you do on 18 June; it’s what you do after.