Union news in Brief

Submitted by AWL on 1 July, 2008 - 10:22

• Unison Conference: Good news, the left at Unison conference mangaged to beat the leadership in vote after vote. But there were not many big debates as Standing Orders had ruled anything controversial (and 47% of motions) out of order. However we won a lot of symbolic victories.

Perhaps the most significant victory on conference floor was at the Local Government Service Group Conference with resolution to open up pay consultation in the autumn, submit a pay claim by January and, if unsuccessful, ballot for strike action in April 2009. This is a massive improvement on dithering in previous years and it means we go into the next pay round on the front foot.

Both the United Left (UUL) and the Socialist Party (SP) held large fringe meetings. Over 300 people turned up to hear a joint SP-UUL platform of Tony Staunton, Yunus Baksh and Glenn Kelly who have been the subject to vicious witch-hunts by the union bureaucracy. Glenn Kelly is one of the “Four” being investigated on trumped up charges of “racism”. However, Yunus Baksh’s story shows the bureacracy’s real “commitment” to rooting out racism. Baksh was suspended from his job and his union position after an anonymous complaint, which he alleged to be racist. Yet Unison has consistently refused to investigate his allegation of racism, even claiming they are not covered by the Race Relations Act. The third speaker Tony Staunton is being sued for £15,000 for inappropriate use of his branch laptop (i.e. using it, as many branch officers do, for his personal business).

The leadership is using disciplinary processes as a way to keep the leading militants from running in elections.

The other significant fringe meeting attended by 200 people was called by Public Services Not Private Profit with John McDonnell MP and speakers from other unions. This meeting made the point that for all the talk from Dave Prentis about cross-union unity Unison still abstains from any initiative that directly challenges the government’s privatisation agenda.

The left did look set to win a motion on the Labour Party funding. This was the most important motion of the conference and an overwhelming majority had voted against SOC wishes, to reprioritise it for debate. If the motion had passed it would have sent a shock wave through the Brown administration, a sign that Unison and the GMB were lining up together to take on the government.

The right wing were seen distributing on conference floor, claiming that the motion was a conspiracy cooked up by the Socialist Party in order to get Unison to join the Campaign for a New Workers Party. Much more consistent Trot-bashing followed and that allowed the NEC to squeeze a narrow victory of 50,000 votes.

Leading Socialist Party activist Glenn Kelly took up the proposal from Workers’ Liberty supporters for a united democracy campaign within Unison to provide rank-and-file support for victimised militants. This is a very positive step towards building the non-sectarian rank-and-file movement that we need. The left has some positive examples of building big active branches with a record of campaigning. A fighting, well-organised force at the base of the union will allow us to better coordinate left electoral challenges to the leadership and the ability to hold any future leadership to account.

Stuart Jordan

• CWU Conference: the main contentious issue was the relationship between the CWU and the Labour Party. In the policy section of General Conference we discussed an emergency motion from London postal branches which, among other things called for a ballot of the members by next March on whether we funded the Labour Party at the next General Election if they failed to address the liberalisation of postal services, post office counters closures and the post office pension scheme. This motion was remarkably similar to an emergency motion submitted by the National Executive. It was supported by the national leadership and was carried.

The Socialist Party had a motion calling for dissafiliation and for support for a New Workers Party. This was overwhelmingly defeated (approx. 10 to 1).

The SWP had a “democratise the link” motion calling for the CWU to support candidates in elections from organisations on the left as well as Labour candidates. The “democratisation” motion was seen as “backdoor dissafiliation” and was defeated in the same proportion as the SP motion.

Two motions that contained criticism of Labour but were pro-affiliation were not reached. The first from the Executive called among other things for a review of the balance of the political fund money spent on affiliation fees to the Labour Party and that on and wider political campaigning. This motion had been promoted by socialists on the Political Committee of the Executive as an attempt to use the link more proactively. Another composite motion that was not reached called for the CWU to campaign to reverse the Bournemouth rule changes that took away Party Conference democracy.

A conference delegate

• More of this report at www.workersliberty.org

• GMB CONFERENCE: The GMB is one of several UK unions to have made the positive “turn to organising” recently: a move away from recruiting individuals on the basis of the union’s services (cheap insurance etc.) and towards organising whole workplaces through collective representation and bargaining. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work out so positively on the ground, manifesting itself as an insidious member-hungriness with union rushing to recruit as many people as possible with little or no thought about whether they’ll be able to be involved.

However, some of the better aspects of the “turn to organising” managed to gain a relatively high-profile the annual conference. The GMB’s Southern region has recruited some thousands of (mainly Eastern European) migrant workers and helped them establish a self-organised migrant workers’ branch. The work was lauded throughout congress, but key figures in the GMB bureaucracy are resistant to rolling the work out nationally.

A GMB Young Members’ fringe meeting (jointly sponsored by No Sweat) on organising young workers also attracted prominent members of the GMB’s organising machinery, who made positive noises about resourcing the kind of work AWL members in the GMB have been pushing in South Yorkshire. Wait and see.

One aspect of the lack of democratic and political culture in the union is the way in which leading bureaucrats like general secretary Paul Kenny and president Mary Turner can talk up militant and left credentials one minute and then behave like the best of friends with Blairite ministers. The congress’s debates around political representation and the union’s relationship to the Labour Party have attracted a lot of press coverage but the fact that right-wing New Labour ministers like Phil Woolas are still invited to address congress shows that the union has a long way to go in radicalising its relationship to the Labour Party.

While it is positive that the union has decided to withdraw funding from some of the most right-wing of its 100+ sponsored MPs, a more radical motion — which called for the immediate withdrawal of sponsorship from any GMB MP who acted against union policy — was in fact manoeuvred against by the leadership and voted down. In the event the number of hands appeared difficult to count, but from the chair union president Mary Turner refused to listen to calls for a card vote and summarily declared the motion lost.

There are undeniably openings within the GMB for socialists, radicals and rank-and-file activists to push for and develop positive work described here. That has to go hand in hand with developing a fight against an entrenched regional and national bureaucracy which is prepared to talk left around (undeniably important) industrial campaigns such as Remploy and Fenland Foods, but will manoeuvre to stop a genuinely radical motion on the funding of MPs from passing.

We need a thoroughgoing discussion within the union about what political representation means. The conception of the union’s leadership — cherry-picking a few of the worst offending MPs and withdrawing their funding — implies a client relationship to politics. Unions pay political parties or individual politicians in the hope of some scraps from their table. But workers’ organisations need to found or refound an cohesive political wing, based on and accountable to them and their members, to fight for their interests in the political arena.

Unfortunately, a motion proposing that the GMB affiliate to the Labour Representation Committee never made it to the vote, but there are already plans to establish an LRC supporters’ network within the union.

• CALL CENTRE: Pat Carmody, the CWU rep at Pell & Bales call centre in Old Street, London, has been sacked for putting his name to a 75 word article in Socialist Worker. The article reported on a worker suspended for asking difficult questions during training; now P&B management have reaffirmed their viciousness and control-freakery by sacking Pat for writing to tell people!

Their broader target is the growing union organisation at the call centre, which has run a variety of campaigns, won pay rises for P&B workers and saved jobs. As a worker quoted on the CWU leaflet to defend Pat puts it, this is “a threat not only to Pat and our jobs but a blow by management against freedom of speech”.

Dozens of workers rallied outside the office on 20 June to protest against Pat's suspension; now that he has been sacked, a broader campaign is planned. Solidarity messages to pnbunion@googlemail.com

• Fremantle: Care workers in Barnet employed by Fremantle have voted 95.9% in favour of rejecting a derisory offer from their employers and to resume strike action.

The latest offer presented by the company cuts a previously proposed pay freeze from three years to two, and makes minor increases in holiday pay.

Last year the same group of workers struck when Fremantle took over from the council as their employers and rehired them on much inferior conditions. The new contracts cut pay by a third.

Fremantle is an example of how ruthless a management can be when dealing with the workforce. Last year they sacked the Unison shop-steward and fought to close down LabourStart — a labour movement website following and supporting the workers.

• TRAIN GUARDS: RMT guards at Boston, Lincoln, Norwich and Nottingham (part of the old Central Trains franchise) took three successful days of strike action earlier this month. Now working for East Midlands Trains the guards are engaged in a struggle to maintain the integrity of their grade and to stop new owners Stagecoach introducing committed Sunday working without adequate compensation.

Turnout on both days to the picket lines has been higher than in past disputes and this, in part, can be attributed to the very aggressive tactics management have employed during the dispute. Prior to the first strike there was personal abuse; calling guards lazy and scruffy, threats to sack junior managers if they wouldn’t perform guards duties during the strike and breaking agreements while at ACAS. Two reps were suspended for alleged intimidation of scabs on a strike day (one rep had been reinstated).

The continuing suspension has led to preparations for a ballot of all RMT members on EMT in defence of the rep and a right to carry out union duties without management victimisation. This will be a good opportunity for building unity between workers who have until recently been working for separate companies and where divisions still exist. It will also be a chance for building unity with the other rail unions, ASLEF and TSSA.

Having the strikes on Saturday has allowed Stagecoach to bring in strike breaking managers from their other rail franchise South West Trains. Strikes on a weekday will reduce this and hit other businesses. On the other hand Saturday provides the most revenue and Stagecoach loses the most on this day. There needs to be some clarification on this and whether the company gets compensation for lost revenue on a strike day.

Everyone who works for EMT owes the guards at the very least a vote of thanks for their brave stand in the face of a predatory and heavy handed management. If the guards are beaten Stagecoach won’t stop there in their drive for profit at our expense. It was Chief Executive Brian Souter who said it: “Ethics are not irrelevant but some are incompatible with what we have to do, because capitalism is based on greed.”

RMT member