Railworkers; TUC women's conference; Walthamstow Academy.
Railworkers: 1,500 RMT members working for First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia will strike together on Monday 30 March in separate but coordinated disputes over job losses.
First Capital Connect workers voted by more than three to one to strike, and National Express workers by more than two to one. (Their strike will also coincide with the second day of a 48-hour stoppage by around 100 conductors at London Midland’s Bletchley, Northampton and Watford depots in a separate dispute over Sunday working.) Unfortunately, workers at South West trains, who are facing 660 job cuts, voted narrowly against strike action.
The context is massive cuts across the rail industry, with seven rail companies seeking around 2,500 job losses in total, including 242 at National Express and 22 at First Capital Connect (to say nothing of the 1,000 job losses proposed on London Underground). Meanwhile, rail companies are also asking the government to let them cut services. The government should tell them to stick it, especially as the ‘big five’ rail operators have upped fares, profits and dividends!
Last year National Express saw its UK rail profits jump by 28 per cent, while First Capital Connect had an eight per cent growth in revenue and its owner FirstGroup paid £55 million in dividends. Stagecoach, who own South West Trains, recently increased dividends by 33 per cent. Figures like these underline the importance of demanding the bosses open the books, so that workers and union activists can comb through and work out our own plan for reorganisation – in the interests of rail workers, passengers and communities, not shareholders and bureaucrats.
Rail workers are reasonably well organised, and have a lot of industrial muscle; we are in a much stronger position than say, the Woolworths staff who were sacked over Christmas. If we mobilise that muscle, avoid special pleading for our industry and nonsense about "British jobs", and mobilise passengers, local communities and public opinion around demands for a decent, properly staffed railway system, we can win.
TUC women’s conference: this conference opened my eyes to a different side of the labour movement. Among the 250 delegates, there were some militant trade unionists, but their voice was drowned out by the overwhelming conservatism.
A motion on “women and the economic crisis” from the RMT and PCS was voted down by a huge majority. It called for an end to job cuts, reversing privatisation, companies threatening mass redundancies to be brought into public ownership, pay rises without strings attached, the bank and finance sector to be fully nationalised under democratic control, etc.
In the debate Sue Rogers, National Treasurer of the NASUWT, praised the government for bailing out the banks and accused our call against privatisation of “failing to take account of the world we are living in”. She mocked the idea that no one should be evicted from their homes, calling instead for support for people once they had been thrown on the streets. Other union delegates used similar arguments.
When voting for one motion to go forward to the main TUC conference, I looked in vain for one that would call on the government to do something. But every motion was toothless or called for things the Government is doing already. The successful motion was a tamed version of ours, which called for “tighter regulation” of the finance sector, “a fair tax system” and “support for manufacturing”.
It was new for me to hear this non-revolutionary, only-part-working-class perspective on the crisis voiced from inside the labour movement, who resist fighting for workers because they accept the system that exploits us. It reminded me that we are right to concentrate our efforts and expectations on rank-and-file workers.
A motion in favour of decriminalising prostitution was debated simultaneously with another on “‘the commodification of sex”. Most opponents of the first supported the second and vice versa. The “decriminalisation” motion, proposed by the CWU and seconded by the GMB, argued for women’s safety in the industry, working-class unity, unionisation of women in the sex industry, enforcement of laws against rape and for immigration rights for trafficked women.
Mary Davis of the UCU, prominent activist in the Communist Party presented “the commodification of sex” motion. It was in my view a deliberately misleading concoction, which confused the demands for legalisation and decriminalisation and wrote off both because legalisation has not worked. Sex worker organisations oppose legalisation while calling for decriminalisation. The motion called for a form of criminalisation: the so-called Swedish model, “to criminalise men’s purchase of sex rather than its sale”, which is opposed by sex worker unions because it would drive the industry further underground and make more unsafe.
To call for decriminalisation Davis said would “legitimise those who control” the industry. In no other situation is it ever argued that a measure that would help workers organise openly against their bosses puts the workers on their bosses’ side! She bizarrely redefined Marx’s theory of exploitation: instead of selling their labour power, sex workers sell their bodies, she said. This manoeuvre cuts the channels of solidarity between sex workers and every other exploited worker.
The grouped debate meant that none of the bizarre and contradictory arguments were challenged. The “commodification” motion also called for “the commodification of sex and the objectification of women’s bodies to be shown to be a contributory factor in violence against women” — a hugely contested idea which would require debate in itself. The opponents of decriminalisation were not forced to justify their opposition to such sensible demands as sex workers’ unionisation. Their method of emotive and illogical argument carried the day. The decriminalisation motion fell while “commodification” passed by a big majority.
It is a step forward to have this debate at TUC women’s conference. But we need to work harder to get the issue debated on a rational level. Decriminalisation is a complicated position that contradicts many women’s basic instincts on women’s rights. We cannot expect this to be overcome by one or two speeches on the day and it would be significant if TUC women’s conference voted to decriminalise prostitution.
Becky Crocker, RMT delegate
Walthamstow Academy: teachers have voted overwhelmingly for a strike ballot after suffering two years of misery under a bullying head teacher. The most revealing aspect of this long running dispute is that we have heard nothing of it until now. This is because of the eminent reasonableness of the workers, who have gone through endless processes of “engagement” with management. According to the local NUT secretary, this was a tactic the union pushed “against the better judgement of members, I have to say”.
The results are that management have dismissed an ACAS deal as meaningless, claiming that the school's positive OFSTED report is the highest authority and proves that everything about the school is wonderful. Staff disagree and are prepared for a long fight.
The pressure on teachers and other workers to be “reasonable” will increase as union bureaucrats fear rocking the boat during a recession. Workers’ Liberty teachers believe in another approach. ACAS is not “independent” any more than is the School Teachers Review Body, which was supposed to reopen talks on pay when inflation passed a certain point, then unilateratally decided it wasn't going to because there was no shortage of teachers in the job market! We believe workers' independent action is the way to get results, be the issue pay, conditions, bullying or anything else, and will be intervening at NUT conference (10-12 April) to argue as much.
• Please send messages of support to the Walthamstow Academy rep Subir Chakravarty via: firstname.lastname@example.org.