Bob Sutton reports on the Hands Off My Workmate conference.
On 17 October around 140 activists and trade unionists met in London for the first “Hands Off my Workmate” conference — a launch pad for a wider trade-union based campaign to defend migrant workers against checks and raids in the workplace.
The event, held at the School of African and Oriental Studies, had been set up by members of the Socialist Workers’ Party through SOAS Unison and UCU branches. In June this year, nine cleaners working at the university were grabbed in a brutal dawn raid by immigration services armed in full riot gear. All but one were later deported. This attack, facilitated by the collaboration of the cleaning contractor, ISS, and university management, sparked an occupation of the SOAS principal’s offices by activists from both inside and outside the university.
A good starting point for a campaign. However, Elane Heffernan, a leading SWP member, speaking at the “open planning meeting” ahead of the conference, explicitly set out the political space she saw HOMW occupying. Groups like the Campaign Against Immigration Controls [and others] had “scared people off” with political positions that could never win over sufficient support in the labour movement and were therefore recklessly cutting migrants off from people that would be willing to offer real solidarity if not linked to such “scary” politics.
HOMW, by not needlessly antagonising, but working with trade unions [bureaucracies], would “actually win”. This was a coded reference to CAIC activists’ support for the victimised Willis cleaners, who, after being abandoned by Unite, have so far been unsuccessful in their fight against victimisation.
The tone of Heffernan’s criticism has at times been fairly hostile. It is probably fair to say that CAIC suffers in its dealings with the SWP because of its association with the AWL — the SWP don’t like the AWL. Whilst some of CAIC’s most energetic activists have been AWL members and sympathisers, a whole host more are not. CAIC has been a banner under which a wide range of political activists have been willing to organise a working class fight against immigration controls.
To be fair, Heffernan did invite suggestions from CAIC for speakers and took most of the responses on. One of these suggestion led to a highlight of the event, the debate between Alberto Durango, the Unite activist and leading organiser of the Willis dispute, Prof. Phil Marfleet, of the University of East London and Neil Jameson from Strangers into Citizens (SiC), on the question of an amnesty for migrants.
In the room for the debate were many of the people who had been on the “papers for all” contingent on the big SiC demonstration in May. That was organised by CAIC, the Coordinadora Latinoamericana and supported by the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees. The debate brought up the issues present on that demonstration — the racist paternalism and class collaboration of the SiC demand for an amnesty. Framed as it is — amnesty only for those who have been here more than four years, been referred by two employers and shown intent to learn English. The demand was exposed and thoroughly deconstructed.
At the final plenary — not in the advertised programme — we were asked to ratify the campaigns founding statement:
“Sustained unity is not possible while some workers are considered illegal and in constant fear of discovery or are removed from the workplace and union by immigration raids.
“We therefore call for the immediate regularisation of undocumented migrants and for the right of all people living in the UK to work.
“We oppose the use of immigration checks and raids at work and demand that employers do not undertake random checks on workers or facilitate or organise raids by immigration services”.
Katerina, from the Coordinadora Latinoamericana, suggested that the slogan “No one is Illegal” be adopted as a summary for the proposed position.
What ensued was something of a panic on the part of the chair, who had not expected discussion or amendments.
Heffernan spoke strongly against the proposal. Having just made a brilliant speech as to why immigration controls were a weapon of the bosses and a question inseparable to that of rights for migrant workers, she was now saying that this message, the one she had just delivered so impressively, was not one that you could make outside of “little rooms full of activists”. In any case, she said, time was pressing, this was the statement that the Fire Brigades Union had already signed up to, and we should move on.
There were then widespread calls for a vote. Evidently with some reluctance, the chair took a vote. After a somewhat questionable hand count, the result came out as a tie. This was again met with exasperated calls to move swiftly on. However again widespread calls from the floor led to Katerina, evidently perplexed at how her proposal was contentious and the strength of the objection, being given opportunity to give her case.
She said the slogan summarised the apparent consensus viewpoint, or at least that coming out of the debate with Strangers into Citizens, in a concrete and consistent principle. After that Sandy Nicoll, the UCU branch secretary, again SWP, was given an opportunity to give the second [longer] speech against. He implored people to drop the call for the slogan as it would be an obstacle to concrete solidarity of the type that could seriously oppose further attacks. The vote was re-taken. The same number voted for. With more people coming into the room to vote against, the “motion” fell.
There were further ripples of bad faith when it was asked if CAIC could have a space on the proposed steering committee. It was agreed, but on the stated condition that “you don’t come to every meeting just to bang on about No One is Illegal”!
As the meeting was breaking up there were several minor arguments as Gabriella Alberti, who had earlier spoken in a session on “the feminisation of migrant labour” took issue with the off-the-cuff “ultimatum” CAIC had just been given. No doubt it was a product of stress on the part of the organisers, but also a quite deep political mistrust and, in some cases restrained hostility. CAIC were accused of using “shibboleths” and not having a serious approach to an arena of struggle which can often have implications of life and death.
So there are questions over the politics on which this campaign is conducted. However for practical purposes the statement is a “No One is Illegal” position. That is why the CAIC activists present did not choose to have a massive fight over the matter. But there are also questions about the name “Hands Off my Workmate”, and who and on what terms it is a slogan for.
The main question about the campaign is one of its openness and democracy. When questions were raised at planning meetings as to whether the conference would elect a committee or take decisions in its final session, they were not answered. This cannot just be put down to a question of capacity. This was a case of the cards being kept close to the chest of the organisers.
If there are genuine debates around activity, then they should be given space, not steamrollered or approached with the “batten down the hatches” of a factional set-piece.
There remains an important discussion around slogans. Many people, even those heavily involved in the work, are unclear on distinctions or potential nuances between “Papers for All”, “No One is Illegal” “Against Immigration Controls” “Open borders”, “No Borders“ or “Amnesty”. That discussion is something we must continue.
What can be taken as positive out of the SOAS occupation and this new campaign is the potential for far wider sections of the left and the workers’ movement to act on this issue. Beyond that, time will tell.
In London, key workplace battles for migrants, as well as the fights against deportations, need to be cohered and organised with each other and with the rest of the movement. The scope for that to happen has been shown by CAIC’s work — the conferences of hundreds and securing of trade union affiliations.
The struggles of migrant workers have in many ways been exemplars of what our fight against the crisis should look like. They should be considered, along with struggles at Vestas, Visteon, and, (although the question is slightly different) Lindsey, and held up as things to be proud of in the working class movement. Solidarity with migrants, and clearly articulated opposition to immigration controls, must become absolute touchstones, indispensable points of reference for the coming period.
A clear, sharp, working-class, internationalist anti racism programme must be the orientation for our fight against the fascists, against attacks on migrants by their bosses and the state, and for the fight against the politics of “British Jobs 4 British Workers” within the workers’ movement.
Workers of the World Unite!