By Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (This article appeared in yesterday’s Morning Star, but in view of comrade Wrack’s description of Brexit as a “victory for populist demagogy, xenophobes and racists” is clearly at variance with that paper’s pro-Brexit ‘line’).
TUC Congress convenes at an absolutely pivotal time for the labour movement and for firefighters — and the motions tabled by the Fire Brigades Union are intended to reflect that.
The new political situation in Britain is defined by the decision to leave the European Union (EU). The FBU advocated a vote to Remain. Although the EU is a neoliberal bosses’ club, some forget the key role of British governments in driving the neoliberal agenda within Europe.
Austerity in Britain is driven from Westminster, not from Brussels. Europe also provides a common terrain for workers’ solidarity and workers’ rights across the continent.
The Brexit vote was a defeat for the working class in Britain as well as internationally. It was a defeat for internationalism and collectivism. Brexit was a victory for populist demagogy, xenophobes and racists. Brexit has already had detrimental economic effects and worse is likely to come.
Brexit has resulted in a more right-wing government. It means an already difficult period ahead will be even harder for the trade union movement and the working-class communities we represent.
The FBU’s motion is clear that the trade union movement should not blame working-class people for the consequences of Brexit.
We don’t blame workers who voted to leave. We don’t blame migrant workers, they deserve solidarity.
We know two-thirds of Labour voters voted to remain. We don’t blame the labour movement or the TUC — we fought a good campaign to remain and we were right to do so.
Jeremy Corbyn was not to blame for Brexit. Corbyn campaigned from day one to remain in the EU. He was right to advocate Remain while articulating criticisms of the EU. He held scores of meetings and events. He was correct to avoid collaboration with David Cameron and the Tories.
Who do we blame? We blame the Tories. They decided on the referendum. They set the question. They set the timing. It was mostly Tory politicians who fought it out in public. It was mostly Tory voters who voted to leave. They created the mess we’re in. We need to pin the blame for the consequences on them. Every job loss, every cut, every dodgy trade deal, every attack — is their fault. Every example of economic and political turmoil needs to be laid at their door.
The TUC and unions are right to say workers should not pay for Brexit (workers have paid for the economic downturn in countless ways since 2008). But that is not enough. The labour movement has to say who will pay for Brexit. The answer is that the bosses will have to pay.
The wealthy, the ruling class — they have to pay. The money is there — in the banks, in property, in the wealth of the ultra rich — the new Duke of Westminster, Mike Ashley and Philip Green. The government should tax them for what is necessary and by whatever means are necessary.
It follows on from who’s to blame and who should pay, that the labour movement cannot support a partnership approach on Brexit.
In my view, it was wrong for former TUC general secretary Brendan Barber to sign a joint letter with Cameron during the referendum campaign.
We are not all in this together. It is not the job of the trade union movement to act as the tail of British business. It is not our job to accept deals that worsen the conditions of our members so that Brexit can be managed.
The labour movement needs to make itself a factor in the Brexit process. We do that by mobilising our members as active forces capable of shaping our own destiny.
We need to strengthen our links with workers across the world, including within the EU. We will stand in solidarity with migrant workers wherever they are. We need to hit the streets and make our voices heard. We need to speak clearly and act in determined defence of working-class interests.
By Dr Pete Campbell (at A Healthy Blog)
Why are junior doctors going on strike?
- A contract which ACAS, the BMA, NHS Employers and the Department of Health agreed would be put to a referendum of junior doctors and medical students is being imposed upon them in October. Despite them rejecting the contract.
- This contract is worse for less than full time trainees, which means it discriminates against women, those with disabilities and carers.
- They still do not believe they have adequate protections for whistleblowing or hours safety through the guardian role in this new contract.
- This contract will make it harder to recruit into specialities such as Emergency Medicine, Acute Medicine and Paediatrics.
- Lots of other reasons related to the contract around issues such as non-resident on calls, locum arrangements, removal of annual pay progression,
What do they want?
- The Government not to impose a contract on junior doctors it agreed to put to a referendum.
- To return to negotiations starting with the ‘heads of terms.’ This is where ‘7 day services’ and the Government’s manifesto pledge should be discussed. Not brought into negotiations half way through.
- A contract which doesn’t discriminate against protected groups, values their work and promotes the recruitment and retention of doctors.
Why won’t the Government agree to this and why are negotiations not continuing?
- Because they are more interested in a political victory than a safe and secure health service.
Isn’t 5 days of strike action extreme?
- This Government is prepared to impose a contract rejected by 6 out of 10 doctors. It has refused to talk about any alternative. The BMA Junior Doctors Committee feel they have no other options left.
Will this industrial action be safe for patients?
- There is a clear escalation procedure between NHS England and the BMA. If patient safety is threatened then junior doctors will be called back to work.
Didn’t the BMA agree to this contract?
- No: the Junior Doctors Committee agreed to try and find a negotiated contract and put that negotiated contract to a referendum of junior doctors.
- 58% of Junior doctors and medical student members of the BMA rejected this contract. A bigger mandate than for Brexit.
What can I do to support junior doctors?
- Write to your MP and ask them to call on the Government to halt imposition.
- Join junior doctors on the picket line and at their events. Full details will appear here: oneprofession.bma.org.uk
- Get involved in the local campaigns around the future of the NHS.
- Don’t believe the right wing media spin. Talk to junior doctors themselves about the issues.
We have received this message from a junior doctor:
Junior Doctors have announced a week of strike action starting 12th September, with further strike action called in October, November and December.
Current plans are for 8-5 full walkouts of all junior doctors. Aim is to prevent imposition of this contract and return to negotiations about the ‘heads of terms’ of future negotiations. It is a plan to halt the government’s attempts to bleed NHS staff dry through demanding 7 days resources from 5 days of services.
It is an incredibly bold plan, which has understandably been greeted by outrage from the right and nervousness from many.
Please be as publicly supportive of junior doctors as you can be. Please engage with prominent voices in your areas and ask them to be publicly supportive of junior doctors.
We are going to need all the help we can get.
Updates here: http://oneprofession.bma.org.uk/
Compare and contrast:
1/ Morning Star editorial Feb 26 2016:
The EU has done nothing to strengthen Britain’s social or equality legislation. Holiday pay, equal pay legislation, advancement of anti-racist and gay rights were all fought for and won by workers in struggle. To claim otherwise is a mendacious insult to the history of our movement and class.
2/ Morning Star front page Aug 30 2016:
YOUR RIGHTS IN MAY’S HANDS
Unions challenge May to live up to post-Brexit pledges
by Conrad Landin
THERESA MAY risks a “betrayal of British workers” if she does not save employment rights when Britain leaves the EU, unions warned last night.
New research by the House of Commons library shows that rights to annual leave, protection against unfair dismissal and equal rights for agency workers could fall away on a technicality if the government does not intervene.
The European Communities Act 1972, which will need to be repealed prior to Brexit, allows Brussels employment law to take primacy over Westminster Acts and become British law.
Regulations protecting young people and ensuring paid time off for health and safety reps could also fall by the wayside.
Ms May promised to put the Tories “completely, absolutely, unequivocally at the service of working people” when she was announced as the leader last month.
But her parliamentary record includes staunch support for anti-union laws and leading the opposition to the Equality Act in the Commons.
Shopworkers’ union Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: “The Prime Minister came to office talking a good game about standing up for working people. She now has to walk the walk — and the first part of that should be guaranteeing that every single right for workers delivered by the European Union will stay in place.
“Anything less would be a betrayal of British workers, especially given the promises that were made on employment rights by members of the Vote Leave campaign. Every worker and trade unionist in Britain urgently needs clarity on this vital issue.”
Labour MP Chuka Umunna (pictured left with Ms May), who commissioned the Commons library research, has written to Ms May calling for the government to enact primary legislation guaranteeing the affected workplace rights.
He is also calling for an audit of decisions made by the Court of Justice of the European Union, followed by a government commitment to maintaining the additional rights that have been derived from legal judgements.
Mr Umunna told Ms May: “You have said repeatedly that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ But you must now begin to set out what this means.
“You owe it to the working people of Britain to make clear that the pledges made by your Cabinet colleagues to retain EU legislation on workers’ rights will be delivered.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “Britain voted decisively to leave the EU and this government will deliver the people’s verdict. In every step we will work to ensure the best possible outcome for the British people.
“We don’t need to be part of the EU to have strong protections for workers’ rights.”
A discussion piece by Tim (of What About Classism?):
I’m a left of centre Labour voter, but I am not a hard left ideologue or a communist nor dream of some sort of communist utopia, or anything like that. Far from it, in fact. Like most people who are from working class backgrounds, be they black, Asian or white or whatever other ethnic minority we may come from, I simply want an economy that works for more people, including of course myself, my family and the community I come from. We are told again and again that the UK is the world’s fifth biggest economy, yet there is poverty everywhere, low wage zero hours contract and insecure jobs, the NHS is being underfunded, the North is worse off than the wealthy parts of Southern England, disabled people are being persecuted and the icing on the cake is that austerity is being forced on the poor for the greed and mistakes of an unregulated banking industry, and a political system that now whether nominally left or right has abandoned the economic working class, the economic working class being anyone black, white, Asian, immigrant or anyone else who is poor in this very wealthy country, even when they are in work in many cases.
Democracy hasn’t been abandoned at all, it has merely become the preserve of the very wealthy, the upper class, the upper middle class and the middle class, so about 20% of the population are represented, and often deftly represent themselves very well. The sad fact is that the majority of people are not represented and are not allowed to represent themselves anymore either. We have a ‘freemarket’ economy that benefits more or less the same people who are in power, and the rest of us are excluded from the benefits of a wealthy economy and political enfranchisement.
I’m not a ‘Corbynista’ either, but I notice, as many people have, that the ‘unbiased and completely impartial’ media, and the political establishment have been going at him day by day. Why is this? Many on the right make jokes about him, saying he will never be PM and actually saying they hope he stays as Labour party leader as he will never get elected. As well as this, many Labour MPs are desperately trying to oust him, saying rather strangely that he will divide the party if he doesn’t go, yet by attacking him and putting pressure on him they are threatening to almost destroy the party if they don’t get their way. It is another problem with democracy that MPs, far from being public servants, are primarily carving out lucrative careers for themselves by selling themselves to the highest bidder, or the neoliberal ideology that dominates now. Most of the new Labour party ordinary members support Jeremy Corbyn, whereas many of the MPs don’t. But the members of the party voted for him. For once in a long time, many people feel that a change is coming. It is obvious also to many of us that the system which has institutionalised economic injustice at its heart, is the preferred one for many wealthy people, regardless of the hardship and poverty this creates for millions of people. That many of us who struggle either in unemployment or low paid dead end jobs are sick of this should come as no surprise. The democracy of the wealthy and privileged is now used to deprive those who are already poor of their democratic rights, in a supposed democratic nation. That is about the bottom line. Read the rest of this entry »
We continue with this important interview with Kim Moody, on the prospects for the class struggle. Part 1 can be read here.
From Labor Notes:
Where’s our economy headed? This is part two of our interview with Kim Moody, co-founder of this magazine and the author of many books on U.S. labor.
Despite the hype about the “gig economy,” Moody argued in Part 1 that the bigger change most workers are experiencing is the rise of the crappy-job economy. On the bright side, he pointed out how just-in-time production has created huge concentrations of workers—and vast potential for organizing.
In Part 2, we ask Moody about corporate mergers, the changing demographics of the U.S. workforce, and what it will take to organize the South:
Labor Notes: Increased competition between corporations has led to massive mergers. What has been the impact on workers?
Kim Moody: It’s in the mid-’90s that this new mergers and acquisitions wave took hold. It was fundamentally different from the big mergers and acquisitions waves of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Those mostly were about conglomeration—companies buying up all different kinds of production, finance, and everything you can get your hands on. Diversification would be another word for it.
The mergers of the mid-’90s forward have gone in the opposite direction. More companies are shedding unrelated divisions. For example, General Electric and General Motors used to have huge financial divisions and they dumped those, even though they were moneymakers.
All these major industries have seen mergers that are creating bigger employers. In some industries the concentrations are huge. If you look at trucking, UPS is this massive employer that it wasn’t 20 years ago. UPS is in every field of logistics—not just in delivery or even in trucking, but also in air freight.
So companies are buying up things that are in their basic core competencies. The structure of ownership has been realigned in a way similar to the first half of the 20th century, when unions, including the CIO, organized these big corporations.
This concentration of ownership along industrial lines means that there are more economically rational structures now in which unions can organize.
So you would no longer see a situation where the union strikes one division but the company has plenty of unrelated divisions that are still making profits.
Right. And when you put that together with the logistics revolution, you begin to get a picture of what I’m calling “the new terrain of class conflict.”
We are dealing with production systems, of both goods and services, that are far more tightly integrated than they used to be, and companies that are bigger, more capital-intensive, and more economically rational.
So unions should be able to take advantage of the vulnerable points in just-in-time logistics and production to bring some of these new giants to heel. The old idea of industrial unionism might have a new lease on life if—and it is a big if—the unions can take advantage of this situation.
My view is that this is going to have to come from the grassroots of the labor movement. Or those who today are not organized, like the people in warehouses. There is a potential that really hasn’t existed in well over half a century.
The consolidation of industry and the whole logistics revolution: these things have only come together in the last 10 or 15 years. When workers and unions in these industries—and many of these industries have unions in pieces of them—look at this situation, it’s something they’re not used to yet.
It usually takes a generation for the workforce to realize the power that it has, and the points of vulnerability. This was the case when mass production developed in the early 20th century. It took pretty close to a generation before the upheaval of the ‘30s.
This bears not only on unions but on American politics. An obvious change that has taken place in pretty much the same period—the ’80s up until now—and will continue on is the change in the racial and ethnic composition of the entire population, but particularly concentrated in the working class.
For example, if you look at what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the “transportation and material moving” occupations in the ’80s, maybe 15 percent of those workers were either African American, Latino, or perhaps Asian. Today it is 40 percent.
Workers of color now compose a much bigger proportion of the workforce, much of it due to immigration. The biggest growth, of course, is among Latino workers. Workers of color are now between 30 and 40 percent of union membership.
It seems the right is making its own hay out of the changing demographics of the country.
This is happening everywhere in the West. It is much easier to blame immigrants for the lack of jobs or housing or crowded schools than it is to figure out how to deal with the powers that be.
So a lot of people turn towards these self-defeating ideas that they can solve their problems by closing off borders and sending people back, or by keeping Muslims out.
We have the potential to have a phenomenally different kind of labor movement. It is going to be different from anything we have ever seen in the United States, or pretty much anywhere else, for that matter. That is, if we have a multicultural, multiracial labor movement that is larger and is growing and is taking advantage of the new terrain that we just talked about.
A common tactic used by business is whipsawing workers against one another, using non-union areas of the country against union-dense areas. I am thinking of Boeing and South Carolina. Boeing got from Washington State the largest subsidy ever given to a company in the United States. And yet they still sent all those jobs to South Carolina, which also provided them with massive subsidies. How much of a hindrance has the inability to organize the South been for labor?
The answer is massive. This goes all the way back to the end of the Second World War, and the amount of manufacturing value-added that was produced in the South just grew until the ’80s.
The amount produced in the South continues to grow a little, but it has more or less leveled off. I have some ideas why.
If you look at the auto parts industry, for example, in the last 10 or 15 years it has dramatically reorganized, one of the most dramatic reorganizations of any industry that I have seen. You have many fewer companies, and those that remain have gotten bigger.
The bulk of them are in the Midwest and not in the South. A huge percentage of them are actually in Michigan. Of course, they are nonunion.
So I am not saying that the South is not important. You won’t crack manufacturing until the South is unionized. These big corporations do whipsaw. But given the new structure of these industries and the logistics revolution, there is a possibility of counter-whipsawing.
Say you have a union drive at a South Carolina plant and you want to cut off production there, to force management to recognize the union. My guess is that you can find suppliers, if they are unionized or can be unionized, whether they are in the South or Midwest, that can strike and close down that plant.
Given the rise of these tight new logistics systems, unions can counter-whipsaw by closing down suppliers or even the transport links, and thereby starve management at these Southern plants into submission. That would require the cooperation of many different unions—but they have to begin thinking about that if they are ever going to organize the South.
Amid the sound and fury surrounding the RMT’s strike on Southern Rail, one name is gradually emerging as having played a crucial role in having ensured the action went ahead: Peter Wilkinson.
Mr Wilkinson is managing director of passenger services at the Department for Transport (DfT).
The RMT says that last week it was “within an inch” of reaching an agreement during talks at Acas. This account is backed by unnamed “sources” who told The Times that a deal had been “within touching distance” but that Southern’s negotiators had suddenly pulled out of the talks at about 4pm on Friday, leading to the collapse of the talks.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT can confirm that we were within an inch of making progress towards boxing off a deal with Southern in Acas talks on Friday afternoon that was based on the offer from ScotRail, an offer that enabled us to suspend all industrial action in the ScotRail guards dispute.
“We were just getting into the detailed wording when suddenly the plug was pulled and our legs were kicked from under us.
“We have it on good authority that the deal, which would have enabled us to suspend the Southern strike action this week, was sabotaged by the Government with their director of rail, Peter Wilkinson, directing operations from outside the talks.
“We are now taking our protest direct to the DfT.
“We want the Government to stop weaponising the Southern dispute for political purposes and we want them to stop treating passengers and staff as collateral damage in a war that Peter Wilkinson has unilaterally declared on the rail unions.”
It appears to be the case that Wilkinson (paid £280,000 per year) intervened to instruct Southern’s parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway, to reject the deal.
Earlier this year Wilkinson told a Tory public meeting in Croydon:
“Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,”
“I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them,” he added.
“They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards.
“They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.
“They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”
From the US rank-and-file trade union magazine and website Labor Notes
Where’s our economy headed? Soon every factory worker will have to start driving for Uber, and the trucks will drive themselves—at least so the business press tells us.
But Kim Moody, co-founder of this magazine and the author of many books on U.S. labor, paints a different picture. Chris Brooks asked him to cut through the hype and describe what’s coming for working people and the opportunities for unions.
This is Part 1 of our interview with Kim Moody. Watch for Part 2, coming next week. —Eds.
Labor Notes: We read a lot about the “gig economy,” where workers cycle through multiple jobs using app-based companies like Uber, TaskRabbit [for everyday tasks such as cleaning or moving], and Mechanical Turk [for online tasks such as labeling images]. Is this really the future of work?
Kim Moody: One thing to notice is that, aside from outfits like Uber, most of these are not employers. They’re digital platforms where you can find a job.
The apps are not determining the hours and pay, or even the technology used on the jobs. It’s still employers that are calling the shots. So if jobs are getting worse, it’s not because people can find them digitally as opposed to reading them in the newspaper.
Also, discussions of the gig economy often assume that suddenly there are all these people who are multiple job-holders. But the fact is that the proportion of the workforce who have more than one job hasn’t changed much in 40 years.
The vast majority of them are people with regular full-time jobs who are also moonlighting, which is a very old thing. There are a lot of multiple job-holders, but there have always been a lot of them.
There’s also been talk of the “1099 economy.” Are we really moving towards a future where 40 percent of workers will be freelancing?
The idea that freelancers can become 40 percent of the workforce is science fiction.
There are two kinds of self-employed. The greatest number are the “unincorporated self-employed,” or independent contractors. Their numbers have been dropping for years.
The other group, the incorporated ones, are people who run a small business. They have grown somewhat, but they are still just 4 percent of the workforce.
You argue that the “gig economy” and “precarious work” concepts miss the mark because they don’t get at the most concerning change: the rise of the crappy-job economy. Can you talk about what’s changed for workers and why?
The first change is work intensification. Work has gotten dramatically harder in the last 30 years or so, and continues to.
That’s happened through lean production, which reduces the amount of labor to produce the same or greater amount of product or service and is tied to just-in-time production. Lean production began in the automobile industry in the 1980s, but now it is everywhere. It’s in hospitals, it’s in schools.
Another aspect is electronic and biometric monitoring, measuring, and surveillance, which allow employers to see how to get more work literally out of each minute. Another aspect is that the amount of break time has fallen dramatically since the ’80s.
Whether you are working full-time or part-time, in a precarious job or not, chances are you are going to experience some of this.
The other side is income. Wages have been falling since the early 1970s. More and more people are actually working for less, in real terms, than they used to. This also impacts everybody, although part-time and precarious workers are likely to get paid even less than full-time people.
And if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for the fastest-growing jobs, millions of new jobs over the next decade or so, 70 percent are projected to be low-skill, low-pay jobs.
In other words, we are not heading for some big high-tech economy. Instead we are heading for a low-paid workforce with crappy jobs. The end of good jobs is nigh.
While app-based “just-in-time” gigs have gotten lots of media attention, far less attention has been paid to “just-in-time” production. Can you talk about why massive logistics hubs have emerged, and what they mean for union organizing?
In order for globalization to be efficient, low pay isn’t necessarily enough, because you have to move products from one location to another. That required a change in the way products are moved—the “logistics revolution.”
The time it takes to deliver a product to the point of sale is an important factor in competition. Like production, transportation now operates on a just-in-time basis. Products move faster.
The speed of trucks, planes, and trains did not change. What did was the way things are processed. Goods don’t stay in warehouses very long. Products arrive on rail and are cross-docked and moved out by truck in a matter of hours. This process has really only taken shape in the 21st century.
You might think, “Well, this is all very high-tech.” But it turns out that it still requires thousands and thousands of workers. In the U.S. there are 60 of these clusters, but three stand out: the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Los Angeles and Long Beach port area, and Chicago. Each of these employs, in a small geographic area, at least 100,000 people.
Now, the whole idea of outsourcing back in the 1980s was to break up the concentrations of workers in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Gary. But what these companies have done now, inadvertently, is to recruit incredibly massive concentrations of manual laborers.
It has evolved in a way that might shoot these companies in the foot—because here you have the potential to organize vast numbers of poorly paid workers into unions. And there are attempts to do just that.
The other thing is that these clusters are tied together by just-in-time systems—which means you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of points in the transportation system that are highly vulnerable. If you stop work in one place, you are going to close down huge areas.
Media commentators and even presidential candidates blame the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs on trade and outsourcing. You’re skeptical. How do you explain it?
Outsourcing, if it is in the U.S.—which most of it has been—can break up the union, it can be very inconvenient to the people who lose their jobs, but it doesn’t necessarily eliminate jobs in the U.S. The jobs are just moved to a different, lower-paid group of workers.
Offshoring is another thing, but it’s not as widespread as people think. While moving production abroad has definitely impacted certain industries like steel, textile, and clothing, it cannot account for the loss of jobs we have seen. I estimate that between a million and 2 million jobs have been lost since the mid-’80s to imports and offshoring.
Manufacturing output, from the 1960s to just before the Great Recession in 2007, actually grew by 131 percent; the manufacturing sector more than doubled its output. If everything was going abroad, you couldn’t possibly have that kind of growth.
How can this be? I believe the answer lies in lean production and new technology, as we talked about earlier. Productivity literally doubled, and manufacturing jobs dropped by 50 percent or more. It’s the productivity increase that explains the loss of jobs.
It is very difficult for politicians to deal with this question, because it means attacking employers. It means saying, “You are taking too much out of your workforce.” And of course since most economists, politicians, and experts think that productivity growth is a wonderful thing, it’s beyond criticism.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the future of automation. Former Service Employees President Andy Stern has been making the media rounds claiming that driverless trucks are going to replace millions of drivers.
You can sell a lot of books with this pop futurology. It reminds me of the great automation scare of the 1950s. It was popular then to make predictions that there wouldn’t be any factory workers left.
And automation has reduced the number of factory workers, but there are still 8 or 9 million of them lingering around—despite all this technology, which is much greater than anything they predicted in the ’50s.
I have a shelf of books predicting “the end of work.” And yet we have millions more workers than we used to—the problem being that they are worse off than they used to be, not that they don’t exist.
There’s more! We also asked Kim Moody about workforce demographics and outsourcing to the South. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Read more: Everyone in this auto parts plant was a temp—until they all joined the union and threatened to strike.
Read more: The Cargo Chain is a beautiful poster/pamphlet that maps out how ship hands, longshoremen, truck drivers, railroad operators, and warehouse workers move goods across North America.
Unite votes to stay a union: defence workers and McCluskey give ‘Marxists’ a lesson in Trade unionism
Johnny Lewis reports from Unite’s policy conference:
The first big debate of Unite’s conference concerned Trident: conference was confronted with a number of motions, calling for scrapping Trident now and an Executive Statement which argued for opposition in principle to nuclear weapons but; “Unite does not and never will advocate or support any course of public policy which will put at risk jobs or communities. Although in favour of defence diversification “Until there is a government in office ready, willing and able to give cast-iron guarantees on the security of the skilled work and all employment involved, our priority must be to defend and secure our members’ employment”. This Statement was passed overwhelmingly and with it the motions calling for trident to be `scrapped now’ fell.
For the union leadership and the defence workers this debate was not really about trident but the very character of the union, it is fair to say this character was encapsulated in the Statement and in particular no support for policies which `… put at risk jobs or communities’. The resolutions opposing the Statement with their demand of ‘scrap now’ violated that idea of a union’s function. If such a resolution had been passed, while it would not have materially effected defence workers’ jobs, it would have signalled support for a policy which put jobs at risk, and the union would, to use the words of one of the speakers, have “abandoned us”.
Although victory for ‘scrap now’ would have had no material impact on jobs it would have had a very real impact on the union’s unity. Large numbers of defence workers would have left and at best joined the GMB (at worst joining Community or leaving the movement altogether), and who in their right mind could blame them? I don’t think those arguing to ‘scrap’ got the implications for the union – until McCluskey spelled it out in his closing remarks.
With one or two exceptions those opposing the Statement were white collar, from outside manufacturing and from London, while supporters of the Statement were largely manual workers from the industry and from outside of London. This division mirrors Brexit and has been observed within the Labour party. While it is clear the vast majority of the ‘scrap now’ support can be characterised as Corbynistas it is not possible to clearly pigeon hole those supporting the Statement except to say they saw themselves as trade unionists rather than political animals and a majority would not see themselves as Corbyn supporters.
The main problem for the ‘scrap now’ speakers was how to argue a position which if passed would have meant the union’s abandonment of the Trident workers. Unable or unwilling to confront this conundrum they ignored it, speaking in general terms and in equal measure about diversification and the need to support Corbyn – of course the most zealot Corbynistas where those outside the party.
Both these points were easily dealt with by the defence workers: on diversification they pointed out that the ‘scrap now’ advocates were substituting the potential to develop diversification which had been opened up by Corbyn’s victory with the present situation where there are no diversification blueprints and even if these existed the Tory Government is not going to implement them. The diversification argument existed simply as a prop to enable scarp now to avoid arguing there real position `scrap regardless’ of the impact on members or on the union.
The Corbyn argument was of a different order: here the ‘Marxists’ came into their own, and the broad sweep of history and grand strategies alighted on the shoulders of the Unite conference.
Their line of argument went something like this: Unite supports Corbyn; failure to support ‘scrap now’ would be a failure to support him and so give a hostage to Labour’s right. On the other hand supporting ‘scrap now’ would be a massive boost to Corbyn’s struggle in the party and by default the movement which has gathered around him. Needless to say, this missed the mark by some many miles.
If the Corbynistas are a broad socially liberal movement, the self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’ within it should want to move beyond liberalism and build a class-based movement which by definition must include the defence workers. Indeed, building a class movement will largely depend on how far the left wing of the Corbynistas can turn it outward and proselytize among workers such as those in the defence industry. The supposed ‘Marxists’ in this debate provided a master class in how not to build that movement. Most striking was the unintended consequence arising from combining ‘scrap now’ with the Corbyn struggle in the party: the effect was to reduce defence workers to pawns to be sacrificed in the great game that is the left vs right battle within the Party.
That approach illustrates the complete failure of these ‘Marxists’ to recognise the division between the economic and political, and within this division that unions are primarily economic entities. A consequence is these people continually push unions to adopt programmatic demands appropriate to a party rather than a union. In this instance asking conference to supress the union’s core function of defending member’s terms and conditions in pursuit of a political goal, the only possible result was to further repel the defence workers from the left and Corbyn.
The real tragedy in this vignette is that until now the only serious work undertaken on defence diversification has been that of defence industry workers. Now a Corbyn labour party can build on that work harnessing the workers in the industry, their unions and party to formulate diversification blueprints. This approach was central to the Statement:
“Unite commits to campaigning to secure a serious government approach to defence diversification… and urges the Labour Party to give the highest priority to this aspect in it considerations.”
We have then a platform which can not only develop diversification policies but also a process where defence workers will be exposed to the ideas of the left opening the possibility of winning them over to socialism.
Apart from the decisive victory the debate itself was well run and a joy to watch as the defence workers and McCluskey, provided the ‘Marxists’ with a lesson on what is a trade union and how it should function. I hope (but doubt) they will have learnt their lesson.