by Chris Kane
There was uproar at the UNITE London ‘united left’ on Thursday night when any discussion of the Mitie workers’ dispute at Willis was blocked and the sacked UNITE cleaners rep at Schroeders, Alberto Durango, was denied the opportunity to address the meeting.
Two branch officers from the Clerkenwell and St.Pancras Branch of UNITE who have supported the sacked cleaners attended the meeting – the Secretary Monica Gort and the Organiser Chris Ford, and also some lay reps. They came with Alberto a member of the UNITE Cleaners Branch Committee. They attended expecting to secure solidarity from other UNITE activists in London in widening support for the cleaners and to back calls for Asst. General Secretary Jack Dromey to reverse his withdrawal of support for the dispute. The complete opposite occurred.
From the start there was a witch-hunting atmosphere at the meeting, peppered with red-baiting of critics. The shenanigans would have put New Labour to shame. It began with the controversial railroading of a decision to hold elections to a ‘united left’ committee. A slate had already been circulated beforehand which put the named few in their posts for two years!
When the chair outlined the agenda efforts to ensure the cleaners’ dispute was to be discussed were met with a complete refusal by the chair that did nothing to disguise his hostility to the victimised workers and their supporters.
The reasons outlined had nothing in common with what you would expect from a trade union branch, never mind a union broad left which stands for a “lay member controlled, democratic union, which is responsive to the needs and aspirations of its membership, operates in a spirit of open debate, tolerance, and fairness, and opposes authoritarian and dictatorial approaches”.
* First he said he had not been notified in advance by the required two weeks for an AOB item – Monica Gort and Chris Ford pointing out that they had emailed him and other officers: which he denied.
* Then he said there were people at the meeting who disagreed with the dispute, who clearly were given some kind of veto over other people’s opinions.
In fact very few of the six were in fact cleaners! Repeatedly the chair shouted down UNITE reps who wanted the cleaners to be able to report on their struggle, and repeatedly the chair threatened to have UNITE reps Monica Gort and Chris Ford thrown out of the meeting, though in contrast nothing was said to his supporters who levelled verbal abuse at Chris Ford: it took a Socialist Party member to intervene to halt this.
When it came to the agenda item on industrial disputes, reports on the dispute at Visteon, the Rob Williams victimisation and the situation on the London Buses were given extensive time for discussion. During this agenda item Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell MP in particular were also the subject of serious smears over the Visteon dispute by Rod Finlayson, who described “the so-called left-wing MP John McDonnell” whose friends, he noted, were at the meeting. The Chair allowed those attacks to take place without interruption.
Once again there was an effort to get the cleaners’ dispute discussed, the responded this time with renewed hostility stating this was a subject that “should be discussed by people round a table” and that there were six people form the cleaners branch who did not agree with the Willis dispute and attacked a “group of people who had never been at a meeting before who had come along”. The group concerned being a sacked member of the Cleaners Branch Committee and members of other branches. Essentially the rules imposed were if your face doesn’t fit you don’t get a say. Once again there was a threat to have people thrown out who disagreed.
It was only thanks to the assertiveness of a shop steward of the Socialist Party that the issue of the meeting being able to discuss the subject was put to the vote. The vote was lost in what some people said was questionable counting, with 29 for a discussion and 38 against. All of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party comrades voted in a principled manner, one exception being Bronwen Handyside of the United Socialist Party who voted against a discussion! It would appear being a party founded by sacked Liverpool Dockers has no bearing on its membership practices.
The decision of the united left meeting in London was nothing other than a disgrace: it is difficult to see how such people can in any way be associated with the “left” at all. Essentially the broad left of UNITE in London agreed:
* Not to support migrant workers who joined UNITE to improve their working lives and have been sacked as a consequence of their activity as union members.
* Not to support a leading activist of the UNITE cleaners and a Branch Committee member who has been arrested at the employers’ behest and sacked on spurious grounds.
Not only will the united left do nothing to help these workers but it has decided it will not even be prepared to allow them to speak at its own meetings on the subject: it would not even allow its members to debate the dispute.
A section of the united left in London have fallen into agreement with or been duped by the smear campaign emanating from the hierarchy of UNITE against this group of migrant workers who took their union assurances to defend them in good faith.
The majority of the united left in London have forgotten one of the core principles of trade unionism – an injury to one is an injury to all. Trade unionists such as from RMT, UNISON, CWU and others have given solidarity to these cleaners, it is time activists in UNITE got organised and recognised it is these workers who represent the best traditions of our movement not those parroting a hierarchy of rogues and class traitors.