‘right to work’ conference report

by Mark Harrison

On Saturday the 30th of January I attended the ‘Right to Work’ conference in Manchester, organised by the Socialist Workers Party. In spite of the unfortunate title slogan it was billed as “a conference of resistance and solidarity” it was heavily over-subscribed, around 900 people crammed into Manchester Central Hall.

The first to address the conference was Ian Allinson, member of UNITE’s First Executive Council and a senior rep for Fujitsu Manchester, which recently saw the first ever IT strike in Britain. Ian explained that although we may all have had different hopes for the day, we all share the same interests. We were reminded that we are experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there was worse to come, we would be made to pay for it and that resistance is essential. This was followed by a generic bout of populism as Ian finished by attacking ‘the bosses and the bankers’: in reality it is the barbaric system of capitalism that oppresses us all which is the problem and must be replaced by a society in which we all have control of our own lives.

Next to speak was Clara Osagiede, RMT cleaners’ grade secretary who has previously been victimised for her organising work. She said that she was able to get London cleaners a living wage in 2007 with the help of the RMT. The comrade continued that the crisis is global and is widening the gap between rich and poor, with the worst-exposed workers predominantly migrants. Furthermore, now that the popular anger against bankers has passed it is the working class which is being blamed and made to pay. Clara attacked the slogan ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ as racist and gifting a platform to the BNP before reminding us that, “A defeat for one is a defeat for all”.

NUJ vice president Pete Murray highlighted the problem of youth unemployment which stands at 21.4% across the EU compared to 9% across all ages. He also emphasised the importance of a well paid workforce of journalists as, “Words are weapons” and they are needed to keep the police and government in check.

Mark Smith, a former Vestas worker, was greeted with tremendous applause: the struggle of workers on the Isle of Wight was truly an inspiration for many. Although Mark and his colleagues have found it hard without work after the closure of his plant, it is hoped that there will be a new facility built on the island which will re-hire the sacked workers.

Steve Richards, a RMT rep from Newport in Wales had been organising signallers who have been on strike both sides of Christmas over the imposition of rosters, he denounced the anti-union legislation, once of Thatcher, now of Blair and Brown with the comment, “Shame on you Labour Party”. Not originally militant workers, the signallers’ morale had been boosted by the solidarity of workers from far and wide, a picket which started as 4 people in the dark of night eventually grew into a protest 40 strong and the possibility of a national strike is currently being investigated.

Also to speak were Claire Lyle from Glasgow anti-cuts campaign, Simon Englert from Sussex Uni and Tony Kearns, CWU senior deputy general secretary: he from the same CWU leadership who voted unanimously to sell out their membership… there were enemies in our midst and they were given a podium to speak from!

Following the rally I made a short journey to the historic Mechanics Institute with two comrades from the Anarchist Federation and one from Communist Students for a workshop entitled, ‘After BA… Defying the anti trade union laws’. As someone who has recently been re-examining the nature and role of trade unions in capitalism I believed this would be an opportunity to hear militant workers talk of their experiences as well as method of struggle, instead of the totally generic ‘jobs not bombs’ type slogans.

I also hoped to hear the SWP’s analysis of unions considering their positions in national leaderships. The workshop was opened by Charlie Kimber, head of the SWP’s industrial section and Paul Brandon, a London bus worker in UNITE who recalled that in 2008 there was a co-ordinated legal attempt by bus companies which prevented a London wide strike. Charlie assured us that this would be “not just a talking shop”, and commented that anti-union laws were now more repressive than they were under Thatcher and that more workers need to be prepared to defy them, as they did at Lindsey and Visteon.

The main speaker for the session was Linda Bartle, a former worker from Enfield Visteon who explained that on the 31st of March management walked in at the end of a day’s work and the workforce, who left in a daze, were told that they were sacked. The next day when they came back for personal belongings, a door had been left unlocked and they decided to occupy. Kurdish, Italian, Jamaican and Turkish communities came and brought provisions to the occupation, people that Linda had never met before. Linda spoke of how she was intimidated by a UNITE official, who warned her that she could receive a criminal record for her actions. After deciding to end the occupation, the Visteon workers set up a 24 hour picket to prevent the thousands of pounds worth of equipment being removed. Despite paying dues to UNITE all her working life the union refused to help with the legal battle for Visteon workers, Linda ended by saying that the occupation had been a life changing experience which had, “opened her eyes” to groups such as the Socialist Workers Party.

Once the workshop was opened up to the floor most contributors complained that they had to spend as much time fighting against their union as fighting against their bosses and I was interested to hear Charlie Kimber remark that it, “does not matter how good a union leader is”. Other contributions seemed to focus on rank-and-filist type tactics. Despite Paul Brandon’s willingness to form, “A civil rights type movement” which would put pressure on parliament to reverse trade unions laws, a contributor from AF argued that workers should take control of struggles themselves and make strike meetings open to non-union members, mentioning the London Education Workers Network as an initiative to follow.

The final rally was entitled ‘Building Solidarity – Uniting the Resistance’, It was during this that I was surprised to see Joe Gelton present, who I have never seen before in the flesh, a speaker from the SWP also announced that ‘we need to dare to use the word socialism’. Despite also being distracted for most of the ending rally by a black labrador my attention was briefly rekindled by Dave Chapple of the National Shop Stewards Network mentioning something about Big Bill Haywood and proletarian democracy. Also of note was a speaker from the Justice For The Shrewsbury 24 campaign and Juan Carlos of Justice 4 Cleaners who has been victimised for organising cleaners to fight for a living wage, he explained that he was reinstated due to the solidarity of other workers but received no help from UNISON or UNITE and he is a member of both.

At the end of the rally a pre-prepared statement of intent was passed unanimously and it was announced that all 11 amendments had been accepted. Although I was assured by a member of Manchester Permanent Revolution that I was ratifying a dictatorship, we were allowed to vote for a steering committee of 25 although a list of successful candidates has not yet been released.

Follow up meetings are scheduled across the country: it will be worth keeping an eye on further developments.