Category Archives: trade unions

Funding cuts in Oxford next year: The Breakdown

This post is written by Sean Ambler of Workers Power and is taken from the Anti-Cuts Oxford blog, which can be found here: http://oxford.anticuts.com/

Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities face devastating funding cuts to their budgets for the next academic year. Teaching at Oxford will face a 12.16% cut in real terms (9.1% in cash terms), while Brookes will face 3.74% cut in real terms (0.37% in cash terms). This means that there is a shortfall of £8,333,000 for Oxford University teaching funding in real terms which to maintain current standards will have to be found by the university from elsewhere. Brookes’s equivalent figure is £1,141,000. If the universities are unable to find funding for cover this gap the student experience will decrease massively, meaning large class and tutorial sizes, less lectures, and less academic staff time for assisting students individually. For staff this will mean redundancies, pay cuts or freezes (real terms pay cuts) and high workload. For those wanting to enter academia it will mean the possibility of a total or near total hiring freeze by the Universities, meaning many will either join the dole queues or have to switch trades.

The Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE, http://www.hefce.ac.uk) have today released the figures for education funding for academic year 2010-11. Overall the budget has gone up in cash figures slightly by 0.4%, but with inflation running much higher this is actually a severe cut (Consumer Price Index at 3.5% and Retail Price Index at 3.7%, also these are government figures which are known to often underestimate real inflation).

Oxford and Oxford Brookes have both had a slightly higher total funding increase in cash terms than the national average, but this is still a severe cut overall.I will discuss the implications of this later, but first here are the figures and the percentage changes (some worked out by myself using figures from this year compared with the upcoming one).

Oxford University:

Teaching 2010-11: £60,195,000

Teaching 2009-10: £66,211,000

Teaching percent CUT: 9.1% in cash terms (12.16% when you include inflation at 3.5%)

Research 2010-11: £126,036,000

Research 2009-10: £119,434,000

Research percent rise:  5.53% in cash terms (a less impressive 1.96% increase when including inflation at 3.5%)

Total 2010-11: £188,131,000

Total 2009-10: £187,450,000

Total change: 0.36% in cash terms increase, 3% in real terms decrease with inflation at 3.5%

Oxford Brookes University:

Teaching 2010-11: £36,384,000

Teaching 2009-10: £36,520,00

Teaching percent CUT: 0.37% in cash terms (3.74% when you include inflation at 3.5%)

Research 2010-11: £4,273,000

Research 2009-10: £4,290,000

Research percent cut:  0.4% in cash terms (3.76% cut when including inflation at 3.5%)

Total 2010-11: £42,556,000

Total 2009-10: £42,516,000

Total change: 0.1% increase in cash terms however this is a  3.29% in real terms cut with inflation at 3.5%

The totals include research and teaching funding, but also other types therefore do not match up. See HEFCE website for more complete figures, although calculations will be required to figure out changes between years.

Conclusions

While surprisingly there has been research increases at Oxford University, the overwhelming trend here is negative and especially on the core teaching which is what students get from universities. The move towards research shows the government see universities as having the role of providing research for business rather than teaching for students.

Students and staff at both universities need to organise to resist these cuts. At both universities it will be possible even without the government altering these figures (which we should also demand) for cuts to be stopped. This also doesn’t require the cap of fees to be lifted as the Oxford Uni administration is pushing for as the money is already there, just misspent. The number of senior managers at both institutions with wages above £100,000 is ridiculous – we’re writing a post on this which will appear soon. If all management that earns these ridiculous sums had a pay cut to £100,000 or better yet £50,000 then it is clear these funding cuts would not be necessary.

These figures mask something however – other sources of funding. Oxford has millionaire and billionaire alumni who donate vast sums to the university, and it’s investments provide large dividends. It can weather the storm if it chooses to. Our job is to make sure it does! But for Brookes the situation is different and while cuts are by no means necessary or inevitable it is less able to weather the storm using other sources of income. We therefore demand that as a matter of emergency the government increase funding to Brookes to prevent the social catastrophe that cuts might cause to the staff and students at the university.

Both universities are likely to attempt to use these funding cuts to reduce staff pay, and Brookes is likely to make cuts (Oxford uni clearly prefers arguing for higher fees while attempting to maintain staffing levels – although may well cut too). The reason for the governments cuts is ultimately the debt they gained by bailing out the bankers. The question therefore is: Who will pay for the crisis? Our answer has to be: Those who caused it, not us! Profitable banks should be nationalised without compensation to pay for those that were bailed out. There should be ban on bonuses to bankers and a strict pay limit including mass reductions for those earning six-figure and higher salaries. Higher tax bands should be increased. This will provide the necessary funds to reduce state debt while still paying for all our current public services including education, without having to raise the cap on tutition fees (which could also be abolished).

Our task is to ensure this happens. Our fight is first with the university management but also with the government – victories on a local level can force the government to raise funding nationally. When cuts are announced we will argue for UCU and UNISON to ballot for strike action and for students to support them. If the universities cut we will raise the question – who decided this? Where is the democracy when unelected management has control over our education? We will take all necessary action, inspired by campaigns at other universities such as Sussex, to prevent cuts and fees and to democratize our universities. In Oxford this means demanding mass congregations open to all staff and students.

We can win! Leeds UCU strike has won the concession of no compulsary redundancies already before the HEFCE figures were even announced! Join the campaign: OCCUPY! STRIKE! RESIST!

All views expressed in this post are by the author and not necessarily the position of the campaign.

SWP: Bring Loftus to account

CWU president addresses union rally

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).

Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action – that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week – had widespread support within the union” (November 14).

Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out – indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.

Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.

Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.

There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.

As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.

Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers – sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.

However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.

SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden – a Reesite Left Platform supporter – has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.

I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.

Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).

Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

Militants condemn sell-out

selloutAbandoning postal strikes in the run-up to Christmas is at best mistaken, writes Jim Moody

Did they jump or were they pushed? No doubt various factors exercised the leaders of the Communication Workers Union in deciding to abandon last week’s scheduled strike action.

As the CWU’s postal executive committee discussions and negotiations with Royal Mail were in closed sessions, we may never know the full facts. Nor is the CWU’s national executive committee forthcoming. But despite the pious promises made in return for the CWU calling off the strike action, postal workers have been placed in an impossible position, and their struggle to secure their long-term future has basically been abandoned by their so-called leaders.

Concessions by Royal Mail are minimal. Its promise to negotiate on job security is by no means a guarantee that there will be no redundancies or even no compulsory redundancies. It was certainly far from sufficient reason to call off a strike when the employer was at its most vulnerable, as Royal Mail was when faced with being unable to deliver a sizeable chunk of the Christmas post.

Worse, many unagreed changes locally imposed by management ‘executive action’ – enforced switches in shifts and delivery rounds, for example, not to mention the ‘temporary’ transfer of mail centre work to ‘out houses’ staffed by casual labour – remain in place. In response branch officers are talking about requesting authorisation for fresh local strikes.

When it comes down to it, general secretary Billy Hayes and deputy general secretary Dave Ward have achieved what they have been suggesting to management in speeches for months: we can call off the strikes if you give us something we can sell. One member of the NEC told me that there was a distinct lack of clarity within the union at all levels on the aims of the strike anyway.

Management has therefore not had to give very much away: Hayes and Ward declared themselves amenable to compromise if management would only show itself in similar colours. That is why some of the reasons put forward for the sell-out are more likely erroneous than not. For example, some have suggested that management might have threatened to press on immediately with derecognition of the union, something that a secret Royal Mail plan did envisage.

Or perhaps the Broad Left minority (eight out of 28 voting members on the NEC), the more rightwing Effective Left (dubbed ‘Defective Left’ by opponents), plus unorganised members – erstwhile militants almost to a man and woman – on leading CWU committees wanted to abase themselves before New Labour to bolster its fading electoral fortunes rather than do the job they were put in place to do: represent the interests of CWU members. As it happens, most of the Broad Left members of the NEC are on the telecoms side.

But neither of these two scenarios appears likely to union militants. They consider it much more probable that union leaders felt they risked losing control of the strikes if they continued with them. To get more than paper concessions from Royal Mail it would have been necessary to escalate the action, without doubt. This would have involved ceding control over the day-to-day running of the strikes to the mass of the members, who would have needed to organise picket rotas, solidarity appeals, etc. without the involvement of national bureaucrats.

Nonetheless, abandoning strikes in the run-up to Christmas, Royal Mail’s busiest time of the year, is at best mistaken and at worst a treacherous turn by CWU leaders. Both sides are well aware that comparatively few items of post are delivered in January, which is the earliest that the union’s leadership expects to contemplate further action, should it deem necessary. And why would it not be necessary, since management promises to negotiate can simply come down to reiterating previous positions on job losses and speed-ups? Having lost its purchase by abandoning strikes now, the union faces an uphill battle against a bellicose foe in the new year. Is it more likely that postal workers would rather fight now or after the Christmas break? No-one can in all seriousness suggest the second, if they want the workers to win.

One militant postal worker to whom I spoke told me that the mood in the workplace is roughly, “What the fuck are we going back to work for?” As days go by, this is settling into a ‘making the best of a bad job’ attitude. He said: “It’s a sell-out masquerading as something else” – an assessment that is still to be disproved. Nonetheless, postal workers do intend pushing the promises about local arrangements in the interim agreement as far as they can – and even further.

Of course, the biggest worry about the November 5 interim agreement among the membership is whether it represents a truce or a surrender. Many militants thought that involving the TUC would mean an immediate cave-in by the union; in the event, it took the CWU leaders a week to come up with the interim agreement with management.

Local industrial action by postal workers was the engine that propelled the union bureaucracy into calling national strikes: first one-day affairs, then a planned, but now aborted, couple of days as we started into November. The evident militancy fuelled by the mass of members’ anger over Royal Mail’s destruction of jobs and speed-ups (euphemistically labelled ‘pace’ in the recent agreement) now has nowhere to go, given the demoralising effect that the leadership’s action will inevitably have had.

Despite calls from some far-left groups for the union membership in the localities to restart the strike under its own control, the absence of rank and file organisation within the CWU means that such calls cannot be fleshed out in any meaningful way. There is no network and no organised debates at any level about the rights and wrongs of the action being taken. No-one, apart from those making the calls, sees this happening. This is a national issue.

The same goes for officially sanctioned local actions (which in any case will clearly not be approved by the NEC). At present, most lower-level union officials at the regional level fully support the interim agreement, so they form a barrier that extends down from national level to any attempt by local union organisations to take back the strike as their own on a large geographical base. Even cooperation across London, which led the way in militancy during the local strike wave earlier this year, is hampered by this regional lethargy.

While the sole Socialist Workers Party member of the national executive, vice-president Jane Loftus, has pitched up at meetings and in articles to promote the strike, there has been hardly a squeak out of the two national executive members who are members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Gary Jones and Bernard Roome. But maybe their silence is because of the extreme compartmentalisation within the union that favours bureaucratic manoeuvring by full-time officials. Telecoms members of the NEC are, after all, not expected to interest themselves (or ‘interfere’) in disputes involving the postal side. On the face of it, this obstacle to internal solidarity is in massive contradiction to the solidarity in the rest of the working class movement that postal workers ought to expect as their right in their current struggle.

What the interim agreement does do is pass things back to the localities on a bad basis. They will be left to their own devices, rather than being part of a nationally organised dispute. Local negotiations may have been reinstated, which is all well and good, but how long will they continue and what can they achieve in terms of binding agreements? The interim agreement calls for fortnightly reviews of progress over the next five weeks. Of course, five weeks takes us close to the end of December, which is pretty convenient for management. If anything goes awry by the end of this period of the cessation of hostilities, then we shall be into a stage when Royal Mail is already breathing easier, having finagled a solution to its Christmas delivery problem.

As for the most important questions concerning job losses and speed-ups, the interim agreement has only platitudes to offer. One paragraph reads: “This agreement between Royal Mail and the CWU, reached under the auspices of the TUC, provides the basis for a ‘period of calm’ free of industrial action, during which the parties are firmly committed to work together intensively, to reach agreements that will enable further change and modernisation to be implemented from the beginning of 2010 onward.”

So “modernisation”, though given a different content by management and the CWU, is accepted by both sides. The words “change and modernisation” have a deadly ring about them for the mass of postal workers, however, for they have seen where they have already led: the loss of many thousands of jobs.

It is pretty clear that Royal Mail has sewn up what for it is a great deal in order to buy time – a most valued asset. Management must be cock-a-hoop. At the end of the local review discussions that the agreement document lays down management can quite easily revert to its former positions and again bully, victimise and call for ‘pace’.

By settling for a period of no strikes on the basis of mere promises the union leadership has forfeited any real leverage. None of the CWU leaders who have spoken to meetings of union reps since the interim agreement was announced have dared to suggest that it has been accepted because of the union membership’s weakness or lack of resolve: this has clearly not been the case. There has been no trace of any drift back to work in the course of the strike.

It may not be exactly a perfidious leadership that has brought this dispute to the pretty pass it has, but the inability of rank and file members to bring leaders to heel by organising themselves independently has taken its toll in allowing the bureaucrats free rein. Unless postal workers organise themselves independently of their officials, they will be unable to change this state of affairs – or inspire other workers who, make no mistake, will also be in the firing line.

Royal Mail’s assault and our political tasks

As expected, attempts to broker a deal between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union have been unsuccessful. Mike Macnair examines why Royal Mail, encouraged by the government, has been determined to push ahead with confrontation, and looks at the implications of this decision

cwu-demoA Sunday Times front-page headline reads: “Brown faces winter of discontent” (October 25). In other words, this is not the only industrial dispute in the pipeline at the moment. There are a whole range of them expected to come to a head in the next six months.

There is a risk – one that would not be at all surprising, as it is normal to the British political cycle – that the last months of this Labour government will be characterised by large-scale industrial disputes and substantial disruption. This will therefore see an increasing degree of support for the Tories from suburban middle class voters due to the perceived lack of Labour control over the trade unions. Certainly the Tories are already winning a substantial number of votes. Nonetheless, the fear of a “winter of discontent” is plainly an element in the calculations of the government in relation to its attitude toward the current postal dispute.

The media are producing their usual outpouring of anti-strike propaganda. In particular it is said that Royal Mail is habitually losing money – surprise, surprise! Most postal services across Europe are subsidised. Even the early privately owned Thurn und Taxis postal service back in 17th century Germany had to have state-backed monopoly rights, for the very simple reason that a profit could not – and still cannot – be made without them. A universal postal service is, precisely, public infrastructure. Privatising the postal service or requiring it to make profits is like selling off the public highways in pieces or prohibiting public expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ repairs to roads and bridges.

It is true that the universal postal service is, in some senses, of decreasing use because people have turned to email and other forms of electronic communication. The same has been the case in relation to businesses for quite some time: private couriers offering same-day delivery were used for some time before fax and email became routine.

So there is lower demand for postal services than there has been in the past. The government has been looking for ways to undermine wages and conditions, drastically reduce its pensions commitment, casualise the workforce and hopefully even get rid of the universal service obligation. This assault is aimed at creating conditions for privatising the postal service – government subsidies would be withdrawn without too much worry about the major losers: people living in the countryside.

There would actually be some losses for business out of this policy. Who will deliver all the junk mail – probably the bulk of most post bags these days? Equally, online mail order operations like Amazon could suffer, as it is unlikely that private couriers could actually deliver with the same coverage and at the same price.

The government and its servants in Royal Mail management demand ‘modernisation’. What this actually means is not primarily automation. That claim is bullshit. What it means is a major speed-up, attacks on working conditions and a move to, in effect, piece work, resulting in people not getting paid for a full shift. The language of ‘modernisation’ is merely code for a huge attack on the workforce.

Provocations

In reality there has been industrial guerrilla warfare in Royal Mail locally for at least four or five years. Certainly there were major disputes going on in the more militant sorting offices as far back as the last general election. It was clearly decided in the spring/summer of this year to bring this simmering guerrilla warfare to a head, and have a massive, national confrontation with the CWU.

I say ‘clearly decided’ because it is obvious that in the last six to nine months there has been an escalation of unilateral action by management in the form of provocations, victimisations, etc. Actions that can only be intended to trigger local action and a climate of militancy, leading to a massive vote in support of industrial action. It is equally clear that management (and behind them business secretary Peter Mandelson) intended, as Thatcher and co intended in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, to control the timing of the national dispute. Here the point is if possible to break the union before we get into the Christmas run-up, which is the peak of the mail service business.

Similarly Thatcher aimed to bring out the miners before the overtime ban had reduced the coal stocks to the point where there would be forced power cuts. These tactics have been reflected in the political sphere, with absolute and complete intransigence on the part of Mandelson. And with Mandelson’s unequivocal backing, the Royal Mail management has stood firm to its assertion that it will not go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service without a pure and unambiguous guarantee from the CWU that there will be no strikes. But  the CWU could not deliver this even if it wanted to, because most of the industrial action has been local, over which the national union has less direct control.

Of course, this is not all one-sided. The CWU executive is generally seen among the membership as a militant leadership, and it, too, has been using the period of local and guerrilla struggles to prepare for the larger struggle which has now arrived.

What we have seen in the last months in relation to this dispute is therefore the run-up to a major class confrontation just like in 1984-85. There is an intention in government – at least among Peter Mandelson and his co-thinkers – and among Royal Mail management, to have a big confrontation and inflict a massive defeat on the CWU workers similar to that of the miners’ strike. This is expected to knock on the head any serious industrial militancy in the next six to nine months, as it will be an object lesson to other unions and other workers.

It will also be an object lesson in a second sense. The Labour government will demonstrate to capital, and to the capitalist media, that they are a safe hand on the tiller, that it is possible for a Labour government to smash an industrial offensive of the working class before it gets off the ground, and therefore capital should leave Labour in place rather than back Tory leader David Cameron.

The bourgeoisie has its concerns over Cameron. Yes, there is at the moment massive support for the Tories. Yes, the media have been backing him. But there are worries about how safe Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne will be as managers of the economy, at a time when quite a lot of media commentators are worrying about when the second shoe is going to drop in relation to the economic crisis.

There are also worries that a Cameron government might tip relations with Europe so far into Eurosceptic territory that Britain can no longer build alliances to block further EU integration. This is a central part of the role Britain plays for the United States in Europe: controlling a possible global rival by building alliances against Franco-German integration proposals.

So there are reasons for the capitalist class to have concerns about a Cameron administration. And if the Labour government can show, in these circumstances, that it can break a substantial public sector trade union, derecognise it and casualise its workforce, then Labour might, from that point of view, be in with a chance of regaining some of its lost bourgeois and middle class support prior to the next general election. There are, then, clear political calculations why this government might be thinking about doing a ‘Thatcher on the miners’ job in relation to the CWU.

Labour Party

In discussing the government’s policy I have referred particularly to Peter Mandelson. The reason is not merely that he is the relevant minister, but that there are indications that Gordon Brown is rather less up for a full-on confrontation (see Financial Times October 24); the failed TUC-sponsored talks (without the precondition demanded by Mandelson and management that the strikes be called off) represented a slight retreat by the government.

Behind this is a fundamental political fact. For Thatcher to set up a major class confrontation with the aim of breaking the National Union of Mineworkers was ‘extreme’ from the point of view of the 1940s-70s, but perfectly consistent with the longer historical role of the Tory Party. For a Labour government to actually smash one of its own major affiliated unions in a major national class confrontation would be something different altogether. Rather than allowing Labour to retain power, it would be more likely to break up the Labour Party. The result could be a split by the unions and the left, or – as in the 1931 fall of the Labour administration and the formation of the National government – a party revolt, leading to a split of the right to join up with the Tories to force the confrontation through.

True, the current Labour government since 1997 has faced down trade union action more than once (for example in the case of the firefighters). But in general the workers’ movement had not responded in a militant way. What appears to be different this time is the willingness of the movement to fight. A major conflict between the government and the CWU would pose severe problems for the Labour Party, that is for sure.

If Brown does back down from an all-out confrontation, it will be presented by the media as yet another Brown U-turn. Brown’s reputation for dithering not only reflects a hostile media, but is a real phenomenon. Unlike cynical careerists such as Blair, Mandelson and co, Brown was a genuine convert to neoliberalism from the left; hence, the 2007-08 crash shook his convictions and left him rudderless in policy terms. If Labour does go ahead with a major attack on the CWU, and the result is not a major split in the party, we in the CPGB will certainly need to reassess our current judgment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party: the event would look like the party finally ditching the ‘workers’ side of the contradiction.

But, whatever exact diagnosis we make, if the government goes ahead with plans to break and derecognise one of the Labour Party’s major affiliated trade unions, this will be a fundamental shift in politics and in particular of Labour Party politics.

Our tasks

post workers picketI have no idea why CWU general secretary Billy Hayes let himself be reported as saying he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill was (The Times October 17).

True, strike action has received very clear majority support in a ballot. But the actual underlying sectional economic positions are if anything weaker than those of the NUM in the 1980s, and the ability of the postal workers to sustain their internal solidarity in relation to a furious media offensive is likely to be less than the miners. The miners lived in concentrated communities, had networks of solidarity outside the pits in place, and indeed, as a workforce, were highly concentrated. Postal workers are concentrated only in sorting offices, but atomised when out on the streets. So the actual position of the CWU is relatively weak in the purely trade unionist, sectionalist-syndicalist sense of its ability to disrupt the economy.

However, this situation is to a considerable extent general in the service sector (and, indeed in some industrial sectors dominated by highly automated plant with small workforces). In this sense in future disputes the CWU will indeed look like a union with strong sectional power. But this is entirely consistent with my fundamental point: namely simple reliance on ‘industrial muscle’ – ie, sectional ability to disrupt production – is decreasingly adequate as a strategy to defend working people’s immediate interests.

Even if the sectional strength is less than Billy Hayes’ Times interview suggested, the possibilities of the strike winning broad public support are real. Precisely because of the increasing atmosphere of class confrontation in the dispute, because of the intransigent alignment of the government behind Royal Mail management and because we see the unanimity of the bourgeois media behind ideas most clearly expressed in the Daily Mail headline, “The lemming strike is on” (October 22), there has been some public reaction against the capitalist united front. We are beginning to see some, inchoate, inadequately politically represented, support for the postal workers. A poll reported in The Independent on October 24 showed 50% supporting the postal workers and only 25% supporting management and Mandelson.

So where does that leave us? It looks like we are headed for a major class confrontation with a serious and unambiguous effort to break the CWU, and thereby give an object lesson to the rest of the trade union movement, in the hope of preventing a “winter of discontent”.

What should the political left be doing? There are two sorts of task: simple solidarity ones, and those that are specifically political. The first of these are tasks that the labour movement and left will probably do well in spite of divisions and disorganisation. Raising the issue in other trade unions, getting CWU speakers to meetings, organising solidarity campaigns and support groups, collecting for strikers in hardship and so on. Promoting the idea of solidarity action: thus, for example, in Unite the question of instructing the managers not to scab has been posed.

The Socialist Workers Party is therefore entirely correct to advocate the rapid formation of strike support groups, which can play a critical role in mobilising public support and solidarity. There is also the question of international solidarity. Even if this is only symbolic in character – as, in this dispute, it inevitably is – such international solidarity would strengthen the morale of strikers and assist the struggle for broader solidarity within Britain.

A specific task lies in the student movement, because traditionally students have been recruited as casuals by the Royal Mail. We must agitate against students acting as scabs – this is an issue to be raised, addressed and spread. Indeed the general attitude towards scabs is critical. Casualisation is already extensive in the Royal Mail, partly inevitably because of the seasonal nature of the business. Nevertheless it is vital to get across the message that during this dispute taking casual jobs is scabbing. This is partly a job for the student movement; but it is also a job for strikers themselves: the movement needs to revive the basic ideas of non-cooperation with scabs, and that picket lines mean don’t cross. And it is also a job for PCS members working in job centres and so on: scab ‘casual’ jobs in Royal Mail are not ‘normal’ jobs to which the unemployed should be sent and PCS members should refuse to fill them.

Political tasks

The other aspect, where the far left is traditionally much weaker, concerns specifically political tasks. The far left is bad at these because they are the tasks of a party. Solidarity campaigns are necessarily broad movements of all those of whatever political complexion who wish to support the strikers. Hence they necessarily find it hard to address the politics of the strike.

For example, there is an early day motion opposing Royal Mail management’s intransigence, etc. Has your local Labour MP signed it? If not, why not? If your local Labour MP is supporting ‘modernisation’ and all that crap, perhaps it is time that his/her constituency office or surgery should be besieged by strikers and their supporters.

This sounds like a solidarity campaign-type action. But actually it turns out that broad solidarity organisations find it extraordinarily hard to undertake campaigns to besiege scab Labour MPs or whatever, because the Labour lefts and the trade union officials would be unwilling to pursue them. Stop the War Coalition in the 2005 election is an excellent example of the problem – it was unable to make any recommendation on who to vote for. Even in the 1984-85 miners’ strike this issue was posed, as the union leadership was very reluctant either to enter on the terrain of politics itself or for the support groups to do so.

What was said above about the Labour Party means that an absolutely central issue is the question of sharpening the divisions between left and right which a major confrontation with the CWU will inevitably produce. Parts of the left will undoubtedly call for the CWU to disaffiliate from Labour. But at the moment that would be a counsel of retreat and a road to depoliticising the union: neither ‘son of No2EU’ nor any of the other left groups and ‘unity projects’ presently represents a realistic alternative electoral project. What is immediately needed is for the CWU to adopt a tactic of reducing general financial contributions to Labour, targeting any support on Labour MPs and candidates who have backed the strike, and also being willing to back selected workers’ movement candidates outside Labour; if this leads to the party leadership seeking to remove affiliation, the union should fight back.

In other words, the requirement is not (yet) to run away from the Labour Party, but to promote and sharpen a fight both within and outside it against the most pro-capitalist wing of the party.

Equally important is explaining both the character of what is going on, that it is a class confrontation motivated and driven by politics. That is a task for a Communist Party, for communist papers, and for leaflets addressing the broad masses in the districts where they live. The far-left press and the splintered groups do part of these jobs, but we are too limited by our divisions and the left press and leaflets often restrict themselves to basic trade union solidarity – the Morning Star as a daily is closer to having the resources, but prints only what suits leading union officials.

Strike support groups cannot substitute for these tasks, for the reasons already given. Neither can the splintered organised left and the even more splintered ‘independents’. A coalition of the far left could begin to do some of them. In doing so such a coalition would be beginning to act as a party. But for the moment most of the far-left groups fetishise either their own independence as ‘the revolutionary party’ (all 57-plus of them); or ‘broad unity’, which leads to an inability to take political action because it has to include some element of the ‘official lefts’; or both at the same time. So, as valuable as a far-left coalition for the purposes of political solidarity with the postal workers would be, it probably will not happen.

CPGB

Realistically, the CPGB cannot play this role either, because of our very limited resources. We can and should argue for Communist Students to campaign for students not to scab on the postal workers: a campaign which could be conducted in unity with other left student groups and could be very successful. Our contacts, through Hands Off the People of Iran, with the Iranian workers’ movement, can and should be used to promote symbolic international solidarity with the strike.

More generally, what we can do is largely limited to the use of the Weekly Worker, with which we can propagandise around the idea that solidarity has to be more than just hardship support and agitation in the trade union movement; that solidarity has to address the politics, the MPs and the political context of the strike.

The paper also needs to make an effort to contact CWU militants in the localities and get their stories. In spite of the fact that this is something the whole of the left is doing, in the context of the bourgeois media overwhelmingly giving the management and government version of the story, low-level exposures of the provocations management has been engaged in is a useful activity. We need to develop more and broader contacts across different localities, and get the information into the paper.

Equally militants and the left need information about the political alignments within the CWU and about what is going on in the dispute at national level. Are the far-lefts, some of whom sit on the CWU national executive, acting as communists or merely as trade union officials? We need to try to get the information and publicise it.

Across all this, the fundamental point is to use all the resources we have to try and develop the sense of the political context of the dispute, its significance and the question of solidarity of the working class as a whole with the strikers.

Form strike committees, build strong picket lines

postal-strike

Today it is the jobs and conditions of postal workers that is on the line, writes Jim Moody. But if New Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems have their way, it will be all of us on the chopping block tomorrow

Backed to the hilt by the state, Royal Mail’s aim is to crush the postal workers’ strike and destroy their union. This has become ever clearer during the last fortnight. So, as the first two days of national strike action begin, rank and file workers are faced with the challenge of how to fight for their jobs and save their union from annihilation.

With 120,000 Communication Workers Union members having had the opportunity to vote for strike action, the massive 76% in favour is decisive. A resounding success for those in the union who have hammered away in the localities, building the strike movement piecemeal. Certainly that was the only way that the union’s leadership would counternance holding a ballot for national action. Far from becoming dissipated or dispirited by the time it has taken for the leadership to get its act together, militancy has grown by leaps and bounds at the ground level.

By now we all know how vile the management of Royal Mail is. Exposed by Newsnight a week ago, Royal Mail’s secret document Dispute: strategic overview clearly lays down management’s intention of continuing to implement a policy of undermining the CWU’s role in labour relations. Even going so far as to consider the possibility of removing it as the recognised trade union. If union bureaucrats do not play ball – and at present the membership won’t let them – then Royal Mail plans to institute a “programme of reducing relationship with union.”

As a first stage to derecognition, the document advocates taking away union representatives’ current rights to carry out their duties during work time (‘facility time’). In addition the provision of meeting spaces for the CWU in local offices will be withdrawn. Royal Mail has also made it clear that it will carry through plans that will decimate the workforce and increase the work burden of those who remain employed, all “with or without union engagement”.

Royal Mail has provocatively cancelled a planned campaign sponsored jointly with the CWU, Ban Bullying Week. As the CWU says, it has done this just when management bullying and harassment are causing more and more problems in the workplace. One of many examples followed the introduction of computerised Geo-Route plotting of postal walks and drives: when it failed to live up to the hype, it was the man or woman on the ground who got blamed – despite the many warnings from the union that the system was unworkable.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Royal Mail is more than happy to see its customers suffer through strikes. It estimates that this will undermine its employees’ stand against cuts, by eroding public support. So they will be beaten back to work in defeat – or so senior managers imagine. As Royal Mail’s hitherto secret document makes clear, “demonstration of commercial impact of dispute – strikes make things worse – the more we can demonstrate this to our people, the better.” In effect Royal Mail is saying that the more business it loses, the better.

Readers will know that Royal Mail wants to recruit 30,000 scabs. Ostensibly they are being brought in to deal with the backlog that the series of local one-day strikes has resulted in, though it is arguable whether this is legal under industrial relations legislation. The scabs are to be used after Royal Mail refused to allow postal workers to do overtime work: CWU members could not possibly be allowed to ‘benefit’ from their strike action by receiving a meagre time and a third in overtime to clear the backlog.

Equally bellicose has been unelected business minister Lord Mandelson. He has clearly expressed the Labour government’s position: Royal Mail has to be ‘modernised’ at the expense of jobs and conditions. So there is no point looking upon the government as some kind of ally, despite the CWU contributing handsomely to the Labour Party’s coffers over many years. True, there is a wide body of support for the CWU coming from backbenchers, including in the form of early day motion 2035. Nevertheless it is hardly surprising that many CWU members are incandescent with rage over a Labour government which is in effect egging on a management attempt to break their union.

Royal Mail might have offered to take part in arbitration to avoid the strikes this week. But that was simply a publicity stunt: its conditions were that the CWU roll over, call off the strikes and begin negotiating away jobs and working conditions. Rightly the CWU has rejected this out of hand. Royal Mail has simply refused to go for arbitration in all but name. It wants confrontation. However, why should workers be forced to accept what Acas decrees is reasonable? It is not exactly a surprise that such establishment bodies tend to favour … the establishment – in the guise of a compromise settlement.

Despite Royal Mail manoeuvring and clear intentions to break the union, Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary, seems to be banking on Acas. He insists that the CWU “remains available for talks”. However, he says, any third party involvement,  needs to be on “an entirely transparent basis” with a “joint intention of reaching an agreement” (www.cwu.org).

The problem with all this is that it leaves rank and file postal workers around the country as passive onlookers. There is also the danger of a rotten sell-out. So strike committees need to be set up, giving the rank and file its own input into the aims, running and termination of the dispute. Local strikers will push forward new, energetic and popular leaders and they obviously need to lead local CWU organisations for the duration of what looks set to be a long and bitter struggle. Local strike committees are especially needed when faced by a strikebreaking force of 30,000 scabs. They are equivalent to a quarter of the CWU membership. There should be no cooperation with such casuals in between strikes, and strong picket lines should be imposed on strike days.

The CWU and CWU strike committees would also be well advised to learn the lessons of the 1980s miners’ and printers’ strikes and organise hit squads to persuade strike breakers not to scab. Obviously such bodies do not organise themselves and certainly the idea of them needs first of all to be popularised.

CWU militants are aware that the union leadership is, even at this stage, looking for a cosy compromise rather than winning the fight against the imposition of speed-ups and job losses. For Hayes and co what matters above all is that management is imposing, not consulting. Of course, rank and file members are right to insist that management must negotiate with their elected representatives. But they must remain vigilant against what is an inevitable tendency of union bureaucrats to settle for a less bad deal when their members are under attack.

Of course, most postal workers have taken part in local strikes precisely because they damned well do not want any more job losses. Somewhere around 50,000 have gone already in the last two years. Enough, they say, is enough. It is true that for the ordinary CWU member every day out on strike means a day without pay. Not that postal workers are well paid in the first place. But if Royal Mail, New Labour and the Tories have their way, they will be even more poorly off in the future. These workers have known for months that they have to make a firm stand. There can be no more acceptance of vicious attacks lying down.

Collections for the postal workers at workplaces and elsewhere are important. But more is needed. Supporters must be encouraged to join picket lines outside sorting offices and distribution depots. PCS members at job centres must not help recruit scabs for Royal Mail, and student groups and student unions should launch a campaign to stop their members from taking temporary postal work while the dispute lasts. Public sector workers and their unions should also be brought into active engagement with the postal workers. That means delegations, resolutions and above all a refusal to cross picket lines or in any way strike break. Joint days of action would be a real boost too. The attack on the postal workers is a precursor for what all three main political parties intend to do. Cuts, cuts, cuts. Pension holes, alleged overmanning, etc, will all be used to break other unions, push down wages and force through speed-ups.

The state machine is already preparing for combat. According to one report, “The Association of Chief Police Officers … said that it was closely monitoring the situation and had issued guidance to forces on dealing with large-scale strike action. Each police force is assessing and reviewing the implications for public disorder that might arise from industrial action” (The Guardian October 17).

It is up to the rest of the working class to give solidarity to the postal workers. But in order to make this really effective we must generalise this dispute and give it a political form and content. We must challenge Royal Mail and its right to manage; we must challenge New Labour and the Tories and their cuts programme; we must organise our own combat party with a programme that can link our day-to-day struggles with the perspective of a new society that replaces the capitalist imperative of profit with the communist principle of production for the common good and distribution according to need.

Victory to the postal workers!

788coverPostal workers have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action. Jim Moody gives the background in this article written for the Weekly Worker shortly before the ballot result was announced

Postal workers are preparing to step up their fight against Royal Mail’s proposed redundancies and speed-up following the expected overwhelming vote for industrial action due to be announced on October 8.

Such has been the anger against the threat to jobs and conditions that the leadership of the Communication Workers Union, Billy Hayes, Jane Loftus and the so-called Broad Left, had no choice but to give official sanction to local strikes during the three weeks of polling. In just the last 10 days before voting closed, one-day official strikes shut numerous delivery offices around the country – from Coventry to Looe and from Middlesbrough to Ely – as well as across London.

Royal Mail has seen backlogs of undelivered mail build up to such an extent that it has had to rent warehouse space near major depots. Nonetheless, management has made it clear that there will be no overtime available (paid at a measly 33% above normal rates) to clear the backlog, because it does not want postal workers to “benefit” from their industrial action. Sod any purported public duty that Royal Mail might have to actually deliver the mail, of course; Royal Mail is deliberately drawing out the delays in an attempt to erode public sympathy for the postal workers.

The local action since April was part of the build-up towards a national ballot for a strike. As summer came into view, CWU leaders made it clear that once local actions started to involve a majority of the membership then they would issue the ballot call. Now that its 121,000 members have had the chance to express their opinion in favour of industrial action it will be up to the union’s leadership to decide what to do next.

Militants are not expecting an immediate strike. It is thought that leadership noises initially will be about Royal Mail coming to the negotiating table. However, if this does not produce a positive response it is likely that a series of national one, two or three-day strikes will be called. Despite their obvious militancy, postal workers are not at present busting a gut for a costly all-out, indefinite strike. That can, of course, change, depending on how CWU leaders act and how Royal Mail responds following the ballot. An initial, nationally coordinated one or two-day strike may be all very well as a warning shot. It may also serve to boost morale. But above all members must be presented with a winning strategy, part of which must include a willingness to launch indefinite action.

It has been a common criticism within the union that the leadership unnecessarily delayed the strike ballot – there was, after all, local action aplenty almost from the beginning. But the fact that the CWU felt obliged to rubber-stamp continued requests to make local action official is indicative of the rank and file members’ intransigence. As a result, local strikes have played an important role in strengthening resolve. They have shown that postal workers are prepared to take on Royal Mail over redundancies and conditions.

Anger reaches beyond Royal Mail and its plans. There is a real mood for punish the New Labour government by breaking the link with the Labour Party. Unelected business minister and de facto deputy prime minister Peter Mandelson, was vocal in March, pressing for a 30% Royal Mail sell-off in return for the government taking on its £8 billion pension deficit, as well as guaranteeing a continuing universal postal service. Faced with widespread opposition in the labour movement, including amongst Labour backbenchers, the government backtracked, but it clearly remains an aim of the New Labour leadership cabal.

Understandably hostility to Labour, the party of government, has grown and grown. Last month there was a consultative ballot of the CWU’s London membership. A crushing 96% voted in favour of ending affiliation, though some pro-Labour union militants have questioned the conduct of the poll, especially the way ballot papers were processed by branches. Nonetheless, the mood is unmistakable.

At the Trades Union Congress in Liverpool, the CWU proposed a motion calling on the TUC general council to “convene a conference of all affiliated unions to consider how to achieve effective political representation for our members”. It was defeated by around three to two. The motivation was clearly a questioning of the link with Labour. This was something that most union bureaucrats were unhappy about discussing, even if the CWU had been forced, however reluctantly, to put it on the TUC’s agenda by rank and file pressure.

The CWU’s motion to the TUC and the London consultative ballot has been triumphantly reported by the Socialist Party in England and Wales. According to The Socialist, it shows the need for “a new workers’ party” (The Socialist September 30). For some this means the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, for others Respect, Scottish Socialist Party, Convention of the Left, Solidarity or some other dreadful halfway house. However, many CWU militants did not see it like that. Amongst those behind the motion were members of the Labour Representation Committee. Their intention, doubtless prompted by the anger amongst CWU members, was that the trade union movement as a whole should be given the opportunity to discuss all the issues surrounding the political representation of the trade unions. They certainly wanted to answer those calling for disaffiliation.

However, while there is this groundswell of antagonism against Labour, there is nothing viable on offer as an alternative. Under those conditions calls to ditch the Labour link are in effect calls to depoliticise the CWU and restrict its activity to the purely trade union sphere. This is not something that Marxists should support.

At this stage we should be demanding that union leaders withdraw their blank-cheque backing for Gordon Brown: finance to Labour should be made dependent on the party agreeing to a set of minimum conditions, including a pledge to ditch privatisation once and for all, an end to the current government-backed Royal Mail offensive on jobs and conditions, and protection of hard-earned pensions for all workers. In the meantime support should only be offered to those Labour candidates prepared to accept key union demands.

As might be expected, neither of the two fringe meetings the CWU held at Labour Party conference in Brighton dealt with affiliation. But strangely neither did they deal with the most important issue: the current dispute with Royal Mail. It was something that CWU militants in Brighton challenged. And, as it happened, around 200 striking postal workers from London delivery offices attended the September 27 demonstration outside the Labour conference.

In actual fact, the CWU leadership’s silence about the dispute is symptomatic of its lack of a strategy. It desperately wants negotiations with Royal Mail to get a deal and hopes that the large majority for strike action will be a big enough stick. Unfortunately, CWU leaders are not sharing with the members their thinking on what happens afterwards. If they get to negotiate, the biggest danger for postal workers is that they will sell at least some jobs in order to settle the dispute.

This much has been clear from the start, when union leaders complained that Royal Mail was intent on sackings without consulting them. Their objection seemed not to be job losses as such: just that they needed to be carried out voluntarily after due process. For our part, we do not oppose new technology and ‘modernisation’ per se: we demand that working hours should be cut and pay and conditions improved as a result of more efficient working methods. However, the union leadership hopes to use the ballot result to pressure Royal Mail into negotiating a ‘compromise settlement’ where jobs and working conditions will be exchanged for peanuts.

This is at variance with what has motivated postal workers to go on strike again and again and to vote ‘yes’ to national action. As far as most of them are concerned, their efforts have been directed quite definitely at saving jobs. Not at doing a deal with Royal Mail that involves not sacking quite so many as it would have liked.

Most disturbingly, elements of the left that are to be found within the CWU, largely SPEW and Socialist Workers Party members, have not produced any workable strategy either. They have left such things to the union bureaucrats, with the predictable consequences that we see them making things up on the hoof. There is no challenge from these sources to the current line of the union.

It is crucial that the autonomy achieved by local CWU branch activists in mobilising for local action in the current dispute be built upon. The industry is crying out for rank and file organisation. But most of all we need to encourage postal workers to move beyond the limits of trade union demands into the sphere of politics.

CWU members must be won to fight for a political programme based on working class independence, extreme democracy and genuine internationalism – ie, to the programme of Marxism. Unless workers’ militancy is accompanied by a fight for a party that champions such a programme, even in the most favourable of conditions it cannot hope to achieve more than partial, temporary gains.

In other words, a break with Labourism must be the aim, not with Labour.

The Unison monkey trial

Onay Kasab, Unison branch secretary in Greenwich, is one of four members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales targeted by the union leadership for having signed a critical leaflet at the 2007 annual conference. Alan Stevens spoke to him…

784coverThere is clearly a witch-hunt against sections of the left in Unison. What happened in your case?

There had been an increasing trend at recent Unison national conferences whereby more and more resolutions were either remitted to the incoming executive or were simply ruled out of order by the standing orders committee (SOC), thus preventing any debate over the issues they raised.

By the 2007 conference this had reached one third of all resolutions submitted. This included motions on full-time officials’ pay, the election of full-time officials, the union-Labour Party link, control of industrial action and the national pay campaign. Four branches, including mine, put their names to a leaflet that year that was critical of the lack of democracy these exclusions highlighted and that urged delegates to attempt to get them back on the conference agenda. Such a process of interventions to refer issues back is a normal part of conference.

However, in our case it has resulted in disciplinary action against myself, Glenn Kelly, Suzanne Muna and Brian Debus. It is on two counts. Firstly, an unbelievable accusation of racism for using the well-known Buddhist proverb of the three wise monkeys to caricature the SOC. It was later accepted there was no racist intent, but allegedly we caused offence. The other accusation is that we questioned the integrity of the SOC by asking in the leaflet, “Were the motions ruled out of order because they were contentious?”

So the SOC are godlike and cannot make mistakes or be questioned?

Judging by the standards used against us, absolutely. And what this is about is putting people off from questioning decisions made by the SOC. The normal democratic procedure was that prior to the presentation of their report to conference the SOC was open to challenge and this often happened in a far sharper way than in our leaflet. When the SOC’s final report went to conference, delegates would then decide whether to accept it.

In our case we raised a question and after a two-year investigation have suffered disciplinary action. This has now set a precedent that to question whether motions have been ruled out of order for the right reasons is a disciplinary offence that can lead to members being barred from office.

Some on the left, whilst offering support, have suggested that the leaflet was ill-judged. Do you think it was?

No. Of course, in retrospect you would be daft to say you would do it exactly the same way, as it led to a witch-hunt. But I don’t think anybody could have looked at that leaflet and foretold that it would lead to accusations of racism.

In fact the leaflet was circulated to branches and was handed out at conference for days, including by black members, without any criticism at all. Many black members have since said they are outraged that the issue of racism could be so misused. So, I really don’t accept that the leaflet was ill-judged.

Some members have said that you should have taken account that the chair of the SOC was black, or anticipated that the leaflet would cause offence. However, I think this highlights a problem with ‘official’, institutionalised anti-racism – it can turn into its opposite – a sort of inverted racism, where you are meant to mollycoddle people because they are black. What do you think?

I think the issue of race is being misused to witch-hunt members of the Socialist Party. One delegate got up at the conference and said that she was offended by the leaflet, that it was comparable to Bernard Manning and was something that should have died with him.

I think that’s wrong. However, I can’t question whether she was or was not offended, so at the time we decided to apologise for any unintentional offence we may have caused. We were blocked from doing that to the whole conference, but we did submit apologies to the SOC and the national black members committee.

However, we did not accept that it was reasonable to find the image racist. I have some sympathy with your point in the way it links in with how the union has investigated this. They say that whether it was reasonable to find the leaflet offensive is irrelevant. What is relevant for the union is that someone said they were offended and that this is sufficient to take disciplinary action against us. Even the employers I deal with when representing members will look at whether something is reasonable or not.

This raises another problem – the idea that you must not offend someone. Why not, if there is a good point to be made?

Well, sometimes I have offended people and I’m not sorry for it. However, I would not wish to racially offend anyone – hence the apology.

But if we are looking wider than that I’m sure I regularly offend local councillors about things they need to be offended over and I make no apologies for it. I think as trade unionists and socialists we are going to offend people and we are often not going to apologise.

In the case of unintentional racial offence, whilst I think an apology is warranted, an investigation into any complaint should examine firstly whether offence was caused, secondly whether it was reasonable to be offended and finally whether or not disciplinary action is justified in the particular circumstances. In our case we didn’t even get to stage two. An investigating officer decided there was offence and that was it: we will be disciplined.

What is frightening for union members is that, based on this decision, along with not being able to challenge the SOC, a precedent is potentially being set that if any member criticises the leadership they are going to get done either for questioning their integrity or for causing offence.

And all they have to do is find one individual who is offended.

Absolutely.

Originally there were five accused, but it quickly came down to only the four SP members. Was the Socialist Party singled out?

The fifth was Matthew Waterfall, the Hackney branch secretary, who is not a member of the Socialist Party. He gave evidence at the investigation, the disciplinary hearing and at the industrial tribunal that he had more to do with producing the leaflet than either Glenn Kelly or myself. It was produced in his branch. Glenn and myself approved the wording over the phone and didn’t see the image until later.

However, the union dropped the allegations against Matthew and decided to send him on anti-racism awareness training (which they haven’t arranged yet). I think they couldn’t exclude him initially, as he was secretary of the branch that produced the leaflet and played an obvious role in it. However, they later came up with an excuse to sideline him so they could focus on a witch-hunt against members of the Socialist Party.

Two of you have been barred from office for three years, one for four years and the fourth for four years. Why the different punishments?

I think the union’s logic is that Brian Debus as chair of Hackney branch had a greater involvement in the leaflet and got five years, Suzanne Muna got four years because she drew the cartoon, and Glenn and myself got three years because we had less involvement than the others. I’m guessing that is the logic – it wasn’t explained.

You all lodged an appeal, which had the effect of holding the suspensions in abeyance until the hearing. However, you then instituted proceedings at an industrial tribunal. Why resort to the courts?

Well it’s one of a number of tactics in our campaign. We are also calling for mass opposition from the membership, more organised and widespread protests and lobbies and using the internal processes within the union (although that is quite limited – we are not allowed to discuss it in branch or stewards’ meetings, which, of course, makes it difficult to organise). The legal action runs alongside that.

We have no faith in the union’s internal appeal process – in fact, I’d go so far as to say I’d get a fairer hearing from my own employer. Unfortunately, we are also likely to get better justice from the capitalist courts than our own union, which is an appalling position to be in.

The union has not even followed its own rules so far as the process is concerned and our protests have been ignored. In addition we gave comparator evidence, pointing out, for example, that the union had actually used the three wise monkeys image itself, but that too has been ignored. There is also the timing: we don’t want to wait until we are suspended and hope to use the courts to prevent that. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the union is more likely to listen to a court ruling than to its own members.

We are making use of legislation to argue that we are being discriminated against as a result of our philosophical beliefs, which are manifested by our membership of the Socialist Party. It is a tactic available to us and I see no reason not to use it.

What all this reveals is that unions are a reflection of capitalist corporations, with appointed, paid officers on salaries and benefits equivalent to company executives. They control the union like a company and there is very little real democratic involvement of the members – which, of course, is what lies behind your leaflet.

Yes.

A criticism we have of most of the left is that they are too content to entrench themselves within the bureaucracy and do not properly address the fundamental weakness at the heart of the trade union movement: the lack of rank and file organisation. So, for example, the membership is not in revolt over this witch-hunt.

There are obviously weaknesses. So far as the bureaucracy is concerned, I think it varies from branch to branch. In my branch we do not simply rely on the usual meetings and means of contacting members, but try to engage with them around issues that concern them and take these up with their employers. For example, campaigns around cleaners and catering workers have led to many of them becoming active in the union.

However, at a regional level the full-time officials are extremely remote and can’t see any possibility of a successful fight. If these officials actually attended meetings with the active membership they might have a different view.

So far as our campaign against the witch-hunt is concerned, we have members who wanted to protest immediately in a number of ways. The most negative way was to leave the union and we have had to fight to keep them. There are others who wanted to occupy Unison headquarters. However, that would likely result in them being thrown out of the union, so we’ve had to talk them out of it.

Of course, there would be nothing better than not having to rely on the law and to be able to use the union’s internal mechanisms to get the message out, put our case to get it properly heard. Why has our case not been heard by conference, for example, or taken out to the membership – one of our campaign demands? The reality is, none of that is going to happen.

Where I agree with you is that nationally an awful lot of the membership are remote from what is happening and it is proving to be a Herculean task getting the message out and letting people know what is going on. Contacting other branches is not allowed. In fact, I have been threatened with separate disciplinary action for having contact with members of other branches – and not even over this issue, but when members who never hear from their own officials raised issues with me. I raised their lack of representation in an email to regional level and was threatened with discipline unless I apologised for raising it!

So, yes, I agree there’s a problem: not enough of our members are involved with what is actually going on with the trade union and the wider labour movement. Some branches like my own are in a better position than a lot of others, but there is a massive problem, with the bureaucracy being remote from what is going on at the bottom and I think they like it that way. I was sitting at the TUC headquarters the other day looking around and thinking that for bureaucrats it’s great working here – a million miles from the membership, unelected, no members to criticise what you do or don’t do.

Bringing it back to our leaflet – it won’t solve everything in itself, but it’s why we call for the annual election of all full-time officials with the right of recall. And it’s why we call for workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage – I wouldn’t mind betting half of them wouldn’t do the job if they had the hassle of actually representing workers without the generous rewards that they are getting at the moment.

In more active times it was common for multi-union shop stewards’ committees to represent an entire workforce as a single, united bloc and the union bureaucracies had to accept it. Now most of the left are content to function within the machinery of their own union, representing just their own members. The left needs to unite around a policy of winning back the rank and file democracy we once had.

I agree. The trouble is that once you become a branch secretary like me you become a firefighter and don’t have a lot of time to think about developing the left. In Unison in Greenwich we have a good shop stewards’ network, but I have lost count of the times we have attempted unsuccessfully to work together with the other trade unions. We have suggested joint branch meetings and joint meetings of shop stewards, but it hasn’t happened.

I accept that the left generally needs to make a lot more effort. My experience, having attempted to do it on a small scale, is that I’ve had a very negative response from other trade union branches. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a mood for it amongst the members.

A weakness I can see straightaway with that approach is that you are largely talking to other branch officials or shop stewards, but the members of all these unions know nothing about it. It should be made public, shouldn’t it?

I agree, but it has to be over a particular issue rather than proposing unity in the abstract – for example, the proposal by Greenwich council to set up a trading company, on which all three unions have a different attitude. I think making a public call for a meeting that calls for a joint approach to this would be the way to do it. That’s a local initiative, but I think what goes alongside it is developing the National Shop Stewards Network.

OK, but a weakness of the NSSN is the policy of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of unions. For a socialist it is not the union but the working class that is important, isn’t it?

Yes: in our campaign against the witch-hunt we are asking the wider movement to ‘interfere’ in the affairs of Unison and protest.

And this is not just a problem between unions, but also within them. As I mentioned before, there are attempts to stop you ‘interfering’ with what goes on in another branch, even when there is something plainly wrong. Effectively you are told to get on with your own branch and stay out of anything else – we are not even supposed to discuss it on pain of disciplinary action.

However, we are part of a movement, our movement.

Stop the witch-hunt

Send protest letters to: Dave Prentis, Unison HQ, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ; d.Prentis@unison.co.uk
Send copies to: Defend the Four Campaign, PO Box 858, London E11 1YG; info@stopthewitchhunt.org.uk
Website: www.stopthewitchhunt.org.uk