By Jim Denham and Dan Nichols
Socialist Worker claimed that the Respect-organised Organising for Fighting Unions conference on 11 November would be “the biggest unofficial gathering of rank and file trade unionists since the mid-1980s”.
In fact, there were about 600 or 700 people in attendance: nothing to be sneezed at, but noticeably smaller than the Socialist Alliance-initiated conference on union political funds in 2001.
Even according to the Respect website, only a small minority of “delegates” were actually delegated by their union branch or any kind of labour movement body. There were an awful lot of familiar faces: it would not be surprising if over half the participants were members of the SWP. Nonetheless, it was sizeable gathering of left-wing trade unionists and could have been a useful opportunity for discussion and organising — except that:
1. It wasn’t really a conference, in the sense of “conferring”: there was virtually no debate. Each session had four lengthy platform speakers, leaving very little for contributions from the floor. Virtually all the floor speakers were either SWPers, or people who the SWP-supporting chair of the conference, PCS President Sue Bond, knew weren’t going to say anything contentious. No oppositional speakers at all were called until the last session, which as we will describe was run in Stalinist fashion too. Presumably this was to avoid anyone saying anything that would irritate the platform, for instance embarrassing Mark Serwotka by making a contribution about the pensions sell out.
2. It wasn’t really a trade union event: few of the platform speakers had anything of significance to say about the state of the British labour movement, or the way forward for the working class. Instead they wanted to talk about the war in Iraq, Islamophobia, the veil, the wonders of Chávez, the US election results...in fact, more or less anything except trade unionism and the class struggle in Britain. The two noticeable exceptions were Paul Mackney of UCU, who at least attempted to discuss the role of shop stewards, and Andy Snoddy of the T&G’s Organising Unit, who gave a detailed practical description of their efforts to organise migrant workers. Snoddy’s contribution was exactly what the event should have concentrated upon: but there was no further discussion of the issues he raised.
3. The tone rarely rose above “People are angry and the fight back is beginning”. (Particular mention must go to Jane Loftus from the CWU executive — she who on the orders of the SWP leadership saved Blair from a vote of no confidence by her union during the Iraq war — for a rambling, nonsensical and apparently unprepared speech...) The session entitled “Who speaks for trade unionists: the struggle for political representation” was especially disappointing. For a start, there was very little debate on the subject that was supposed to be under discussion (most of the contributions were about Islamophobia and the veil); and the small amount of debate on the subject of political representation was thoroughly dishonest.
The SWP are in favour of unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party, but at this conference they refused to argue for that position for fear of alienating the Labour left - or more precisely, Labour-supporting union bureaucrats, in much the same way that they forego a consistent class-struggle line on industrial issues to avoid embarrassing the likes of Serwotka. An important opportunity for political discussion and clarification was lost.
In the last session, the discussion on the proposed “Workers’ Charter”, when the Socialist Party moved their pro-disaffiliation amendment, the SWP opposed and defeated it not on the grounds that there is a struggle in the Labour Party, eg around the John McDonnell campaign, that every trade unionist should support, but by arguing that it was wrong to take a position. No surprise, then, that they invited McDonnell (the best speaker of the conference by far) not to talk about political representation, but as guest speaker where he could have no impact. No contributions in support of the McDonnell campaign were taken either. Clearly sucking up to the Labour left cannot be allowed to get in the way of maintaining a sectarian line towards the really existing labour movement.
An alternative “Workers’ Charter” proposed by Workers Power (which at least focused on class struggle, but called for an all-out indefinite public sector pay strike and, yes, disaffiliation from the Labour Party) wasn’t even allowed to be discussed and voted on. Perhaps Respect has been attending North Korean “union” conferences to study organisational methods?
Even without the amendment, the “Workers’ Charter” was ridiculous and the AWL comrades present voted against it.
Worst of all, the conference did not set up any ongoing initiative or structures comparable to the delegate conference in the Spring called by RMT “shop stewards” event earlier this month. Clearly the SWP regards the job as done — its foray into working-class politics now completed, and a handful of new trade unionists now recruited to Respect, it can go back to its strategy of radical rhetoric combined with capitulation to “left” bureaucrats in the trade union movement.
By being at the event we found out about a number of important disputes, such as the Fujitsu IT workers in Manchester, and found out more about others, such as the JJB Sports strike in Wigan. But the conference sessions themselves were certainly no contribution towards building fighting unions, or building the unions at all.
• For the text of the AWL’s leaflet for the conference, including our criticisms of the “Workers’ Charter”, see here.