At this year’s conference of the Communications Workers’ Union the newly elected General Secretary, Derek Hodgson, did the Blairite Labour Government a big favour. He successfully derailed the campaign for workers’ rights that has been built up within the union since its formation in 1995.
The CWU was one of the first unions to discuss, in conference, the Government’s proposed legislation on union rights — contained in the White Paper, Fairness at Work. CWU policy has been in favour of the repeal of the anti-trade union laws and for positive legislation on trade union rights. Union activists have demanded the union campaigned for that policy within the labour movement, and so in recent years the CWU have tabled motions on the total repeal of the Tory anti-union laws at TUC and Labour Party Conferences. The union has also set up a campaign for “Democracy at Work”, supported the Reclaim our Rights Conference this year and the subsequent united trade union rights campaign that emerged from that conference.
However, at this year’s CWU conference a motion — backed by Hodgson and the National Committee of the union — was passed which subverts all of this policy.
At a meeting on the Saturday night before conference Derek Hodgson persuaded the Executive to submit an emergency motion on Fairness at Work. This motion took priority over all other emergency motions submitted on the same subject. Any alternative policy would have to be created by defeating an NEC motion. Other motions included demands for the TUC to call a national demonstration for union rights.
The NEC motion welcomed the White Paper and the increased rights at work it gives but listed a large number of issues the CWU would also like to see in the legislation — including the right to take solidarity action, to discipline non-striking members, and reform of the balloting laws. However the motion represented a watering down of the current CWU policy on workers’ rights and only called for the future repeal of anti-union laws not the total repeal. The motion explicitly said that it overrode existing policy — a policy which heretofore has been used by activists and left members on the NEC to press ahead with action on the issue. The motion thereby handed over the initiative to the leadership. This will be further guaranteed by Hodgson’s place on the Labour Party NEC and the National Policy Forum.
NEC members who supported the union’s existing policy alerted activists to this attempt to change union policy by stealth. We managed to get a lot of support for an alternative emergency motion. The vote was eventually 3:2 in the NEC’s favour.
The vote was won by support from several postal regions. Decisive here was the intervention of a very small, but influential section of the CWU’s would-be bureaucracy. The Secretaries of the Eastern, South-West and South-East Regions all actively campaigned for the NEC line at the conference — even though many of the branches in these regions had backed the stronger union policy. The clincher probably came from the London Postal District Council. After a restricted meeting of area reps branches received a “recommendation” from on high to vote with the leadership. This change of line was not explained, or argued for — it was simply announced. “We’ve been asked to support the executive” was as close to an argument for supporting the anti-union laws as any of the culprits could manage. This dramatic move by the self-styled postal “left”, provided a big boost to the core right-wing vote and ensured that Hodgson won the day.
What has to be understood is that Hodgson did not win by force of argument. The bulk of the genuine centre ground at conference voted with the left. Even hard right-wingers had to admit that despite the chair’s attempt to rig the debate the left still won the argument. The extent to which Hodgson was aware of having lost the argument was evident in his closing speech to the debate. It was a long, mumbled, rambling and incoherent attack on the supporters of this journal and its predecessor Socialist Organiser for daring to campaign for trade union rights. It’s true Derek, we admit it. Marxists want to unchain the unions.