"Proletarian Astonishment"

Submitted by Anon on 25 September, 2005 - 3:40

Pat Yarker reports on the AWL’s day-school for rank-and-file trade unionists

“Actions that aim only at securing peace between employers and men are not only of no value in the fight for freedom, but are actually a serious hindrance and a menace to the interests of workers. Political and industrial action direct must at all times be inspired by revolutionary principles. That is, the aim must ever be to change from capitalism to socialism as speedily as possible. Anything less than this means continued domination by the capitalist class.”

Tom Mann (1856-1941) quoted by Trevor Griffiths in his screenplay Such Impossibilities about the 1911 Liverpool dock-strike.

Two sacked workers from Gate Gourmet were among the seventy union militants and activists meeting in London at the AWL day-school for rank-and file trade unionists for September 17. We had come to discuss the key issues for us: how to fight privatisation and “partnership”; how to support independent trade unionists in Iraq; how to use new technology to mobilise solidarity; how best to win decent pensions. But first we were reminded of what we are up against.

“On the day we were sacked the management brought in bouncers”, explained the Gate Gourmet speaker. He went onto explain that the early shift, including at least one pregnant woman, were imprisoned in the canteen for over eight hours by these people. Access to toilets was denied.

One by one workers were eventually forced to hand over their identity cards and locker keys before they were able to leave Gate Gourmet. They have been unable to claim unemployment benefit. A rumour persists that T&G negotiators may opt for a settlement which will not re-instate every GG worker.

Pat Murphy from AWL, also speaking in the opening session, said the Gate Gourmet dispute showed the best and worst of British trade unionism. The walk-out by BA baggage-handlers and other staff in support of fellow trade-unionists in the same workplace was in the best tradition. Their action was necessary and effective, showing the power organised workers can have. The campaign for positive workers’ rights, including the right to strike and to take solidarity-action, must be revitalised.

But the crucial need for rank-and-file union-members to retain control of their own disputes is also demonstrated by the Gate Gourmet dispute. Without this, it seems now clear that a bad settlement will be imposed.

To combat the danger of defeatism in the broader struggles of the trade union movement we need an alternative political vision. As Chris Hickey put it, we need to argue for a workers’ government, able to legislate on behalf of the working-class and to organise society in its interests.

Houzan Mahmoud from the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq talked about the situation for Iraqi workers, including how the political Islamists are targeting workers and union activists for slaughter.

Pauline Bradley spoke about the work of Iraq Union Solidarity, including for the emergency motion backing independent trade union rights and women’s’ rights passed at TUC Conference.

The other workshop I attended heard from activists in PCS, NUT and RMT discuss tactics employed in recent disputes. The value of good preparation, constant communication with membership, unity with other unions if possible and readiness to act alone if necessary, as well as the ability to hold the line were all stressed. Unfortunately the unions have been lacking in these respects over recent years.

Such day-schools enable activists from a variety of unions to pool experience, deepen analysis of current and recent disputes, generate new campaigning strategies and show solidarity with workers in struggle, all in preparation for renewed activity in the workplace. They remind us of the historical background to our struggle, and of the need to work with both hands: the trade-union and the political.

John Moloney, a PCS national executive member, was one of the speakers who summed up the day. He said he had been asked to speak with some “proletarian anger”. He was not sure if he had that, but he certainly had plenty of “proletarian astonishment”. He had been shocked, he said, at the poor level of strategy in his own union — where the supposedly Marxist left controls the leadership. Where is the strategy to stop civil servants losing 100,000 jobs? Nowhere. The left is not prepared to take a lead. If we can’t even trust the supposed left to have the ideas and the courage, all the more reason for socialists such as the AWL to concentrate on building rank-and-file-control over the leadership and over the policies of the union.

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