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THE FIRE Brigades Union last week became the first union in Britain to call for a halt to the bombing of Yugoslavia. The annual conference of the FBU overwhelmingly backed a motion from the executive of the union which condemned ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and slammed the NATO bombing campaign. It was discussed two days after a fringe meeting against the war that was attended by around 60 people.
"This war was sold to us as a humanitarian war," said Jim Brown from Essex. "It was all supposed to be over in a few days. But as conference well knows, two days has turned into over six weeks, causing untold human misery for ordinary working class people and making the refugee crisis worse. It has destroyed the forces in Serbia which stood for peace and democracy."
Ken Cameron, the union's general secretary, said, "The bombing is spreading instability throughout the region. There are oil interests at stake in the former republics of the Soviet Union. The pressure for peace is growing around the world. We should add our voice to it." Steve Watson from Cleveland said, "Hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent Serbs have been killed in the bombing."
Neale Williams from London was applauded when he said, "NATO is a military machine used to project US military power. Since the collapse of the USSR the US has been trying to assert itself. Now they are using depleted uranium shells which will cause the kind of long term damage we see from Agent Orange in Vietnam. They always have money for wars but not for working people."
There were other important issues on the FBU's agenda last week. Firefighters face a savage assault on their national conditions. Ken Cameron won huge applause when he said, "We are at the crossroads as far as the union is concerned. I want to say to the employers, it's a strike that you've provoked, it's a strike that we don't want, but it's a strike we're going to win."
The employers, overwhelmingly representatives of New Labour local councils, want to tear up national agreements and move to local bargaining. This would leave 58 fire brigades employing firefighters and control staff on 58 different sets of conditions. It would open the way to further cuts in the fire service and the eroding of the FBU as a national union. Every delegate at the conference knew the union had to stand and fight.
Neale MacPherson from Mid and West Wales said, "I bring a unanimous message from my members-if the employers take us on then we will walk out and not go back until it stops." Speaker after speaker endorsed the call for the first national firefighters' strike since 1977. The conference voted overwhelmingly for an emergency resolution which called on the union's leaders to call an immediate ballot for national strike action if the employers "unilaterally alter national conditions of service".
FBU leaders hope the resounding vote will be enough to make the employers drop the threat to national conditions. But there is no guarantee of that. "This decision should not be used as a negotiating ploy," Dick Duane from Essex told Socialist Worker. "We have to assume the employers are deadly serious. We need to be building for action now, and there should be walkouts if any single brigade is attacked."
DELEGATES WERE far more bitter at the New Labour government than they were last year. The anger surfaced in virtually every debate, in opposition to the Asylum Bill, Labour's inadequate Fairness at Work bill and the war in the Balkans. The conference voted in a closed session to allow individual members to prevent the money they pay into the union's political fund being sent to the Labour Party. It showed just how alienated people felt from Tony Blair.
John McGhee from Strathclyde moved the resolution and told Socialist Worker, "On every station in Strathclyde we have had people saying they do not want to pay money to Labour. "They see New Labour councils making cuts and the government betraying the hopes of working people. Some of them wanted to opt out of the political fund altogether. That would be a mistake because most of the money in the fund is used for the union's political campaigning. The resolution we put means you can stipulate no money to Labour." Ken Cameron fought hard to defeat the resolution, but it was carried overwhelmingly.
by DAVE BARNES, Watford delegate
DELEGATES TO this year's conference of the white collar rail union, the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, faced some major issues. Our leaders' tradition is to seek partnership with management. When Scottish delegates expressed their anger at ScotRail management's appalling treatment of salaried staff, union leaders said ScotRail was a good employer. But the remark caused uproar.
Delegates reaffirmed the union's total opposition to privatisation and Labour's proposals to privatise London Underground through a "public-private partnership". But our general secretary, Richard Rosser, pushed a statement through saying the rail industry will not "be back in public ownership in the foreseeable future and that realistically this will now have to be a longer term objective."
Many delegates expressed their anger at this shift to the right. Throughout the conference the main debate amongst delegates was the war in Yugoslavia. A strong minority of the delegates were won to the need to build a serious anti-war movement. More than 10 percent of the conference attended an anti-war fringe meeting. A motion opposed to the NATO bombing was only narrowly defeated. But not a single delegate argued in favour of the bombing. Jill Murdoch from York appealed to the conference to learn the lessons of the war in Iraq.
The only standing ovation at the conference was for a speech condemning police racism during the debate in support of the family of Stephen Lawrence. A sizeable minority voted in favour of a motion supporting an action programme to defend jobs. Some 30 delegates attended a fringe meeting addressed by Ken Livingstone MP, who was criticised for his support for NATO's disastrous war.
"MANAGEMENT want us to accept legalised slavery. This dispute has become a show of strength between the union and our bosses." That is how Joe Gray, RMT company council chairperson, sums up the growing bitterness and determination of striking rail infrastructure and maintenance workers.
Over 4,000 were on strike last week and there were picket lines up and down the country. Around 35 picketed at Stonebridge Park, west London. Another 30 picketed in Dudley and 25 joined the picket in Birmingham. The strikes hit two privatised rail companies, GTRM and Balfour Beatty.
Management want to attack the workers' pay and conditions. The basic salary of an infrastructure worker is £169 a week, yet GTRM paid out over £18 million to its shareholders last year. Last week's strike was one of a series that began last summer. So far there have been over 30 days of action.
Up until last week the dispute remained solid but very few strikers were involved in picketing. Now there are signs this is beginning to change. Strikers were horrified when they heard that workers at the Rugby and Bletchley depots were encouraged by AEEU union officials to leave the RMT, join the AEEU and break the strike. Half the picket line in Birmingham last week put their name down to go to Rugby to picket when they heard the news.
Workers picketed the Rugby depot on Friday of last week. "We need more pickets like this," said Colin, a striker, "because we all work at different depots it's easy to feel isolated. This is the first time I've felt we could win. If we have to strike again we could easily get three times this number here."
Over the next few weeks infrastructure workers will be meeting to decide what to do next. Activists should demand that the action is stepped up, and the two depots that are scabbing, Rugby and Bletchley, should be the centre of mass pickets. The RMT union leadership should hold depot meetings to bolster the resolve of the strikers. They should also go to Rugby and Bletchley and persuade workers to rejoin the RMT and the action.
THE RESULTS of two ballots for action by workers on the London Underground were to be announced this week. RMT members who work on the Northern Line have balloted for action over the number of union reps management wants at the Morden depot in south London. A second ballot of RMT members is over terms and conditions for those who are to be transferred to the private sector by Labour's plans for privatisation. There was a 48 hour strike over this earlier in the year.
|Picture: JESS HURD
MASS MEETING on the picket line in Hull on Friday of last week
"IT'S AN issue of basic solidarity-and solidarity can win." That was how Keith Gibson, a shop steward in the GMB union, described the magnificent walkout by construction workers in Hull.
The strike began two weeks ago when 350 workers on contract to Ledwood Construction walked off the site of a new power station. By the end of last week management had conceded almost all the workers' demands for better facilities and safety standards.
"There were just eight toilets for over 450 men," Keith told Socialist Worker. "They were also near the cabins where we have dinner and tea breaks. The canteen facilities were a joke. And health and safety were poor as well." "This is the worst site I have worked on in over 25 years," said another steward.
Their managers sacked them after they struck. The Ledwood workers put up a 200 strong mass picket. Over 70 scaffolders immediately refused to cross. They were told they would be sacked, but joined the picket line anyway. Workers for Marley Davenport, another contractor, also refused to cross the picket line. Electricians for the Lightening company told their bosses they would not break the picket line either.
By the beginning of last week nearly 500 workers were on strike and the site had ground to a halt. Pickets blocked the main road, which runs to the docks, bringing chaos to neighbouring firms. The workers held a daily mass picket and meeting to discuss how to wage the dispute. Letters The AEEU union sent letters to its members repudiating the action, but all the workers stood firm.
"Look at this picket. It shows the power that workers have got," AEEU steward John McEwan told Socialist Worker. "This is how the unions can regain strength. Things are moving back our way."
Managements of the companies on site refused to speak to the workers or their stewards. But they did speak to full time union officials and held a meeting with them on Thursday of last week. The stewards caught up with them. "We had to chase managers and union officials round the country," John McEwan told a confident mass meeting the following morning. "We finally caught up with them in Doncaster."
The companies conceded better facilities and a national safety inspection. It was a humiliating climbdown and brilliant victory for a group of workers who were not prepared to wait for their union leaders or stay within the anti-union laws.
Only one issue was outstanding on Monday of this week. Bosses wanted to re-employ all workers from the same date-Tuesday of this week. Months or years of previous service would be wiped off the slate. That could open the door to victimisations later down the line. The policy of "last in, first out," which prevents managers picking who to make redundant, would be meaningless if everyone had the same start date.
Workers returned to work on Tuesday with the start dates issue unresolved. They are keeping up an overtime ban, refusing to work more than 38 hours a week. They are determined to win back their start dates from management.
UNIVERSITY LECTURERS are set to strike next Tuesday. AUT union members in the "old" universities are angry at the way their pay has fallen in recent years and at the increasing use of temporary contracts.
"We are sick at the way that universities are run on casual labour these days," says an AUT member. "If you don't know whether your contract will be renewed or not, how can you dare to get a mortgage? You might not have a job in a year, or you might have to move to get another post. There is also huge resentment at the way student numbers have expanded without extra resources to deal with the situation."
The result of a ballot for action was announced at last week's AUT summer council. There was a 58 percent vote for strike action and a 68 percent vote for action short of a strike. Lecturers have been offered a 3.5 percent rise but are asking for 10 percent. They also want 50 percent of staff who are on temporary contracts to be put onto permanent ones. And they want the gap between men and women's pay in the universities to be addressed.
Next week's strike was set to disrupt exams at many universities. It will be followed by further action, also designed to hit exams. Each local association in the AUT will choose four days in June to do no exam work and four days in August to boycott admissions. On those days lecturers will be boycotting bureaucracy, unplugging their phones and refusing to answer their e-mails. "There were calls at the conference for lecturers to get together and burn the bloody forms," says another AUT member.
Lecturers were building for the strike this week and organising picket lines to achieve maximum impact. "We need to be recruiting casual staff to the union so they can join the strike," says a lecturer in Birmingham. "When we struck two years ago we recruited around 30 people to the union. The strike really raised morale." Lecturers hope that members of NATFHE, who work in the "new universities" (the old polytechnics), will also decide to ballot for strike action over pay.
Lecturers at South Bank University in London voted this week for strike action. Management has derecognised the lecturers' NATFHE union. In response, lecturers voted by 120 to 77 for strike action and by 150 to 48 for action short of a strike. Lecturers were to meet on Wednesday of this week to decide what form of action to take. Management has made some concessions already, but still insists on impossible conditions for re-recognition.
A BALLOT by the National Union of Teachers returned a thumping 96 percent vote for a boycott of appraisal last week. New systems of appraisal are a key element in the government's plan to link teachers' pay to their pupils' results and head teachers' opinions. The vote by members of the largest teachers' union in England and Wales shows that teachers are prepared to fight New Labour's plans to undermine comprehensive education further. Education ministers say the turnout in the ballot was low. But at 36 percent it is higher than in any of the council elections two weeks ago.
Education secretary David Blunkett has already delayed introducing the new appraisal scheme by 12 months. It will now start in September 2000. Current appraisal schemes are not even implemented in many schools. That means the action NUT union leaders have called is very limited.
The vote shows a mood for more substantial industrial action. The recent conference of the NUT called for a ballot for a one day strike this term. That ballot should take place immediately. A one day strike is a form of action that all teachers could collectively take part in. It would also provide a springboard for the kind of sustained action which NUT conference delegates also understood would be needed to win.
TEACHERS IN the NUT union across Tower Hamlets, east London, are balloting for possible strike action against cuts in Section 11 posts. Section 11 teachers are staff with special skills to help children whose first language is not English. Their work helps all children, as it means extra staff and resources in schools.
Thanks to government cuts, up to 20 percent of such posts could go in Tower Hamlets, a borough with a high proportion of bilingual children. The local Labour council refuses to act to guarantee that the jobs are preserved.
ANTI-RACISTS are mobilising in response to serious attacks on Asians in the north of England over the last two weeks. In the Burley area of Leeds, 44 year old Mohammed Shabeer Ahmed was stabbed in the stomach, after being attacked by three racists two weeks ago. Mohammed says, "Before I had a chance to defend myself I was stabbed a few inches below the heart."
Just hours later two more attacks took place in Leeds. A man was racially attacked by thugs in Burmantofts after he tried to stop them stealing his car. In another attack, 12 youths shouted racist abuse at a 23 year old Asian and his pregnant white girlfriend.
In a separate incident in Whitworth, near Rochdale, Nazis tried to blow up an Indian takeaway. The Nazis broke in early on Sunday morning. The walls and grills were spray painted with racist graffiti, including Nazi swastikas and "BNP". A public meeting was due to be held in Leeds this week. Local Anti Nazi League member Niamet Ali told Socialist Worker, "The response has been very good. This area has a fantastic mix. People couldn't believe what has happened."
NEWCASTLE CITY Health UNISON branch has called a meeting in Sheffield this Sunday. The meeting will concentrate on three issues:
Delegations are invited to attend the meeting from UNISON branches around the country.
by a SEFTON UNISON MEMBER
SEFTON COUNCIL housing and council tax benefits staff have been suspended for continuing their industrial action over a regrading claim. But the workers are defiant. Some 40 of the 55 staff marched to Merton House, the office block where they are based, to report for work last week. They were met by security guards and managers who told them they were not required unless they were prepared to undertake full duties. The staff refused and started a day long demonstration. They marched to other offices, chanting, "Sefton council, hear us say, you won't let us work today!"
At lunchtime the benefits workers organised a "noise" demonstration. They held up placards at the roadside with "Honk if you support us!" The noise was constant. A steward from the nearby Home Office tower block organised a quick collection and brought it to the demonstration. Over 350 people attended an emergency meeting of the workers' UNISON union branch and voted unanimously to back the benefits workers with a ballot for strike action of the whole branch.
THE STRIKE at Lufthansa Sky Chefs at Heathrow reached its six month anniversary this week, just as management agreed to talks with the sacked workers' TGWU union. The strikers have maintained their 24 hour, seven days a week picket line. And Lufthansa workers in Paris staged a 24 hour strike in solidarity with them last month.
But with the talks beginning on Friday there were signs that the workers were coming under pressure to scale down the pickets and not to shout "scab" at the scabs. Instead TGWU leaders should step up the pressure on Lufthansa and tap into the widespread sympathy for the strikers.