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DELEGATES ORGANISE to fight against anti-union laws
by Charlie Kimber
THE COMMUNICATION Workers Union conference last week showed the growing disenchantment of trade unionists with Labour Party policy. Last year the conference dropped total opposition to the anti-union laws as a gesture to "give Labour a chance" to bring forward positive legislation. This year, despite strong pressure from the union executive to maintain that policy, the conference voted by about three to one to call for the end of all anti-union laws.
The debate saw a clash between those who wanted to confront Labour's priorities and those who thought the only way was to hold back on public criticism of the government. Paul Moore from Central London Engineering branch said, "We need to break the chains of the anti-union laws. Remember that, as Tony Blair said, even after all Labour's changes we will still have the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe." But John Roberts from City and East London Clerical disagreed. He said, "Labour will not repeal these laws. We can huff and puff but we won't blow them off course. There should be constructive criticism only."
One of the most effective speeches came from Mark Dolan of Northern/North West London branch. He called on the union leaders to "fight for our side as hard as the CBI fight for theirs. As the recent demonstration in Newcastle showed, people will fight against this government if they are given a lead." Backing the union leaders, Bruce Pickard from North East England said, "We should be on the inside talking to ministers, not outside throwing stones." But Pete Keenlyside from Greater Manchester asked, "Why should we accept these anti-union laws when we are a trade union?" Union general secretary Derek Hodgson made a stumbling speech which tried to smear the movers of the motion as supporters of secretive left wing organisations. He probably drove more people into backing the motion.
The big vote for the motion showed that the "give Labour a chance" mood from last year had gone. Further confirmation came in a debate on pensions. The conference voted to back a figure of £140 a week as the target for a single pension. Senior deputy general secretary Tony Young mocked the motion as setting a completely unachievable and unrealistic agenda. The delegates then voted unanimously for the motion.
The decision by some postal workers not to deliver Nazi mail gave a great boost to the other delegates and encouraged the mood to call for more anti-racist and anti-fascist measures (see back page). In a debate on the fallout from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, Pav Alam from London West End spoke strongly for the trade union movement to give a lead in the fight against racism. He praised the work of groups such as the National Assembly Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League and called on the TUC to add its voice to those who were organising against racism and homophobia. In the longer term, he added, "only a socialist society can be a really inclusive society".
Labour cabinet minister Ian McCartney did his usual trade union conference speech, punctuated with jibes at elements of the Blairite project. But he also stoutly defended the government. Despite the union leaders' attempt to win a standing ovation for him, only about six of the 2,000 delegates stood to applaud.
There was also sharp criticism for the union leaders by some speakers in a closed session which discussed the Critchley Labels dispute which has been going on for over two years. The union has backed the 31 people sacked in February 1997, but has refused to call the solidarity action which could have forced the firm to reinstate them.
CLERICAL workers in BT are to ballot for a one day strike and overtime ban. They are demanding that agency workers are only employed on the basis of proper BT contract conditions.
THERE WAS a gaping hole in the CWU conference, virtually no mention of the war in the Balkans. In six days of debate only a single delegate mentioned the major issue dominating British politics at the moment. Ian Peacock of London Number 7 branch suddenly spoke out against the war in a debate on pensions. "The government says there is no money for pensions while it is hurling bombs at the Balkans," he said. "It makes me sick that this is what we get after two years of a Labour government."
But on the conference floor he was the only person who mentioned this subject. The failure to organise speeches and motions against the war shows the weakness of the politics of the left in the CWU. The recent executive elections returned a majority of people associated with the union's Broad Left or with similar left wing views. Yet none of these people, almost all against the war, saw it as central to force the issue onto the agenda and raise it in speech after speech. No lasting left wing movement can be built by concentrating solely on trade union rights or low pay and ignoring more "political" questions.
Some 30 people, including three members of the executive, attended an anti-war fringe meeting which was addressed by columnist Mark Steel. Senior union official Billy Hayes spoke very well about how he wished he had raised the war on the executive and how people should take a stand on such issues. Mark Dolan from north London told of a successful anti-war meeting in his workplace which had pulled activists together. "It was not a huge meeting but it gave us all confidence to build for more activities. We should try to do this in every office," he said.
by a DELEGATE to NATFHE conference
THE lecturers' NATFHE union became the second national union to condemn NATO's bombing of the Balkans at its annual conference last weekend. The conference heard three separate emergency motions about the war. The first focused on the need for humanitarian aid. The second called for both Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing and NATO to stop the bombing. The final motion condemned the bombing unequivocally and gave support to the national Committee for Peace in the Balkans and the demonstration this Saturday. All three motions were passed overwhelmingly, with only three votes against the final, hardest motion.
The concern and anger against the war were reflected in a well attended Stop the War fringe meeting. Over 50 people attended, around a quarter of the conference. The meeting was addressed by the honorary treasurer of the union and received apologies from the general secretary, who could not attend.
In his formal speech to conference, general secretary Paul Mackney condemned the Private Finance Initiative in education. "Public building should be publicly financed," he said. "It seems there is plenty of money for the defence budget but here we have to hold collections or line the pockets of private finance capital in order to bring our educational buildings into good repair." Many delegates left the conference feeling that we had achieved something important in taking a public stance against the war. But there was a widespread frustration that we did not leave with any strategy to tackle the continuing decline in the fortunes of lecturers in both further and higher education.
In resigned silence the conference heard George Moody, minister of state, defend the government's education policy. Delegates narrowly voted to continue the union's policy of putting the issue of conditions on the back burner, whilst negotiating with the national employers' organisation for a "substantial" pay rise. This has an air of complete unreality, as up and down the country further education lecturers work in a multitude of different conditions on different pay scales. The employers' organisation only recommends pay rises, and the majority of colleges simply ignore it. Delegates narrowly rejected motions calling for national industrial action to fight for a return to national conditions.
The leadership of NATFHE repeatedly stated that the union is turning the corner, and that we have left our problems behind us. But a conference which passes pious resolutions and fails to tackle the real issues on the ground can only store up problems. Activists have to take up the call of the conference to oppose the war. We should fight to hold debates and anti-war meetings in every college. At the same time we have to fight to revolutionise our union.
IN THE higher education section of the conference, the main issue discussed was the 1999 pay claim. Delegates called for a pay rise of 10 percent for all staff, in line with the claim of the other higher education teachers' union, the AUT. Motions agreed to ballot and campaign for industrial action as soon as possible should the employers' offer-due soon-be inadequate. Action could then be coordinated with the AUT, following its successful one day strike last week.
by a CAMDEN COUNCIL WORKER
LIBRARY workers struck for a day in Camden, north London, last week. The strike by UNISON members was the latest action in a long running battle against closures and job losses which included an 11 week strike last year. That strike threw the council's plans off course and saw the beginning of a united fight involving both library workers and library users. Now the campaign has won widespread public support. A petition signed by thousands of people was recently handed in to the council. Celebrities like Jonathan Ross and Doris Lessing are also backing the campaign.
Last week's strike was a response to Camden's latest plan, which will see the closure of three libraries this year. A lunchtime rally on the day of the strike heard speeches of support from David Lloyd Pack (Trigger from Only Fools and Horses), a representative from the Libraries' Association, library users and council workers. The campaign has now sent an appeal to Chris Smith, culture minister. However, more action, involving both workers and users, will be needed to win.
HOUSING AND council tax benefit workers in Sefton council on Merseyside are continuing their fight against suspension by the Labour led authority. The workers had taken legally balloted industrial action in pursuit of a regrading claim when the council, in an outrageous move last month, suspended them. Last week a disputes panel, a joint union-employer body, met and recommended that both sides cease the current action and that a review of pay grades takes place within six months. This proposal had previously been put forward by management and rejected by the workers.
A small number of benefits workers, due to financial pressure, returned to work last Thursday. The employers seized on this to pressure these workers into signing an undertaking not to take part in further action. The remaining benefits workers are determined to continue the fight. These workers are still locked out and their pay suspended. They would like to thank all those who have so far sent donations in solidarity and ask that such support is kept up. The workers are still waiting to hear from regional and national union officials whether Sefton UNISON will get the go ahead for a branch wide ballot on solidarity action.
TAMESIDE CARE strikers have voted narrowly to accept a cash settlement from the Tameside Care Group. The care workers were sacked in January 1998 for refusing to sign new contracts which meant pay cuts of up to £2.26 an hour, an end to sick pay, and reduced holiday entitlement from 27 to 20 days a year.
The Tameside Care Group took over the running of 12 elderly people's homes from Tameside's Labour council in 1990. Workers received no pay rise for five years. Their bosses claimed they needed to cut costs, but they made £750,000 in profits last year. The final figures of the settlement were to be worked out between the strikers' UNISON union and Tameside Care Group.
Strikers who have worked for less than two years will receive £500, and others one week's pay for each year of service plus 60 percent of the total that amounts to. A small number of strikers who want reinstatement could get it. The resistance of the strikers forced the Tameside Care Group to improve on previous offers. However, much more could have been won if the spirit of the striking carers had been matched by UNISON leaders.
SOME 30 UNISON members and supporters demonstrated outside the offices of Bolton Accommodation Support and Employment (BASE) last Friday. BASE, a charity supporting young homeless people, is funded by Labour controlled Bolton council, which has two councillors on the board. Recently it derecognised UNISON despite the fact that all its staff are members. Last week BASE sacked two of its five project workers. Both staff members have been denied the right of appeal. Bolton UNISON will be calling further action.
SOME 130 housing benefit workers in Edinburgh City Council have voted by 92 percent for action in a long running dispute over department mergers and regrading. Talks with management have now restarted, but the first action is scheduled for Monday.
GENERAL secretary of the Fire Brigades Union Ken Cameron said last week, "I believe that a national strike is the only realistic option left to us if the employers pursue their current proposals. It looks as if a loud bark is not enough to dissuade them. We always knew that sooner or later we would have to bite."
He was speaking after the Labour dominated national employers said they were pressing ahead with a six point programme of attacks on national conditions. The core of their attacks is the demand that more conditions are negotiated locally, so breaking up the FBU's national strength. Firefighters have already voted at their union's conference by 50,500 votes to 1,500 for a ballot for a national strike if the employers move to smash hard won national conditions. Talks are scheduled between the FBU and the employers on Friday of next week. But the employers have shown that the time for talking is over.
Ken Cameron is right to say that a national strike is now "the only realistic option" for firefighters to resist attacks from Labour councillors and the government. That argument has to be taken onto every station and watch. One lesson of recent disputes in Merseyside, Derbyshire and Essex is that firefighters will take action if offered a clear lead. Another lesson is that all out action, rather than a series of stoppages, is the surest way to win quickly.
Activists in the FBU need to argue now for the maximum possible action and for rank and file initiatives which can build firefighters' confidence. A mass turnout for the lobby next Friday and a strong showing at the activists' meeting immediately after it would be a big boost to the most important battle firefighters face since 1977.
OVER 400 angry firefighters from across Lancashire packed into a meeting in Preston on Friday of last week to show their opposition to proposed attacks on national conditions of service. Councillor Bob Clarke, chair of the Labour controlled Lancashire Unitary Fire Authority, was met with cries of, "Shame", "Rubbish", and, "Spoken like a true Tory", as he tried to justify the attacks. The meeting reaffirmed Lancashire firefighters' resolve to fight these attacks and backed the union's recommendation that a ballot for strike action be held if the proposals are given the go ahead. Lancashire firefighters were to support Greater Manchester firefighters when they lobbied their fire authority on Thursday of this week.
AROUND 650 workers at the Vosper Thornycroft shipyard in Southampton staged the first of a planned series of one day strikes in a fight over pay last week. The workers, members of the GMB, TGWU and AEEU unions, rejected a management offer of a 3 percent pay rise and voted for action to win more. They are angry at the offer which comes on the back of a miserly 1.25 percent rise last year. The anger at management's refusal to pay a decent rise is fuelled by the recent announcement by the company of profits of £34 million. Further strikes are planned and the workers are also continuing an overtime ban.
TEACHERS IN Islington, north London, are to launch a major campaign against privatisation, following one of the biggest local meetings of their NUT union for years. The Labour council recently announced plans for the wholesale privatisation of education in the borough, following a report on the area's schools by the Ofsted inspectors. The privatisation plan is also believed to have the backing of the New Labour government.
Last week's Islington NUT meeting saw speaker after speaker savage the plans. The mood of the meeting was dominated by anger at the failure of national union officials to defend members facing compulsory redundancy at the borough's George Orwell School. After a stormy debate national officials were forced to recognise that action over George Orwell can save jobs and prepare for a fight against privatisation.
UNISON'S HEALTH service group executive has called a day of local protest on 22 June. It is against the government's 3 percent pay offer to NHS workers not covered by the pay review bodies-ancillary staff, admin and clerical workers and technicians. A UNISON circular encourages lunchtime demonstrations and public protests. It follows decisions taken at the national health conference which committed UNISON to a national campaign, including industrial action if necessary, unless the pay offer for these workers at least matches the 4.7 percent given to nurses. Any demonstrations provide an opportunity not just to build a campaign over NHS pay but also to highlight the hypocrisy of a government that has money for war but not for the NHS.
AMBULANCE WORKERS in Cardiff are taking action over pay. Workers are angry that they get paid less than colleagues in the rest of Wales, following a reorganisation of the service. They are now demanding their pay be brought up to the same level as other ambulance workers. Ambulance workers who are members of UNISON have voted for a work to rule and an overtime ban. GMB members are now balloting on whether to join the action.
THE LEADERSHIP of the PCS civil servants' union in the Employment Service last week agreed to campaign for strike action against aspects of the government's welfare reform programme. The PCS Employment Service group executive was meeting to discuss the government scheme that will make all people of working age on state benefits attend a series of compulsory interviews.
Single parents, the sick and the disabled will all be included in the scheme. Pilot schemes will begin in 12 areas around the country and will run until March 2002. The government plans to extend the scheme nationally after that. Much of the work involved is to be handed over to the private sector, despite the poor performance of private companies already involved in the New Deal. The scheme also means that civil servants in different areas will be doing the same jobs at different pay rates and under different conditions.
The PCS meeting unfortunately rejected calls for an immediate ballot on strikes. It did, however, agree to campaign for strike action in the four areas where the pilot schemes are to be run by private companies-Suffolk, North Nottinghamshire, Leeds and North Cheshire. The meeting also agreed to support calls for strike action on related issues in other areas.
THE ASLEF train drivers' union is to ballot its London Underground members in a dispute over negotiation structures and the level of trade union representation. Following a recent ballot by the RMT union of its members at Morden depot on the Underground's Northern Line, management accepted that the RMT was entitled to an extra local rep. Now ASLEF officials claim this breaks an agreement made with them. ASLEF members should vote yes in the ballot to show management that drivers are prepared to take action to support their union.
TALKS TO end the Lufthansa Sky Chefs dispute started at the conciliation service ACAS last Monday, but broke down shortly afterwards. The talks were due to resume this week. The Sky Chefs catering workers at London's Heathrow airport were sacked over six months ago for taking part in a legal one day strike against attacks on pay and conditions. The strikers are still maintaining a 24 hour, seven days a week picket line. Solidarity visits to the picket line are especially important, as are donations.
THE BECTU media workers' union is holding a consultative ballot of its members across the BBC over pay. BBC management has offered a 2.6 percent increase, with a minimum rise of £500 a year. In the last two years the BBC's director general has received pay rises of 30 percent and then 9 percent.