Leading Hillingdon Hospital striker Malkiat Bilku

Challenging the Union

SLP republican communist Jan Berryman evaluates the Reclaim Our Rights conference

Whilst we should not get too carried away, the Reclaim Our Rights conference held at Westminster Hall, London on March 28 was the most important gathering of trade union militants in the past few years. It was by all accounts a positive and successful event and should help to raise the morale of rank and file activists. Hopefully it will prove to be the beginning of a real campaign against the anti-union laws.

There was a wide variety of speakers, from both the rank and file and the leadership of trade unions. These included those who had played a key role in recent disputes, such as Shirley Winter (Magnet), Sue Hoskins (Critchley Labels), Jimmy Nolan (Liverpool dockers) and Malkiat Bilku (Hillingdon Hospital). Amongst the trade union leaders present were Joe Marino, BFAWU general secretary, Christine Blower, NUT president, George Brumwell, Ucatt general secretary, Bob Crow, RMT assistant general secretary, John Foster, NUJ general secretary, Geoff Bagnall, CATU general secretary and Arthur Scargill, NUM president.

There were international speakers, notably Joseph Katende, general secretary of the Ugandan TGWU and Jean-Pierre Barrois from the Campaign in Defence of ILO Conventions. Voices from an array of left currents were also to be heard, most notably Tony Benn MP, but also activists from Socialist Labour, Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Power group, Communist Party of Britain and the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

The event was a rally rather than a conference. But with an estimated 600 delegates and observers it served to lift the spirit rather than deaden. The variety of speakers, coming from different perspectives,  helped to avoid the impression that it was all stage managed, like the worst kind of rallies are. The whole event was moreover conducted in a fraternal and non-sectarian way.

Underpinning the event was a new pamphlet Reclaim our rights by John Hendy QC and Bob Crow. Whilst it was not discussed at the rally, it provides the most coherent statement of the aims of the organisers. It explains the purpose and effect of the anti-union laws. It sets them in an international context, showing that British laws are in breach of the International Labour Organisation conventions, especially 87 and 98. Since 1989 the ILO has regularly condemned Britain’s anti-union laws. The authors’ go on to outline the sort of labour laws they believe we should have. The emphasis is on a legal framework of positive rights rather than having no laws at all.

At the end of the day the question is, what should be done? Clearly we need to support workers fighting against these laws. We need to secure their abolition and finally win new laws, which would establish positive rights. How we should do this is the weakest part of the pamphlet. Of course we must make propaganda “to reveal the truth about these laws”. But the idea that the focal point of political action is making “demands of the Labour government” and the TUC indicates a real weakness of political direction.

Here we have an echo of Militant and the SWP’s failed strategy for beating the poll tax. We were urged to “place demands on Kinnock and the TUC” to lead a militant struggle. Fortunately nobody took any notice, especially Kinnock. The poll tax was defeated by direct action. Kinnock and the TUC were never given the opportunity to sabotage it. That is one of the first lessons. Independent mass action without the so-called ‘support’ of the Labour leadership can and did succeed. Those who demanded such ‘support’ did nothing but sow illusions which tend to undermine the campaign. It is as if we say to ourselves “we are weak and feeble and can do nothing without the support of the ‘great and the good’.

A Workers’ Liberty leaflet offered the most coherent Labourite approach. In order to fight the anti-trade union laws we must change the Labour Party. We should therefore be “calling publicly for Blair’s removal from the party leadership”.  Hence “the fight against Blair is not only an industrial matter. We need a political strategy that can fuse rank and file struggle in the unions to a campaign for working class representation.”

Therefore “the unions need to look to develop a campaign which will start to destabilise the New Labour bureaucratic machine”. This involves “replacing existing Blairite MPs with working class candidates” and “removing sponsorship from MPs who vote for anti-working class policies”. Then we should be developing policies on free trade unions and the welfare state “to become official Labour Party policy”.

Workers Liberty sees Labour as the natural vehicle for working class representation under the constitutional monarchy. It is within that framework that Workers Liberty intends to stay. If they are not careful Hendy and Crow will be joining them, if they follow the logic of their own Labourite arguments.

The vision behind this political strategy is a return to the golden age of Labourism of 1945-50. Then the Labour government helped to build the new “social monarchy” - the post World War II welfare state with “free” trade unions. The rich man continued to live happily in his castle and the poor man was still at the gate, but properly represented by the TUC.

Syndicalists will have none of this. Rather than a political strategy, they see militant industrial action as the only way to defeat the anti-trade union laws. We could see a faint echo of syndicalism in Workers Power’s call for a rank and file movement. We can see it if we read between the lines of the Socialist Perspectives leaflet. Whilst failing to address the main issue of how to fight the anti-union laws, their main arguments were directed to “breaking the unions from the employers coat-tails”.

The TUC was identified as the main vehicle for promoting class collaboration or ‘social partnership’ in the trade union movement. But the syndicalists tend to forget the main political channel is Labourism. A healthy hostility to ‘partnership’ and support for militancy, means that they have no political alternative to that posed by Workers Liberty. At the end of the day this leads organisations like Workers Power and Socialist Perspectives back to voting Labour.

An alternative to Labourism and syndicalism was put forward in leaflets by SLP Republicans. Their perspective was for combining an industrial and political strategy.  Industrial action was necessary to defeat the anti-trade union laws. But they argued that the problem with Reclaim Our Rights is that we never had positive rights embedded in a constitution in the first place.  In the UK it has always been protection from the common law which gives employers rights to damages. The Republicans were in agreement with Hendy and Crow and the SLP in favour of positive rights. But for the Republicans, this meant a republican constitution in which workers’ rights were a fundamental part. This should contain all the basic rights such as the right to strike, join a union, picket as well as rights to exercise workers’ control in the workplace.

The time could not be more opportune for this approach. The Blair government has placed constitutional issues, such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the House of Lords, freedom of information and the London mayor on the national agenda. We have seen the aristocracy mobilising a massive royalist demonstration over the threat to fox hunting. The royalists consider that fox hunting is a fundamental human and constitutional right and have taken to the streets to defend it. Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker-Bowles are the king and queen of the fox hunting set. For ‘king, country and the fox’ is the real politics of the Countryside Alliance, which put an estimated 250,000 people on the streets of London.

Republicans need to make trade union rights an equally fundamental issue, but for a very different kind of constitution. We want trade unionists on the same streets under the banner ‘for the republic, for the people and for workers rights’. We want to widen the agenda. Putting the fight against the anti-trade union laws into a republican context is to widen out the struggle into a social and political movement. We need the modern equivalent of the Chartist movement. The royalist classes instinctively understand how to broaden their appeal from their right to kill the fox. The workers’ movement needs to learn to do the same. This is a quite different approach from Workers Liberty.

The republican strategy is not an alternative to direct industrial action against the anti-trade union laws. On the contrary by raising the level of politics within the trade union movement, we can strengthen the urge to direct action by politicising it. Ministers of the crown, whether Labour or Tory have no moral or democratic authority with republicans. They and their laws are in breach of our fundamental republican rights. Yet it is their moral authority as a ‘democratic government’ which is used time and time again within the TUC and trade union movement as the glue for ‘social partnership’. In short republicanism provides the ideological acid for dissolving the political glue that binds the TUC to Labour and the employers. It is the acid that the non-political syndicalists will not use.

How can we win trade unions from Labourism to republicanism? By building and organising the militant republican minority in the trade unions. On the basis of a united front, we need a political Minority or Rank and File Movement. We do not want a non-political movement that confines itself to purely trade union issues. In winning trade unions to militant republicanism, we are creating a rebel movement, the advanced part of a growing republican class.

The battle over which strategy to adopt will continue. Overall the SLP can take some comfort from the Reclaim Our Rights conference. After the trials and tribulations of last December’s congress, this will help to get the SLP train back on the rails. Some of the fallout from that congress was in evidence. The Marxist Bulletin were there handing out a leaflet on why they resigned. They looked a bit forlorn. Harpal Brar and Roy Bull were seen discussing the foundations for their pro-Stalin faction of the SLP. Martin Wicks, who resigned in January but forgot to tell Arthur, recently received another letter from the SLP general secretary. Apparently he was threatened with hell fire and damnation for speaking to the Socialist Alliances. Now that Martin has left, it was all water off a duck’s back. Still if he had stayed around, he could have left with a fanfare of trumpets, rather than disappear prematurely in a small puff of smoke. One effect of the conference was to help the ex-SLP left to assess themselves. Could it possibly be that their main contribution to the SLP had been the art of bad timing?