Which way for Reclaim Our Rights?

Simon Harvey of the SLP

Since the release of the white paper on trade union rights, Fairness at work, a variety of reactions have come from the labour bureaucracy. Bill Morris of the TGWU has said he will not take the proposals on recognition lying down. Monks has declared his qualified support overall while expressing reservations about the workability of the 40% threshold.

As I reported last week, since our SLP candidate, Dave Rix, was elected Aslef general secretary, Lew Adams, who remains in post until January, has cried foul and is seeking a legal reversal of comrade Rix’s victory. Adams has begun to talk very left. He has attacked the white paper in no uncertain terms.

Union bosses are clearly rattled. They recognise that a space is opening up for a militant trade unionism and are trying to fill it with hot air or close it with bureaucratic manoeuvre. In this context it is essential for the left, for militants and revolutionaries to adopt an independent political position distinct to that of the trade union bureaucracy. We should be with them organisationally to the extent they are really prepared to fight. That is why I welcomed the Reclaim Our Rights initiative from the SLP.

Unfortunately so far, there has been a lack of clarity about the nature and direction of the united campaign launched by ROR. Most of the left have seen their role as that of cheerleaders. The limitations and bureaucratic nature of ROR have been swept under the carpet.

Sadly that tailism was all too evident in Mark Sandell’s contribution on behalf of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (Letters, May 21). He was responding to my report, ‘Reclaim Our Rights delegate recall conference’ (Weekly Worker April 23). I remarked upon the obvious deal done between the AWL-backed Free Trade Unions Campaign and the SLP-sponsored Reclaim Our Rights vis-a-vis the initial set-up of a united campaign against the anti-trade union laws. Although a positive development in that it genuinely aims to unite existing campaigns under one umbrella, who is holding this umbrella is of vital importance. It is to be Arthur Scargill and other trade union general secretaries and presidents. More than that - because of that - there is no room anywhere for rank and file opposition campaigns. That means excluding militant minorities such as the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison.

Comrade Sandell, accusing me of SLP “war weariness”, states that the unification of ROR, the FTUC and the Communication Workers Union campaigns “offers an opportunity to build a rank and file movement against the anti-trade union laws”. Obviously this is what we should fight for. But I repeat my criticism that it will not come about through the structure railroaded through by Bob Crow at the ROR conference - without opposition and presumably with the agreement of the AWL.

Comrade Sandell implies what exists is not perfect, but that he lent his support in order to get things off the ground. Is this the correct method? He claims: “We now have a united campaign on a principled basis” - interestingly and revealingly he fails to spell out what those ‘principles’ are.

Comrade Sandell believes that my report “manages to miss the main point that this meeting was only to set up an interim committee to get things moving and to prepare for the delegate recall conference in July”. However, as I pointed out, “despite its interim nature, the political balance will determine the trajectory of the campaign, before a conference in the summer elects a full committee and considers a constitution” (emphasis added Weekly Worker April 23). It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise but true to form. At the ROR conference he urged comrades ‘not to worry too much about seats on committees’. Of course the AWL had already done a deal to secure itself at least one.

The comrade is proud of the achievements of the FTUC. Its foundation, given the current period, was “a major rank and file workers’ event”, he says. What a pity Mark and the AWL are prepared to sell it so cheaply.

Comrade Sandell describes the CWU’s campaign as being “an important break from the old policy of hiding behind the TUC’s non-campaigns”. What a shame then, if it were now to be dragged back to just such a policy. The ROR pamphlet, written by its two leading figures, Bob Crow and John Hendy, states: “The campaign can only succeed if led by the TUC”; and that the task of the campaign being set up is “to commit ... the TUC to lead the campaign, as it did in the 1970s”.

So, what is the way forward? Comrade Sandell states that the ROR campaign, as it stands, “will not stop the AWL saying exactly what it thinks of the behaviour of the union leaders who support the campaign in the RMT, CWU or anywhere else”. But what are the AWL’s criticisms? What are its proposals to stop the drift towards a left bureaucratic lash-up? How do we move to a rank and file body, more akin to the legacy of the Militant Minority Movement?

Having read a bit of Lenin, comrade Sandell throws that favourite morsel of rightists to any criticism from the left. Do I support the ROR-initiated united campaigns like a rope supports a hanged man?

As comrade Sandell knows, the tactic of the 1920s to support the Labour Party as a rope supports a hanged man was because Lenin and the CPGB actually wanted to replace the Labour Party. They saw no possibility of reforming the bourgeois wing of the labour movement (unlike the AWL - which actually wants to repeat history through a Labour Representation Committee). I want to build, not destroy, the campaign against Blair’s anti-trade union laws but that means developing rank and file initiative and overthrowing the leadership of all reformists and would-be labour kings.

Precisely because of my experience as an SLP member I know the likes of Scargill and Crow could front a mass movement against not only Blair’s anti-trade union laws, but against Blair himself. My worry is the direction in which they will then take it.