SWP drags its feet

SA votes for union networks

Last weekend's gathering of union activists, organised by the Socialist Alliance, turned out to be a damp squib. Only around 100 comrades turned up at the South Camden Community School on June 29. After the encouraging, 1,000-strong conference held on March 16, there was a mood of confidence and enthusiasm. A feeling that the SA had taken a significant step forward. True, the event had been more of a rally than a conference, but it had cemented the excellent SA position on the democratisation of union political funds, and the well attended, union-based workshops laid the basis for the creation of Socialist Alliance trade union fractions. Prior to March 16, the CPGB proposal for the establishment of such fractions had been overwhelmingly rejected by the SA national executive. Yet comrades meeting in both the railworkers and PCSU workshops had voted to set them up anyway. Other workshops at the very least exchanged email addresses, and comrades in Natfhe, the lecturers' union, set up an e-list. Faced with this reality, the June executive meeting voted to "establish Socialist Alliance networks in each union, with elected convenors". These networks "are not and should not be built as alternatives to existing broad left and rank and file groups within unions", but would be used as a "means of coordinating our campaign on the political fund (and where possible on other issues that arise)". This position was overwhelmingly endorsed last Saturday, but, with so few people in attendance, putting it into practice was effectively a non-starter. For example, on Saturday there were only six comrades at the PCSU workshop (compared to over 30 on March 16), and only four SA railworkers (20 on March 16). Last time there had been about 100 education workers and almost twice as many Unison members; this time there were a dozen teachers and lecturers and only 10 Unison comrades. Almost all our key union activists were absent. While all the workshops took decisions to set up Natfhe-style e-lists for the exchange of information, that was the limit of what they agreed. None of the union groups even voted to meet again. In introducing the final session of the conference, SA chair Liz Davies nevertheless expressed satisfaction at what had been achieved: "This was never going to be March 16," she said. "That was never the intention. It has been a very practical day." I have to ask, what exactly did it achieve that was "practical"? Small groups of comrades did exchange personal details and chatted about matters of concern within their particular union - either side of which, in the two plenary sessions, comrades generally sounded off on whatever topic they pleased. However, as far as the largest SA component, the Socialist Workers Party, was concerned, things went exactly to plan. Unlike the CPGB, the SWP has no clear idea of where it wants to take the SA. While we see the alliance as the potential core of the working class party so desperately needed, for the SWP it is merely a conduit into the already existing 'socialist party'. From the SWP's point of view, SA union fractions do not serve any purpose - after all the SWP already has its own fronts in many unions, so why set up what it would regard as parallel formations? And, unless the SWP wants them to succeed, executive resolutions remain a dead letter. So, whereas the SWP had gone all out to mobilise people - particularly its own comrades - for March 16, this time it had deliberately downplayed the event. It sent along one or two of its activists from most of the major unions, but the SWP union rank and file was absent. As a result, it was a small gathering, incapable of taking effective decisions that could be put into practice. Hardly anybody came from outside the capital. Around 50 SWPers were in the hall - they accounted for about half of those present. Not that the venue was overflowing with members of the SA's other principal supporting organisations either. Workers Power and the CPGB had about 10 comrades each, while the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and International Socialist Group both had half a dozen or so. The number of independents barely reached double figures. The first speaker in the main session was Mark Hoskisson, the SA trade union organiser and a member of Workers Power. Comrade Hoskisson gave a balanced account of the comparative strengths of the union bureaucracies, on the one hand, and the rank and file movement for democratisation, on the other. He described how Blairite union leaders had launched a counteroffensive - for example, in May reversing the gains made in the Fire Brigades Union last year, when conference had voted to consider withholding financial support from Labour candidates who refused to back union policies and changing its rules to allow support for political parties other than Labour. For comrade Hoskisson there were two main thrusts for Socialist Alliance campaigning: democracy for the union rank and file; and the "possibility of a mass socialist alternative". Clearly he saw the SA itself as a vehicle for achieving both. FBU official Nick Williams, suspended by the bureaucracy for supporting the alliance, pointed out from the floor that the reason the fight for democratisation had not been won was because the battle had not been taken to the union branches - instead we had resorted to "lobbying, manoeuvring and machinations at conference". Quite right, and all the more reason for the main force that understands the need for democratisation, the Socialist Alliance, to be organised at every level in the FBU, as in all unions. The second platform speaker, Candy Udwin of the SWP, gave us some useful information on the fight within her union, Unison. She described the successful fringe meeting on democratisation at last month's conference (140 copies of the SA pamphlet Whose money is it anyway? were sold) and she too called for the debate to be "taken to the rank and file". But, although she thought there was now a "real possibility" of building rank and file organisation in the unions, comrade Udwin gave no indication of the role she saw for the SA. She did, however, treat us to a bout of SWP official optimism: "The mood's moving in our direction," she concluded. In fact comrade Udwin's contribution was remarkably restrained compared to some of her SWP comrades. Dave Hayes, speaking from the platform in the final session, was gushing in his assessment of the prospects for socialists: "The general trend is our way - worldwide, workers are starting to fight." Other SWP comrades seemed more interested in promoting the forthcoming European Social Forum in Florence - a vital site for the intervention of socialists and communists, it is true, but not the prime purpose of Saturday's event. The CPGB's Marcus Ström commended the decision of the RMT to stop funding Labour MPs who had refused to back union policy. "Bob Crow has given the lead," he said, but we ought to go further. In general the alliance had not thought through its attitude to the Labour Party. For example, we had not taken our electoral tactics seriously. The logic of the RMT decision is what should inform our own approach. If Labour election candidates would not back basic working class demands, they should not get working class votes. If, however, they were prepared to sign up to a set of minimum demands, then we should be prepared to campaign for them - that would set the cat amongst the Blairite pigeons. Unfortunately, no other speaker rose to the challenge. In fact one or two comrades - members of the SWP or ISG - seemed to be questioning our emphasis on the democratisation of the unions' political fund in the first place: "It makes it appear that all we're interested in is the money." One ISGer thought it was more important to make union officials accountable to their members than Labour politicians to the unions who fund them. Surely we need to fight for both. Comrade Hoskisson answered this effectively. It is not a question of us wanting to "get our hands on union money" - only the bureaucrats say that: "It is not us inventing this campaign. Workers themselves are saying, 'Why the hell are we paying this money?'" It was obvious that the Socialist Alliance should try to channel this expression of discontent in a positive direction. The ISG moved an amendment to the agreed statement, so that it now reads: "This is not a campaign to disaffiliate unions from Labour, but to ensure elementary democratic control over the political fund and over union leaders by rank and file members" (amendment italicised). While no-one disagreed with the sentiment, we ought to be clear that our campaign is primarily a political one, directed against those who still claim the allegiance of workers. With this one amendment the statement was passed nem con. But AWL comrades considered it too confused and moved that it should be taken away for redrafting. When this was defeated, they abstained when it was put to the vote (see Weekly Worker June 27 for the full statement). So the clear policy of SA trade unionists is for the establishment of Socialist Alliance networks in each union. The fight to make this a reality must now begin. Peter Manson