Fighting talk

Phil Kent reports on the 'Organising for Fighting Unions' rally on May 1

The Organising for Fighting Unions rally at Friends Meeting house on May Day was well attended, pretty well filling the main hall to capacity. Naturally speakers were keen to heap praises on Mark Serwotka for what they called the success of the PCSU's strike that day.

Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of the UCU, and Billy Hayes general secretary of the CWU, both took the line of emphasising the need for cross-union solidarity in defence of pay and conditions. Hayes in particular insisted that left talking was not enough. He called for coordinated and unified action. His own members had not even been offered the two percent pay rise proposed for the PCSU. Totally unacceptable.

He also argued that unions should be political - stressing Iraq in particular. He called for a new Labour leader who had the "courage to say, and act, on the basis of 'out now'". Significantly he did not mention John McDonnell. Union officials needed to be politically savvy too, he said, in order to be effective. By this he seemed to imply that they should be skilled negotiators, not consciously socialist.

Mark Serwotka in his keynote speech related an anecdote from his meeting with Jack Straw and Gordon Brown. One of those mighty men had called him a traitor for canvassing all the left and Labour candidates in the local elections as to who supported the PCS policy and who supported the official government line and, worse, publishing the results. "Whatever you may think of us, the others will be worse," he was told.

According to Serwotka about 70% of Labour and left councillors support PCSU policy. But the PCSU intends to keep checking out local government just in case words come cheap when you are standing for election.

For his part John Rees - speaking as national secretary of Respect - pleaded that Serwotka "should not be hung out to dry" by being left to fight alone. So, while the speeches were upbeat, a clear anxiety lurked in the subtext.

A Turkish trade unionist, speaking through an interpreter, suggested that the trade union movement was in decline and retreat around the world. Conditions were particularly bad in Turkey. A warning to super-optimists everywhere. Her union, representing government workers, was not even legal. All the same it was possible to organise industrially if you organised the workers politically. She proclaimed herself to be a member of a Marxist party with its own daily paper and about to launch a TV channel. British trade unions do not even use their own journals to educate their members into a political class. Her speech was, though, in the Stalinist mode.

John McDonnell certainly showed his frustration with left-speaking trade union officialdom. "How the fuck can TUC leaders support Gordon Brown's leadership candidature" when he is attacking the working class like this? "Do these men really think they can negotiate with him? Can any socialist vote for a man who supports the barbarous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

Yet, as one of the few Labour MPs who have consistently opposed these wars and has rebelled against the government time and again, comrade McDonnell seemed reluctant to claim his due and demand that leftwing general secretaries unite behind his leadership bid. Mostly he just called for them to support a socialist candidate before modestly mentioning himself at the end. Comrade McDonnell tried to give the impression that he has the 44 nominations he needs to stand more or less in the bag.

Tony Benn made his usual upbeat speech and enthusiastically called for everyone to support McDonnell because that would be the beginning of the Labour Party coming back into parliament.

Quite reasonably George Galloway disagreed - although he said he hoped McDonnell would win. But then he might not even get onto the ballot. Galloway reminisced on the old days in Scotland when he knew Gordon Brown and John Reid well. They were, he said, "Blairites before Blair" and were forcing through attacks on the workers, schools and NHS because this was their genuine politics. When he came into parliament 20 years ago there were at least 100 Labour MPs who would stand by the workers. For one reason or another most of them were no longer there and have been replaced by Blairite clones.

Not once did he mention Respect. Only that the Labour Party would not in his opinion change its policies in the near future. On the other hand he did not say it would never change.

Only John Rees gave Respect a plug and that to announce that all his councillors and candidates had endorsed Serwotka's questionnaire.