With the bureaucrats

Has a union witch-hunt reached into a campaign for solidarity with migrants? Gerry Downing reports on his exclusion as a speaker at the No Borders conference

On March 1 I got an invitation from Jake Lagnado to speak at the March 29 No Borders conference in London, which I accepted.

Jake made it clear why he was inviting me: “I got your address from the shop stewards network list - we spoke briefly at the London meeting, as I am a Unite-T&G member ... I remembered your correspondence in the Weekly Worker a few months ago about migrant labour on the buses, when we were thinking of who might lead the discussion, and so am writing to ask if you would like to be one of two people to do so.”

At that London meeting I had strongly attacked the TGWU’s union bureaucracy on the London buses, its ‘corporate values partnership orientation’ to the bus companies and its opposition to a class-struggle approach. In particular I highlighted the bureaucracy’s bitter opposition to returning the buses to public ownership and to ending competitive tendering for the individual bus routes, which essentially lined them up with the bosses against their own membership. Jake, given his political history in the anarchist tradition of championing the voiceless and oppressed, obviously identified with this approach, and so emerged his proposal that I should speak.

But at a No Borders organising meeting the ex-Alliance for Workers’ Liberty comrade Robin began to see problems emerging from this naive invitation. Dave Landau emailed me with the misgivings he shared with Robin on the day before the conference: “When we set up the workshop on ‘Transport’, it was intended that it would focus upon how transport comes into enforcing controls - like pilots and air cabin crew when somebody is being deported, or London Transport staff like ticket collectors working alongside immigration officers checking people coming in and out of stations. Can the union take action in defying this? If I am correct, your focus is more on migrants as bus workers and their organisations and struggles. This might work better in the workshop on ‘Resisting low pay and no conditions’. On the other hand, we have nobody else to introduce ‘Transport’, so ... Anyway, see you tomorrow and we can work out where your presentation is best placed.”

This clearly was not how Jake had seen the matter. “How transport comes into enforcing controls” was indeed a different focus to orientating to “migrants as bus workers and their organisations and struggles”. This, it seemed, was not an appropriate subject for a ‘Transport’ workshop on immigrants and should be discussed only at the ‘Low pay’ workshop. But that would leave us with a problem of a transport workshop with no speaker - or with a speaker who was going to say the wrong things and probably could not be persuaded otherwise.

The London buses have a majority of immigrant labour, but it was politically incorrect to attempt to mobilise these against their bureaucratic misleaders; and this work could not possibly help in the defence of their more victimised and vulnerable and more recent unpapered immigrants because ... ? Well, we let the reader decide why. But no doubt I was to be a speaker at the ‘Low pay’ workshop.

The difficulty with the ‘Transport’ workshop was not any lack of transport workers - there were several RMT and TGWU members present, but no RMT member was deemed capable of replacing the unavailable Ollie New as the other speaker, it appears. It seemed that the organising committee was dependent on the RMT - a conference sponsor - to offer a politically acceptable replacement, which it failed to do. Perhaps the TGWU - if not a sponsor, then at least a sympathetic organisation, which had sent a high-profile speaker (full-timer Anita Ceravolo of Justice for Cleaners) - had felt entitled to object to one of its troublesome internal opponents denouncing its bureaucratic methods. And with support from many trade union leaders they had achieved that aura of respectability which is so necessary when you think ordinary immigrant workers on the buses could not possibly be mobilised in defence of other, less fortunate immigrants, often from their own community.

But who could doubt that if those workers did manage to advance against opposition from their own repressive bureaucrats they would be in a far better position to offer such support? Yes, the RMT might have influence with ticket collectors, but I intended to speak on the necessity of mobilising the rank and file of the unions in defence of migrants and to demand a real campaign within the unions against the poisonous anti-immigrant campaigns of the Mail (a Polish organisation has complained to the Press Complaints Commission over that paper’s anti-Polish witch-hunts) and The Sun, etc, and not to rely overmuch on the trade union bureaucracy, which was the orientation of far too many at the conference itself. I did get to say some of that, but only a few other speakers, like Workers Power’s Jeremy Dewar, spoke along those lines.

In attempting to communicate the required change to the MC, Glenroy Watson, comrade Dave seemed to be having some difficulty, because Glenroy thought the ‘Transport’ workshop was to be cancelled. No, no, Dave insisted. It was not to be cancelled: just that the speaker was to be switched to ‘Low pay’. But that would leave ‘Transport’ with no speaker at all. Those interested might still want to meet to discuss among themselves, Dave said - they were presumably to assemble without the benefit of a speaker who might direct them. But at least that was better than having one who might misdirect them.

Glenroy still did not get it, (and who could blame him?), as he failed to ask those RMT and TGWU members to … well, caucus, I suppose, would be the correct term. Dave says a number of them still wished to do this. What he wanted Glenroy to get across was that Gerry Downing was on no account to speak at the ‘Transport’ workshop - without actually putting it in those crude terms. An invited airline pilot had not shown up, it seemed, although one felt that the status of pilots as fighters for the underprivileged was not as great as Dave thought.

I was not invited to make my ‘presentation’ at the ‘Low pay’ workshop either. Dave says he had no part in this and I must give him the benefit of the doubt there. No matter - I could say a few words from the floor. This proved very difficult. I was the first to indicate, but the AWL/RMT chair, Becky, simply did not see me and passed over my raised hand seven or eight times to call others who had indicated later than me. Then the comrade next to me whispered: “Gerry, that woman does not like you.” She was probably sussed enough to see that if it was imperative to prevent me speaking at the ‘Transport’ workshop then it would be better to keep me from speaking at all.

But, having eventually permitted me to speak - she must have seen I was about to make a scene - she began to circle her finger at me to wind up after about a minute, something she did not do to any other speaker, although many spoke for far longer than I had. Attacking TGWU union bureaucrats was making her uncomfortable, it seemed.

By now I had concluded that the reason for the cancellation of ‘Transport’ was that the workshop might be forced to endure my presentation. Dave says he never had any intention of preventing me speaking and he did promise me that I could do my presentation at the ‘Low pay’ workshop in the email, so we must be charitable and assume he failed to organise this due to an oversight.

What could I possibly be about to say that required such machinations from ‘comrades’? In conversation with comrade Robin a few days later he asserted that I was viewed as “mad” and it was he himself who had initiated the questioning of the value of my contributing to the ‘Transport’ workshop on the organising committee. I have become even ‘madder’ since then.

‘Corporate values’

I now came to see that this was simply a continuation of the witch-hunt I have endured on the buses from the TGWU leadership since the summer of 2007, and indeed since I became a bus driver in 1991. I have been ferociously opposed by the TGWU bureaucracy on London buses, and particularly from Metroline convenor Steve O’Rourke and Metroline Potters Bar TGWU rep John Murphy, who is on the TGWU executive, since I fought them over their ‘corporate values partnership orientation’.

In a centre-page spread in the Metroline house magazine O’Rourke said: “By now most of you will be aware of the Eastbourne conference and our aim of making Metroline a place where people will want to come to work; a place where everyone is treated with dignity and respect regardless of their grade. For too long we have all adopted a policy of ‘them and us’ when in fact there is only ‘us’. After all we are all employees of Metroline - from the CEO right down to the new recruits. We can change things, but only by working together, which is why these new corporate values have my support and why they should have yours as well. By working together we can make Metroline a better place for all” (Metlife September-October 2007).

I challenged this through the Metroline shop stewards, who unanimously supported Steve’s corporate values - with one engineering steward voicing his concern that his members should not discover the free food and drinks weekends provided by Metroline for the stewards in Eastbourne. I exposed this partnership orientation also at a meeting of the TGWU Broad Left - now held at the TGWU HQ in Holborn, although it is still contrary to union rules to organise independently of the union structures. But who cares about union rules when the ‘opposition’ is fighting to support the Woodleyite union bureaucracy?

I was jumped on from a height with no support at all in a meeting of about 30 of the leading ‘lefts’ of the TGWU. This Broad Left is totally dominated by full-timers and its principal function is to advance the careers of those who agree to toe Tony Woodley’s line. Steve O’Rourke is a good man, corruption like free junkets is irrelevant and who cares about ‘corporate values partnership orientation’? Only madmen - that was the general tone of the put-down.

Present at this meeting were GEC members John Murphy and Tom Cashman, who is ex-AWL and is still held in high regard by many current AWL members (including comrade Robin - at least he sees him as less “mad” than me). Cashman and Murphy had big difficulty for a time, because the Morning Star people sided with me for once against them, and they viciously attacked their executive members for refusing to support the John McDonnell campaign. However, they reverted to type once they could see they had lost and they then meekly collapsed and accepted Cashman’s diktats at that meeting that decisions in future in Broad Left meetings would be ‘by consensus’. Voting might go against you and anyway it is probably “mad”.

The campaign against me led by O’Rourke and Murphy resulted in my being threatened with the sack for distributing a leaflet denouncing corporate values - management was handed it by a union member. O’Rourke says it was not him, but the man who became the new union rep. I only escaped by pleading that it was given out at a union meeting. I was subjected to a grilling by four managers over my opposition to corporate values - with O’Rourke assisting and even criticising managers for being too soft on me. My own election for steward was held on a Thursday for the first time ever and continued until 8pm, so I could not go to the annual London bus conference, where I might denounce O’Rourke for his corporate values.

O’Rourke had earlier threatened to “fuck up” my upcoming election for shop steward by denouncing me in front of the members. Sure enough, a management-union joint campaign against me did result in the loss of the election and they subsequently colluded with the new rep in attempting to stop me speaking at the National Shop Stewards Network buses meeting as a delegate from Brent Trades Union Council.

I have been sacked twice from Metroline in the past (only to be re-employed by them on both occasions, after they bought the cowboy companies I then had to work for), each time on the instigation of the union convenor and the garage rep (on the first occasion), both of whom gave evidence against me. Another time my job was saved by my then MP, Ken Livingstone, who wrote to Metroline to demand what was going on.

This resulted in a huge row between Livingstone and TGWU full-timer Pat Mahon - broadcast over the phone speakers in the TGWU London HQ by Mahon for the assembled functionaries. Mahon had written a letter to Livingstone denouncing me as an SWP/WRP member (!) and expressing his bitter disappointment at the failure of the sacking attempt; Livingstone had interfered in the “internal affairs of the TGWU”, he raged. This level of class treachery was too much even for Livingstone. A year later Mahon resigned as a union official and became a director of the London General company the week after he had negotiated that year’s pay increase for the London General drivers. We were instructed not to publicly criticise this man by TGWU senior organiser Ollie Jackson.

So, yes, I am “mad”, because I believe that these bureaucrats, whose methods I have fought for 16 years, were able to reach into a conference of the left and prevent me from speaking, lest I expose their ‘corporate values partnership orientation’. And I am even madder at those ‘comrades’ who were prepared to assist them in doing this - if not because of a specific request, then because their own orientation is to that bureaucracy and not to the rank and file.

With ‘comrades’ like these, who needs bureaucrats?