Saturday, 2 August 2014

Solidarity with Gaza - we need more than motions

My report on UNITE's 2014 Policy Conference included details of the union's strengthened policy on Palestine, supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

One of the dangers with union conferences is that worthy motions can be passed, but little done to turn them into action.  The horrific slaughter unfolding in Gaza lays down a challenge to UNITE's leadership and to every activist and member - what are we going to do to make our policy count?

The response around the world has been inspiring.  I've been to a few of the demonstrations locally, and the national demonstration in London on 19th July.  Even local demonstrations have been attracting thousands, like this in Salford organised at very short notice on 12th July:

There is another national demonstration in London on Saturday 9th August.  Will UNITE regions fund and publicise transport?  Will branches mobilise members and chip in too?  The groups organising most of the demonstrations, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition, operate on a shoe-string and need help to get the message out and to fund leaflets, posters, coaches etc.

Can we take the campaign into workplaces too?  This won't always be easy.  If you work for one of the companies involved heavily in the occupation, such as HP or G4S, there's always a pressure to keep quiet.  But the unions have a proud record of taking up such issues and making a difference.  Many UNITE activists will know the story of Sergio Requena-Rueda, who used to be the convenor at Marconi and later Ericsson in Coventry.  Imprisoned in one of Pinochet's concentration camps in Chile, Sergio heard on a guard's radio about the solidarity of union members at Rolls Royce East Kilbride who refused to service jets for Pinochet's airforce.  Sergio tells how the news from half way round the world gave people in the camp hope - and saved lives.

Most of us may not have the organisation or confidence to be able to give such dramatic solidarity, but we should raise the issue and ask about policies on trade with Israel, use of Israeli goods etc.  And we should all be demanding the UK government stops helping arm Israel.  When the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing, unions involved members in campaigning to get South African fruit removed from workplace canteens.  Fewer workplaces have canteens now, but some do, while others have nearby shops where the same argument can be had.  Some members are doing collections for Medical Aid for Palestinians in their workplaces - both to raise money and to get people discussing the issues.

We can help by giving solidarity to other struggles in the Middle East too.  It's no coincidence that when the Egyptian revolution was at its height, the border to Gaza was opened.  Now the military are back in control and workers are facing massive repression, they even stopped an aid convoy passing from Egypt into Gaza.  The bloodshed in Palestine isn't a local issue - it is one symptom of the jigsaw of brutal regimes backed at different times by the big powers seeking to control the region in their own interests.

If unions are to show their relevance to a younger generation shaped by protests against racism, war and global inequality, we need to up our game.

Britain Needs A Pay Rise - book your transport for 18 October

The TUC has called a national demonstration for Saturday 18th October which will become a focal point for everyone who wants to protest against cuts, austerity and the erosion of our standard of living.  It will be given a greater edge by the talk of public sector strikes on Tuesday 14th October.  In addition to local government workers who plan to strike, the ballots in health mean we could see mass action by health workers highlighting the attacks on the NHS too.  Will other public sector workers and those in the private sector who have disputes manage to coordinate their action too?

UNITE has booked some transport for 18th October from around the country.  This is likely to fill up quickly, so book your place now.  This will also help ensure there's time to put on extra transport - it can be hard to find available coaches at the last minute.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

J10 - coordinated strike day

Well done to all the members of UNITE, UNISON, GMB, NUT, PCS and FBU who struck nationally today, and to those who took part in local strikes, notably on the London underground.

I took a day's leave today to show my support.  The government and right-wing media like to sow divisions between private and public sector workers.  Public sector workers deliver services we all rely on, which will only deteriorate if pay, pensions and conditions are driven down.  It can't be right that people who look after children, sick people or old people get paid less than parasites in the city.  Worsening terms for public sector workers is part of making them more attractive for privatisation.  It's obvious that if the government gets away with cutting pay and conditions for public sector workers, employers in the private sector will be encouraged to turn the screw yet further.

I visited local authority pickets at two sites in Manchester, in Hurpurhey (where I saw a young worker join UNISON and the picketline rather than go in) and West Gorton, at a building I used to work in before the council took it over:

I then went to a PCS picket outside the courts, where a march set off to the main TUC rally.  Sadly, the TUC hadn't organised a march in Manchester, but lots of strikers joined in anyway:

The march joined the main rally in Piccadilly Gardens:

The big question everyone was talking about was - what next?  The FBU are escalating their action against plans to make them work to 60 or have their pension cut - they have called fifteen strikes over eight consecutive daysfrom 14-21 July.  The NUT and local authority unions are talking about more strikes in the autumn.  The TUC has called a national demonstration on 18 October.

Everyone I spoke to was clear on one thing.  They don't want to see any repeat of the loss of momentum after November 30th 2011 (N30), when some unions signed up to a rotten deal while others failed to call action and allowed the campaign to fizzle out.  People know that one day won't be enough to seriously shift this rotten government.  They want to see a serious "plan to win" - nobody wants to lose pay for a token gesture.

Labour did better this time.  Instead of attacking strikers, they sat on the fence.  But everyone knows that as the General Election approaches, union leaders tend to get more and more timid.

If the million+ who struck today want to win, they are going to need to try to do three things - build in, build out, build up.

Build in
Strikes are always uneven, and this was no exception.  The strikes mobilised huge numbers of workers.  They now need to be organised to strengthen organisation inside and between workplaces, to make sure that every worker is spoken to and future action is stronger.

Build out
Everyone got great strength and encouragement from taking action together today.  Activists in unions that didn't participate (e.g. NASUWT, UCU) need to campaign to come on board.  Activists in unions that were partly involved need to campaign to drawn in more sectors.  For example, many people (including health workers) were asking why health workers in UNITE and UNISON weren't out today, as they were on N30.  Why were PCS members out but UNITE members in MOD & Government Departments were not?  Can private sector workers coordinate their own campaigns with those in the public sector?  UNITE is particularly well placed to do this.

Build up
The government can withstand the a one-day strike every few months.  Some union leaders may be happy to keep action at this level, keeping issues simmering away in the hope that Labour will gain at the next election.  But this won't be enough to defend out public services or the pay and conditions of those who work in them.  That will take escalation.  Some union leaders are nervous about escalation, fearing that members won't support more action.  But members are far more likely to support action they believe can win, if they explain how they plan to win.  This won't happen if members just sit back and hope.  People need to get involved in the union in their workplaces and branches and campaign for it to happen, leaving union leaders in no doubt that the appetite is there and that action will be supported if called.