Saturday, September 15, 2007

Don't dis the dinner ladies!

MY fellow blogger Dave Osler was saying the other day a propos the Trades Union Congress in Brighton that trades unionists need to keep up with the times, that we no longer have our old strength in industry, but are concentrated in the public sector, and need to find ways of organising in private industry and winning wider public support.

Not much to disagree with there, though Dave has a funny way of putting it "Meanwhile, the left needs to come up with proposals to extend union influence in the private sector, especially in smaller concerns, in a form that can be sold to the wider public".

Having but recently converted to Labourism, though he is by no means a Blair-Brownite, Dave can't resist a pop at old acquaintances.
"There is still a wide swathe of far left opinion that remains nostalgic for the Fred Kite era. That is gone forever. Britain’s economic structure – and social structure, come to that – has permanently changed.
Even the SWP has largely abandoned the romantic view of dinner ladies’ strikes as the first step to world revolution, based on a pamphlet written in Germany over 100 years ago."
Working constructively with employers on issues such as health and safety or training is not automatically tantamount to class collaboration. But industrial action remains a vital component of the labour movement’s tool-kit."

Sorry to spoil the illusion, Dave, but there never was a Fred Kite era. He was a fictional character played by Peter Sellers in a Boulting Brothers movie. Very funny, but not exactly a balanced picture of industrial relations in Britain when it was made. As for the "wide swathe of far left opinion" that's supposed to be nostalgic for it, I'm surprised to hear there are enough "far lefts" around for a wide swathe to be constituted, let alone be notalgic for a period most are too young to have known. Among the union activists I meet, I've not come across nostalgia for the bygone days of boomtime militancy among better-off sections, nor for the so-called Winter of Discontent which was among those public sector workers, Dave, fed up of bearing the brunt of neglect and pay freezes.

What has been growing is an interest in our history, knowing where we have come from, setting the record right on injustices like the jailing of the Shrewsbury pickets, remembering the kind of true solidarity that emerged in struggles to free the Pentonville Five dockers, or help the Grunwick women; and re-evoking it as we face new struggles today. Some of these are still the old struggles.

We have tried "working constructively with employers" (quite a lot of it went on in the past, as a matter of fact), and "partnership" was the buzz-word at Congress House for a while. I'm sure building workers would rather co-operate on safety than face a yearly toll in deaths. But it takes two to tango, and when unions are weak, workers are afraid to open their mouth, and bosses would rather risk fines than costs. ..

Still, what caught my eye in Dave's musings was that mention of dinner ladies. It just so happens that the September T&G record has a report, STUNNING VICTORY FOR SODEXHO STRIKERS, about the workers employed by contractors Sodexho in the kitchens at Haggerston School, in Hackney, east London. They have won a pay rise from the statutory minimum wage to the London Living Wage of £7.20 an hour.

Staged increases over the next 18 months will give them parity with staff employed directly by Hackney Council, who were earning nearly £4 an hour more than the Sodexho workers.

"Our members faced threats of dismissal from their management, but they stood firm and took strike action to get the company to listen", says union organiser Paul Fawcett.
"On the day of the strike 35 teachers refused to cross the picket line, forcing the headteacher to shut the school for the day. Notice of a further two days strike action was served on the company and talks were quickly arranged where the settlement was reached".

I'd heard about this strike at the founding conference of the National Shop Stewards Network organised in July with support from Bob Crow's RMT union, which some of those involved attended. Incidentally we also heard that the teachers who showed their understanding of what was right both for fellow trade unionists and the kids were also threatened with disciplinary action, not just by the school management but by their union, the National Union of Teachers.(NUT). I don't know what has happened since, but I see the South East Region TUC is holding a meeting next month for Black History Month with the NUT president Baljeet Ghale speaking on the theme "The struggle never ends - the continuous battle for equality and justice". (October 22, 6.30pm at Congress House, Great Russel Street). Maybe she will mention it.

Never having been in the SWP, I don't know whether they ever held the "romantic view" attributed to them about dinner ladies. I don't know about being "the first step to world revolution", but this victory by low paid workers standing up for themselves and their right to fair pay sounds like a step in the right direction. So does the teachers' action.

It's a long time since I read Rosa Luxemburg on 'The General Strike', if that is the book to which Dave was referring. But when I heard the "Laundryworkers' choir" singing an improvised ditty during a strike at St.George's Hospital (over victimisation) I remembered Rosa's words about the women making a strike into a carnival. (We won that one too, possibly because the Attorney General was being treated at the time and had wondered where his afternoon tea was. Two radiographers brought the trolley down to our picket line.)

Rosa Luxemburg's ideas may be out of date, but not as outmoded as those of the Social Democrat leaders she fought against, who wanted to revise Marx on class struggle, believing the 20th century would be one of peaceful progress to prosperity. Mind you. who even among the reformists and revisionists of the past would have thought to see a Labour government taking schools out of local authority control, boosting "faith schools" and academies? Or that big companies like Sodexho would be allowed in to make their profits from school meal provision?

I don't know whether Rosa Luxemburg wrote anything about school dinners, but I'd recommend a lovely essay about school meals by Sue Townsend, in her little book 'Mr.Bevan's Dream'. (1989) She was defending the Welfare State against Thatcherism, when dinner ladies had become an endangered species, and not perhaps realising the fight would have to continue with New Labour in government. Today people have woken to the issue of just what is being fed to the kids and by whom. .On issues like this trade unionists can win wide support from the public, and as we saw recently in the post office strikes they are learning to win that support. Friends of mine in Walthamstow have joined those up in arms over council plans to privatise school meals, and I am sure that Dave Osler, as a parent, as well as a trade unionist, will agree how important the dinner ladies and gentlemen are.

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At 12:53 AM, Blogger Mick Hall said...

A dam good read and spot on.


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