Friday, April 11, 2008

Don't mention the war

I'VE just been leafing through the Preliminary Agenda for this year's conference of Trades Union Councils, which is due to take place in Sheffield from June 18-20. I find it disappointing.

Trades councils, as us old hands still call them (it's the original name and easier to say) bring together members of different unions living or working in a particular area. Comprised for the most part of lay, rank-and-file delegates from workplaces or branches, they represent trade unionism in the community, whether helping fellow-workers organise or campaigning on issues like health services and education.

The trades union councils and their annual conference are also an opportunity for grass-roots activists to discuss and raise their voice on the broader picture. My local trades council in Brent filled the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn for a day-long commemoration of the Grunwick strike, and held a well-attended public meeting with John McDonnell MP when he was challenging for the leadership of the Labour Party. We have also supported the local Stop the War group, and raised the issue of Iraq and its oil, and unions, with government and in the trades councils movement.

I've attended the conferences of trades union councils two years' running, in Liverpool and Torquay, and would probably have been the delegate to last year's conference in Newcastle had it not been for another engagement. In Torquay, we joked about 'Fawlty Towers', though in fact the hospitality and tourism facilities were excellent;, and it would seem that Basil Fawlty's famous advice "Don't mention the War!" has been saved for this year.

At each of these conferences, besides discussing jobs, health and pensions, and the fight against racism in Britain, delegates debated resolutions on international issues - Colombia, Venezuela, and last year, a lengthy resolution on Palestine.

Before a motion can reach conference it must be adopted by a county association. Having failed in a previous year because we hadn't learned the proper procedure, Brent tried again this year, submitting this motion to the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils(GLATUC):
'This conference of trades union councils expresses its solidarity with the working people of Iraq and their trade unions and other democratic associations (women's, students, etc) striving for their freedom and a better future.
From being one of the most developed Middle East countries, Iraq has been reduced by decades of sanctions, dictatorship, wars, and occupation, to poverty, chaos and ruin.
Many Iraqis, including skilled professionals, have been killed or driven into flight, to become homeless and desperate refugees.
Iraq's oil resources are vital to the country's future, and the country's present sorry plight must not be used to impose policies which deprive the Iraqi people of ownership and control of this wealth. Iraq's oil workers, organised in the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, have striven to maintain the industry through all the difficult years, and they deserve our support when they say Iraqi oil belongs to the people of Iraq.
Furthermore, trade unions like the IFOU which have reorganised after long years of repression, but still faced laws inherited from the old regime, are vital in uniting workers regardless of ethnic or sectarian divisions, and safeguarding progress and democratic rights.
For these reasons, conference urges the TUC and its affiliated unions to strengthen links with the Iraqi trade unions, to support them in the fight against penetration by private interests as in their defence of trade union rights; and to seek ways in which besides ending the occupation, British and Iraqi trade unionists can cooperate and exchange ideas, and influence policies for better international relations, peace, and the rebuilding of Iraq.

GLATUC delegates voted for the motion, but then we had to choose which two motions to prioritise for submission to the trades councils' conference, and my Iraq motion failed by one vote against an earlier submission from Havering on comprehensive education, and one from Westminster on the importance of trades councils. To be fair, the brother from Westminster then proposed our Iraq motion be submitted to the South East Region TUC instead.

But the disappointing thing about the trades union councils conference agenda is that this year there do not appear to be any international motions coming before us. Not on Palestine, where the siege of Gaza continues and Israeli planes attacked a trade union headquarters.
Not on Colombia, where British aid is going to the military, trade unionists are murdered, and my own union has condemned the attitude of Kim Howells, Labour Foreign Office Minister.
And once again nothing on Iraq, where British troops remain and the oilworkers' union warned that the battle for Basra was an attempt to secure port facilities. Nor on Iran, where trades unionists welcome our support for their freedom struggles but could also do with assurance that the British trade union movement won't go along with its government in endorsing US war preparations.

It's almost like we've decided to touch our forelocks deferentially to the ladies and gents in the Foreign Office, and assure them cap in hand that we humble folk know our place, and will stick to parish pump affairs. As though war and peace were not a life or death, and bread and butter, question, for British trade unionists. And yet we should know we can't afford Trident and a decent health service, even the treatment of service personnel injured in Iraq has been faulted.

On the other hand whenever Iraqi trades unionists like Hassan Jouma's have spoken here they have been received enthusiastically. Not only do people feel the human issues, but it is not that difficult to make a connection between Iraqi workers' fight against privatisation and ours, sometimes involving the same companies.

I'm not saying a trades councils conference resolution would have huge effect, either in changing British policy or unleashing really powerful solidarity. We've a long way to go to restore the rights and strength that enabled railworkers and dockers to block arms going to Ireland or the anti-Soviet forces in the early 1920s. That when trades councils became Councils of Action. All the same, I fear the bureaucrats keeping the unions behind this government breathed a sigh of relief over this conference agenda for the same reason I found it disappointing.


Things are happening, even if for the time being they are outside the box of our traditional labour movement organisations and methods. We old duffers may sometimes shake our heads over the unconventional tactics of young protesters who invade boardrooms or dress up as pirates, but when it comes to raising awareness we need to catch up with them.

Talking of awareness, on Tuesday night, April 15, at London's School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS), there's a meeting "Iraq: Behind the Corporate Carve-Up', organised by Iraq Occupation Focus with Verso the publishers, and you can hear Solomon Hughes, who has a new book out called 'War on Terror:Inc Corporate Profiteering from the Politics of Fear. Speaking with him will be Ruth Tanner, of War on Want, and Ewa Jasiewicz, who has visited Iraq both as a journalist and a contact person with the oil union. Ewa, who has worked for the TGWU Unite, is currently a researcher with Platform, dealing with oil issues.
It's 7pm in the Khalili Lecture Theatre, SOAS, which is on Thornhaugh Street. Nearest tube is Russel Square.

Some websites worth looking at:

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