Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A result worth remarking

JERRY HICKS, with megaphone, during an earlier campaign.

FROM some of the talk around the anniversary of the miners' strike, you might have thought militant trade unionism in Britain was a thing of the past. Just as the miners were clobbered by Thatcher's police, and their communities torn through by her policies, so trade union strength has taken some blows over the decades from the loss of of jobs and industries, outsourcing, casualisation, and laws weighed in favour of the most ruthless anti-unon employers.

Then just as the bosses' hacks (including some within our movement) might have looked forward to celebrating victory over us dinosaurs, there came the wave of "wildcat strikes" (a phrase I had not heard since I was a teenage Trot and Trafford Park was covered by massive engineering factories), starting at Lindsey oil refinery. Followed by the report (not exactly "news" to many of us) that well-known firms have been subscribing to an information service that helps them blacklist active trades unionists. They would not throw their money away if they did not think they had anything to worry about. And to an extent it works, particularly in times of unemployment, so that for fear of getting "a name" workers on sites may even think twice about raising concern about safety issues.
But then people do turn, when they have had enough. And one sign of that has come, not in a strike, but in an election, in the Amicus wing of Unite, the union, whose membership includes some of those striking constructional engineers but also ranges across manufacturing industry, and takes in white coated technicians in hospitals and labs, and white-collared workers in the crisis-hit finance and insurance industry.

No, Amicus members have not voted for another Arthur Scargill (as if there is one) to lead them. They have re-elected Derek Simpson as general secretary. When he first came in he was regarded as a left (these things are relative, he ousted right-wing electricians' leader Ken Jackson). More recently he was criticised as too ready to co-operate with the Labour government and employers, and too willing to remain in his post without being re-elected, while the union completes its merger with the Transport and General Workers wing of Unite. When it came to the elections, though, many of the Amicus "left" rallied back to Simpson's side, and a full-time officer who had been put forward as a left-wing candidate stood down and advised supporters to back Derek Simpson and counter a right-wing threat.
Jerry Hicks, whose successful legal challenge to Simpson had brought the election, was criticised by some people for causing this "diversion" of resources, and for a time his left-wing candidature was not mentioned by some left-wing papers. So now let us look at the result. The votes cast were::
D Simpson: 60,048
Jerry Hicks: 39,307
K Coyne: 30,603
P Reuter: 28,283

So even if we accepted the claim by some "broad left" supporters that Derek Simpson was worthy of left-wing support, and that former Rolls Royce convenor Jerry Hicks was being "irresponsible" and splitting the left-wing vote, we see that far from letting the right-wing in, Hicks took almost 40,000 votes, came second and pushed the right-winger Kevin Coyne, a full-time official, into third place.
Thanking his supporters and voters for what was, he says, "a remarkable result", Jerry Hicks acknowledges that "the turnout was low at 15 percent, reflecting as we always said the, disconnect and yawning gap between the union and our members, but the result was extraordinary. It wasn’t so much a battle of ideas as a battle between no ideas, and our idea of what the union needed to do".

Jerry Hicks began his campaign with few resources, other than the respect of those who knew his record as a socialist and trade unionist, and knew that it was down to his effort that they were getting a vote. In contrast, a letter was sent to every individual union member at a cost of £250,000, proclaiming the successes of Derek Simpson, The Spring issue of the union magazine came out in February, and members received with their ballot paper a document accusing Jerry Hicks of lying in his election address.

As for the Left press as Jerry Hicks notes, the Morning Star urged its readers in Amicus to vote for Derek Simpson, and tried to scare people that if they voted for Jerry Hicks they would get Kevin Coyne. The results are an answer to that. Socialist Worker, as I noted in a previous posting, initially ignored Hicks (a former Socialist Workers Party member), and urged support for full-time officer Lawrence Faircloth, as "the left-wing candidate", until Faircloth threw in the towel and urged support for Simpson.. The SWP did then decide to support Jerry Hicks, though he doubts whether they added much to his campaign.

He cites three more important background features, calling them 'the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly', as playing a part in Amicus affairs..

"First there was ‘the Good’ which was the eruption a few weeks ago of the rumbling volcano of anger in the construction industry, with the unofficial strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery; a very clear example of the frustration within the membership that I was raising at every meeting I attended. As the construction workers ratcheted up their demands for action, the inadequacy of the union leaders became even more obvious. The Lindsey strike was unofficial – because after three terms of a Labour government the Tory anti-union laws are still in place: but within five days, the members achieved more than they had in five months of delaying tactics from national leaders.

"Then there was ‘the Bad’ where I attended a meeting of union members at the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters in Aldgate in London. On the agenda was a newsletter for members and the election for General Secretary. This was on the very day the RBS bosses were being put through the wringer in Parliament. The members newsletter headline was “Why should we pay for their mistakes?” – but the union officials would not let them put it out because it might compromise negotiations. So our members never received it and had to read about what was happening to them in the mass media rather than hear from their own union.

"And then ‘the Ugly’ where at Cowley’s BMW plant, the management sacked four shifts, 850 temporary staff – at an hour’s notice, with no redundancy pay. When the management left the building after making the announcement, furious members pelted the union reps with tomatoes, seeing the union as part of the problem instead of the solution.

"How could it get to this? How is it that after three terms of a Labour government, workers some who had worked for BMW for 4 years can still be treated like that? Now more than ever before, we don’t just need a “campaigning union” we need a fighting union, one that instills a confidence in members to resist employers’ attacks. Ours was absolutely a left campaign calling for people before profit, public ownership not privatisation, and a green campaign.

"Discussing with our members why it’s wrong for Unite to support more nuclear power stations simply in the name of some jobs when green energies, Sea, Solar and Wind could produce ten, twenty, thirty times as many jobs without leaving a thousand years of toxic waste! Debating with construction workers that Unite had been wrong to declare support for a third runway at Heathrow – and that investment in public rail transport would create even more jobs with less cost to our environment.

"As the campaign progressed so did its support and optimism. By the end we had a real coalition of individuals, branches, committees and almost every left group. The stuff that dreams are made of we were living in reality.
I travelled over 4,000 miles to attend meetings, take part in demonstrations and to give out leaflets at workplaces. All this along with every other cost was funded by generous donations from a few committees and so many individuals.

"Everyone who was a part of this campaign got something positive from it. You yourselves will know the people you met or contacted, the places that you leafleted. Me - You – Us – We were all so close to making history. It has given us a glimpse of what is possible".

Reading Jerry Hicks' post-election blog I am reminded of the inspiring talk I heard the other week from Trevor Ngwane, a former Soweto councillor and leader of South Africa's anti-privatisation campaign, now speaking for the Socialist Green Coalition which is standing up for the masses of poor people in Africa's richest country. Trevor spoke about day-to-day campaigning, which can range from supporting workers' strikes and defending Zimbabwean refugees and Mozambique migrants, to reconnecting electricity for poor people who can't pay their bills. But he managed to place this in a wider vision, that of striving for a society without exploitation and competition, and reminded us that we could not build socialism if we did not save the planet, just as we cannot save the planet without socialism. * To help answer questions about the trade unions in this struggle, comrade Ngwane was joined by a comrade from Durban who first came to Britain to raise support for his fellow-workers, members of NUMSA, a union similar to Amicus, battling in the days of the Apartheid regime.

The working class is finding its answer to global capitalism, and crisis, and it is an old answer, renewing itself with fresh forces and new forms. Workers of the World Unite - You have nothing to lose but your chains. And you have a world to win!

See "You Have to be Green to be Red, You have to be Red to be Green", report by Norman Traub and Terry Conway for Socialist Resistance.

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