Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bob's last battle (it's still being fought).


AMONG the many tributes that have poured in to RMT leader Bob Crow, who died on Tuesday, perhaps not enough have spoken of his dedication not only to bettering the lives of railway workers, seafarers and others in his union, but to battling for the working class and a future for all.

I mentioned yesterday how Bob was often to be seen at events like the trades union councils' conference and his support for the National Shop Stewards Network, and I should also mention his appearances at the Durham Miners' Gala, and the Shrewsbury Justice for Pickets' demonstration, as well as the Liverpool conference of the Construction Safety Campaign a few years back. Pity the press took no interest in these of his travels, waiting until they could snap him on holiday instead. 

Last year Bob Crow not only spoke to us in the local trades councils' movement but for us as well.
A bit of background history to explain. In 1868, the year after the Second Reform Act conceded the vote to working men (women still had to fight on), Manchester and Salford trades council, representing union branches for all the different trades in that important industrial area, decided  to call a conference of similar bodies from other towns. It was at that conference, held in the Mechanics Institute, Princess Street, Manchester, that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was formed.  

Over the years the child far outgrew its parent bodies, which remain essentially grass roots, rank and file committees, yet as with unions and the Labour Party, it is as well to remember which came first. In the 1926 General Strike, while the TUC became the general staff and dealt with government, it was the local trades councils which became councils of action, not just mobilising pickets but distributing food and information, and in places determining what should move and where, so they became embryonic organs of dual power,

Remote as those days may seem, with local trades union councils much reduced in numbers and strength by changes in industry, they are nevertheless enjoying a modest revival, and finding a new significance as vehicles for conveying trade unionism in the community, at the centre of campaigns against austerity. Besides uniting workers who are both users and providers of services hit by cuts, a good trades council will lend support to the unemployed and old people, and win respect from the young whose energy and fresh ideas more than compensate for lack of experience. It can raise its political voice - independent of party or myriad sects -on the environment, democratic rights, police attacks, racism, or the international context. The adage "Think Globally, Act Locally" could be adopted, and has already been by some trades councils.

From trade union leaders and officialdom, we have experienced varied attitudes to the trades councils - from warm appreciation of our role,through lip service, to muttering that we're a nuisance. One TUC general secretary reputedly confided in friends that he was relying on "anno domini" to remove the problem of trades councils, in other words hoping that ageing and tiring members would not be replaced. In the midst of the fight to defend the National Health Service and its workers, I've been told that one major trade union with members in the hospitals does not encourage its branches to affiliate with their local trades union councils. Fortunately some do, and are able to make an important and informed contribution to campaigns in their areas.

In 1948, the London Trades' Council's defiance of a Cold War Labour government's ban on the capital's May Day march led to the TUC disbanding the London Trades Council, which was seen as a front for communists. In more recent years we have not experienced that kind of clash in the movement. But the increasing concentration of funding and resources away from the hands of local branches leaves trades union councils weakened, not only for staging events like May Day (for which some union officers are not enthusiastic) but for work we should be doing like assisting unemployed workers' groups, advice.centres and union organising.

Last year the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils (GLATUC) submitted a motion to the annual conference of trades union councils, calling for greater union support for trades councils in local campaigning. Beefed up by Merseyside with an amendment calling for trades councils to be represented at the TUC, this was submitted as a resolution to the 2013 trades union congress. And here we come upon another anomaly, that though it was trades councils which started the TUC, our conference is allowed to submit a resolution, but we only have a symbolic fraternal delegate each year, who is not allowed to move it. (This only applies so far as I know to the trades councils in England and Wales and the British TUC, the Scottish TUC is a different matter).

In 2012 I had the honour of being that fraternal delegate, only to find myself excluded from the hall and consigned to the outer darkness of the visitors' gallery, due apparently to a mistake in the credentials I'd been given, which was beyond the power or ingenuity of TUC officialdom to remedy over three or four days of the congress. Meanwhile some people were apparently willing to believe that these officials could or would organise a general strike!

Fortunately, to move the resolution on local campaigning, Motion 75, at the 2013 Bournemouth TUC we had a valiant and powerful champion, in RMT leader Bob Crow. Here is what he had to say:
 Bob Crow (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers)

Congress, it gives me the absolute honour to move this motion on behalf of the TUC Trades Union Councils’ Conference.  However, I shouldn’t be at this rostrum moving this motion because, in my opinion, it should be someone from the trades councils coming to this Congress to express that point of view.  (Applause)  However, I will come back to that point at the end, because I am sure that everyone is going to be voting for this issue, anyway.  I cannot imagine that anyone would dare go back to their particular trades council, to which their union would be affiliated, to tell them anything different.

First of all, let me pay tribute to those great women and men out there, many of whom are retired trade unionists yet active trade unionists or working, who do the work on a day-to-day basis and do the graft out there.  The fact is that we wouldn’t be here as an organisation if it was not for the trades councils coming together in the first place to set up the Trades Union Congress.  We want to remember what happened.  There have been a lot of history lessons today about what happened over a hundred-odd years ago by certain people.  Let me give you a bit of history.  Workers came together to organise against bosses both on an industrial and national level, but in a locality level as well.  Those old trades councils together with the trades union Movement together in a locality, a town or a city, do a tremendous job.  It is all right at this level bringing unions together, which is absolutely crucial to the development of the trade union Movement, but it is also crucial as well at regional level in the TUC and both at the trades council level as well. The fact is that they are running on a shoestring.  The point is that the trades councils could do so much more if they were given some extra facilities in the form of money.  My grandmother used to say to me, “It’s not all about money, you know, Bob.  There’s no shame in being poor.”  No, there’s no shame in having no money, but it’s one hell of an inconvenience.  (Applause)  That’s the real issue out there.  You can’t run on nothing.  

The fact of the matter is that what is taking place at the moment are massive attacks, as we all know.  Speaker after speaker, for the last three to four years, have come to this rostrum and have told us about their particular circumstances that workers are facing on a day-to-day basis, from industries shutting down, from pay freezes to food banks.  Someone told me today that in some parts of the country the food banks are actually running out of food. That is how bad it has got in Britain in 2013.  

With all the reservations about this motion – there are no reservations from me, by the way, although I would like to see what the reservations are because those reservations should be put to one side – the fact is that RMT a few years ago gave up its right to put a motion to this Congress to change the rule that trades councils should come to this body and move motions and be a part of this Trades Union Congress.  The fact of the matter is that if you have the opportunity, brothers and sisters, to go to the Irish trade union Movement, to the Welsh TUC or the Scottish TUC, you will see a far bigger involvement of trades councils and, in my opinion, a far better congress because you have more rank and file people speaking from the shop floor.  What I want to see is the rank and file taking part.  It is all very easy for a national officer to another national officer about how life is so hard out there for us.  I want to hear from workers telling me their experiences about what is taking place, and we are going out there to defend those people and to try and make life easier for them.  

Therefore, brothers and sisters, the reservation should be, at the end of the day, that of course it has to comply with the rules of the TUC.  I wouldn’t expect anything different from that, but rules can be changed if we have to comply with those rules and, quite rightly, we should apply the procedure at all times.  When passing this motion, brothers and sisters, I don’t want it passed on the basis that someone said, “Well, there was a reservation so we ain’t going to do no nothing.”  I am asking you to pass this resolution on the basis that trades councils will be given ample funding, that trades councils can come together, they can talk about their issues and they should be allowed to send delegates to this rostrum to move motions on behalf of the people they represent. On that basis, brothers and sister, I ask you to pass this motion without any reservation.  
 The motion was seconded by Kathy Taylor of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) who said that she was proud to be chair of the Northumberland County Association of Trades Union Councils, and supported by other speakers, including Union of Communication Workers delegate Amarjit Singh, a postal worker from Wales who has been a regular attender at trades union council conferences. No one spoke against. But before the congress was allowed to vote, as it did -unanimously - for the resolution, assistant TUC general secretary Paul Nowack, an unelected official, was called upon to express the reservations of the General Council, that allowing a trades council representative at congress would be in breach of existing rules, and might even undermine the "sovereignty" of individual unions.

How the TUC is supposed to alter its rules other than by resolutions and votes at Congress, is beyond my knowledge of constitutional law, and my common sense leads me to wonder at how one added delegate participating in congress can undermine whole trade unions and threaten civilisation as we know it, But what do I know, I could not even wangle my way in the door at Brighton while the chair Paul Kenny, of the GMB, was officially welcoming me to congress! 

So despite the eloquence of Bob Crow and others, and the vote at Bournemouth, the motion that was passed seems to have remained a dead letter. That's why last night, at a meeting of  Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils' executive, which opened with a minute's silence for Bro.Crow, delegates went on to agree the following motion should be submitted to trades councils' conference:

This Conference has major concerns that Motion 1 “Supporting Local Campaigning” chosen to go to Congress 2013 by this Conference and passed by delegates at Congress 2013 has since been put on the back burner by the General Council. This appears to be because of bullet point 3 contained in that motion - the right of this Conference to select a Trades Union Council delegate to attend Congress as a delegate and move the Trades Council Conference motion on our behalf.
This Conference therefore calls for the General Council to be censured for their complete lack of respect for both the wishes of delegates to this Conference and delegates to Congress. We further call for immediate action on the implementation of this motion so that we can send our own Trades Union Council delegate to Congress 2014.





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