Friday, June 19, 2015

All Gas and Knighthoods

 ANTI-FRACKING protest on Lancashire's Fylde coast. Offshore fracking may have caused minor earthquake.  GMB union called conference in Blackpool to reassure people about benefits of fracking.

LAST weekend's conference of local trades union councils, meeting in Crewe, discussed motions, and action, on a variety of issues, from Climate Change to Child Abuse, Low Pay to Benefit Sanctions. Delegates pledged to resist attacks on Trade Union rights in the civil service and to reject the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), about which politicians are being so suspiciously quiet.

But when it came to prioritising the resolution that should go to this year's TUC, conference voted to select one which essentially repeats what we said last year. That the fraternal or sororal delegate whom we are entitled to send to congress each year should have proper speaking and voting rights, including the right to move the one resolution which we are entitled to submit.

This might not seem an earth-shattering decision, or likely to make front-page news, but it is one which the TUC has found far from straightforward.  When it was raised a few years ago as part of a resolution urging trade unions to give more support to trades councils, moved on our behalf by the late Bob Crow of the RMT union, the resolution was passed,  but TUC officers registered "reservations"on behalf of the General Council, centred on the question of representation at Congress.   

It is hard to get at what's behind these reservations. Trades councils, to use their traditional name, are not some weird and wonderful idea dreamed up by trendy left-wing intellectuals. They go back to the 19th century. It was a conference called by the Manchester and Salford trades council in 1868 which became the Trades Union Congress.

Nowadays, trades union councils, as they are properly called, represent trade unionism in the community. Bringing together members of different unions with branches in the same area, they remain essentially rank and file bodies, consisting of lay members not only supporting each other in any struggles at work, but campaigning from a working class point of view on issues that can range from housing in London to flood prevention and control in the West Country, and of course the fight for the National Health Service. With this belief in workers' unity it is only consistent of trades councils to stand against racism where they live and be interested in an international perspective. Being concerned with where they live has increasingly led also to concern with the environment and climate change.

Maybe it is this spectre of lay activists, unconstrained by narrow sectional advantage or careerism, campaigning in their own time, and liable to be "political", that more conservative union officialdom finds worrying? Looking at trades councils in decline with their old industrial base, and aging officers, former TUC president Brendan Barber is reputed to have said that the problem could be left to anno domini.   But though weakened by neglect, and sometimes falling, trades councils have not gone away. New ones have been formed, old ones revived, and with new ways of organising and attracting younger members, those of us making use of retirement and our freedom passes may look forward to handing over to a new generation.

But that aside, surely the admission of one delegate and allowing that person to speak can hardly be seen as threatening the whole TUC edifice with overturn, can it?

When the issue was raised again at last year's TUC, only a couple of minor union's delegates spoke against it, expressing fears that having an extra delegate might give some unions unfair advantage,  the delegate from the Royal Society of Physiotherapy objecting -quite incorrectly -that trades council delegates were not accountable to anyone.

It looked as though the resolution might be passed. But, as last year's fraternal delegate, Dave Chapple from Bridgwater TUC, explained to this year's trades councils' conference, when the chair decided to go to a card vote (meaning unions can cast votes proportionate to the size of their official membership),  the trades councils' motion was defeated by 2,908,000 votes to 2,718,000.  There are not two million chartered physiotherapists in Britain. It appears the big GMB union was one of those whose delegates did not enter the debate, but whose weight made sure the motion was defeated.

Hearing this, I was reminded of what I heard at the TUC in Brighton in 2012, when I was the fraternal delegate, officially welcomed by the chair, (now Sir) Paul Kenny from the platform, albeit I was consigned to the outer darkness of a seat in the remote visitor's gallery.  At that congress, outside which demonstrators were calling for a "general strike", delegates agreed to a motion from the RMT union to explore the prospect of concerted industrial action against the Con Dem coalition's austerity policies. Only a handful of smaller unions like the Airline Pilots' Association spoke against. Others, like Sir Paul's union the GMB, and perhaps Unison, reputedly agreed among themselves not to oppose the motion, but to make sure afterwards that nothing came of it. And of course, nothing did.   

Hearing about the GMB again last Saturday, trades council conference delegates were amusedly pointing out to each other the news in  the papers that GMB general secretary Paul Kenny had been knighted in the Queen's birthday honours list. For "services to trade unionism", naturally. The Tory press were claiming this was merely for the union's generosity to Labour. But I was thinking that whoever advises on these things must have had a shrewd knowledge of what went on behind the sometimes militant-sounding speeches at union conferences.


Perhaps I should have remembered something else Dave Chapple said, at last year's trades councils conference in Cardiff.  At that conference we passed a motion about the dangers for the environment and global warming of the oil and gas prospecting method known as "fracking". Bridgwater postman Dave got up to ask why nobody had spoken against, particularly why no one from the GMB union, which he understood was in favour of fracking. 

There was no response.

At the time, I thought maybe Dave was being a bit unfair. Delegates were all there representing their trades council, irrespective of their own particular trade union, with whose national policy they might not necessarily agree anyway.

But the more we see of the GMB's distinctly pro-fracking policy the more we must wonder at the union's apparent lack of concern about explaining itself to other trade unionists.

Already in April last year the GMB joined its voice to contractors welcoming reports that fracking could create a £33 billion industry eventually employing 64,000 workers.This ignored the doubts expressed by others concerning the viability of the energy industry as well as the harmful effects on areas.

Then in  January this year it was claimed that unions had pressured Labour MPs to abstain from a vote that would have imposed a moratorium on the shale gas industry. Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt,  who resigned from the government to support the moratorium, said: “Two of Britain’s biggest unions – the GMB and Unite – weighed in [on Monday], begging Labour MPs not to support a ban on fracking. This may go some way to explaining... Labour’s 180 degree about-turn.”

Only 52 MPs backed the moratorium, with 308 against. Earlier in the day there had been suggestions the anti-fracking rebels could win with Labour support.

Unite members were concerned at the claim their union was involved. Unite's own conference in July 2014 had passed an anti-fracking resolution.

But the GMB union sent a letter to MPs before the vote urging them to oppose the amendment, saying that support for the moratorium would be “a total abdication of any moral responsibility” for the UK’s use of and extraction of gas.“We will be using gas for many decades to come and this gas needs to come from somewhere,” it said.

"GMB says that over 80 MPs are members of its union. Only seven voted for the amendment proposing a moratorium, while most of their Labour colleagues abstained. On Friday GMB will hold a conference on fracking in Blackpool, close to a site where shale gas tests are believed to have caused earth tremors in 2011".

The GMB's welcome for the supposed benefits of fracking last year came as it was reported that the UK government was resisting EU efforts to regulate the industry.

The government is continuing to push through changes in its Infrastructure Bill to take away obstacles to fracking under people's homes and property and under national parks.

Much of this activity threatens to take place in what have been thought of as Tory areas, and yet precisely because residents have made efforts to conserve their neighbourhoods and property values, can arouse bitter local opposition which environmental campaigners -and even possibly Labour - could harness.

It would be a pity if this resistance and the possibility of new alignments were to be weakened by trade union bureaucrats preferring to stake their members' hopes on promises from greedy bosses in return for their political services. 

The GMB has been evoking its longstanding link to the gas industry.  Will Thorne, a socialist whom Eleanor Marx helped learn to read,  founded the gasworkers' union in 1889, and went on to become one of the first Labour MPs, representing West Ham South. The GMB can claim to be the gasworkers' successor union.  But Thorne built his union by organising the workers in struggle for their rights against the employers, not through a sweetheart deal for privilege by championing the employers' interests.

But then Thorne only got an OBE, and that much later, not a knighthood.

The Times reported on June 9.

GMB breaks with Unite to support fracking

 One of Britain’s biggest unions has backed fracking by agreeing to work with explorers to develop the industry.

In a move that splits the labour movement — Unite, Britain’s biggest union, has been anti-fracking — the GMB has signed a charter with UK Onshore Oil & Gas.

The charter, signed at the GMB’s annual conference in Dublin yesterday, said that companies and employees would commit to safety rules and the development of skills and the supply chain to support fracking — the production of gas or oil through the hydraulic fracturing of rock in difficult-to-access reserves underground.

And here's a press statement yesterday from the union:

GMB Northern Region on fracking

Thursday, June 18, 2015
GMB northern region welcome June 18th briefing from chemicals industry on fracking in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Given the fragility of the oil and gas sector due to price pressures, diversification through shale gas could well become a key employer within the energy sector says GMB Northern Region.
GMB Northern Region welcome a briefing to businesses on fracking which took place in Newcastle upon Tyne today (18th June 2015). See notes to editors 1 for copy of press release from the Chemical Industry Association.
On 8th June the GMB Congress agreed an important statement on fracking which acknowledged that while there are important considerations, the economic, indigenous energy and employment benefits cannot be ignored. See notes to editors 2 for copy of GMB CEC statement agreed by GMB Congress in Dublin on 8th June 2015.
Billy Coates, GMB Northern Regional Secretary said "This is very much work in progress. The strategic importance of fracking within the UK's balanced energy mix must not be ignored. Along with nuclear, renewables, green coal, oil and gas, fracking could be absolutely essential to achieving near self -sufficiency which will benefit domestic and business need.
Fracking has in effect being going on for years as a by-product of oil and gas exploration. Given the fragility of the oil and gas sector due to price pressures, diversification through shale gas could well become a key employer within the energy sector.
Policy makers need to take this into account as we look to sustainable communities through employment, investment, secure energy through supply, price and use". 

Surely all this deserves more than a mere knighthood? 

BRO. KENNY, now Sir Paul, at TUC.  "TUC get off your knees", the demonstrators chanted. Did he hear "Arise ye faithful servant"?

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