The backdrop to this Saturday’s ‘Right to Work’ conference was an ongoing economic and political crisis that has seen unemployment rise steeply, public services slashed, a ‘good war’ become a running sore, and eye watering bonuses for a tiny minority for whom it is business as usual. Combined with the widespread anger and lucid understanding of what is coming, there is a real desire to resist.
Sometimes events simply expire while you are there and sometimes they are the beginning of something. The Right to Work conference in Manchester this Saturday which crammed 900 socialists, trade unionists, students and activists from campaigns of various stripes into the Methodist Central Hall, most definitely fell into the latter category. The purpose? To begin to cohere and pull together the different centres of resistance that have flared up in the last couple of years and start to build the wider ”networks of solidarity” the working class will need if it is to beat off the intensification of the neo-liberal offensive over pay, pensions, working conditions, public services and education that looms after the general election.
So it was a good start. Those attending represented various labour movement bodies and campaigns, trade councils, union branches, national organisations like the National Shop Stewards Network, Labour Representaion Committee, STW, UAF, the Unemployed Workers Union, Sheffield Pensioners Action Group, various Green Party branches, revolutionary left groups to name but a few. The speakers on the platform in the opening and closing sessions and the lead speakers in the 11 workshop sessions demonstrated just how broad and serious the Right to Work campaign is intended to be in building on the major examples of struggle and resistance in the last year.
There was an optimistic, militant spirit, best represented by those speakers directly involved in the strikes, disputes and occupations of the last year such as the Leeds refuse workers dispute, the Tower Hamlets college strike, the Superdrug workers, Vestas, London Cleaners campaign and so on, but also ongoing struggles such as the national Fujitsu dispute. The Fujitsu dispute is crucial, and hopefully a harbinger of the future, as it has taken place in an industry hardly touched by trade unionism or militancy but which since it began has seen over 1,400 workers join the union. Fuelling the optimism expressed at the conference is the fact that many of these struggles have been successful, breaking the dismal trend of a generation of defeat. They have defied and seen off anti-trade union laws, and revived of forms of action that appeard to be redundant or anachronistic. And they have actually delivered for the workers involved. Michael Bradley (SWP, RTW committee member) summarised this mood when he observed ”something has changed” – and people understood this referred as much to the possibilities as the recent past.
The workshops reflected this, for example, Jerry Hicks, militant candidate for the General Secretary of Unite led off a session on ‘How Can We Stop The Jobs Massacre?’ Other sessions dealt with fighting the anti-trade union laws, organising against anti-immigrant racism, ending the pensions swindle, organising the unemployed, fighting climate change after Copenhagen and more but crucially made the connection between these different aspects of the anti-capitalist struggle.
Your correspondent personally attended ‘How Can Workers Get A Real Political Voice’ led off by Michael Lavalette and a speaker from LRC. This was not the sparkiest session perhaps. While there is a recognition of the need for a left realignment and the existence of a sizeable electoral minority to the left of Labour – it got a little bogged down in the brouhaha about whether to vote New Labour where no credible left candidate was standing. The decay of Labourism / Social Democracy and its implications was missing from the debate. And among some, some humility or acknowledgement of how relatively marginal the left is in electoral terms, was missing too. But obviously in Britain left realignment still has some way to go.
The final rousing session – ‘building solidarity’ drew the different strands of the conference together. Next stop? To ensure the biggest presence possible in Redcar 13 February to oppose the Corus jobs massacre that would – if it were allowed – kill the town. And then… building the defend public services demo in London 10 April and ensuring the biggest presence outside the Tory’s spring conference. There is much work to do and Saturday was a good beginning.