Last Saturday saw the second Right to Work conference take place in Manchester City Centre. Held across two venues; the Methodist Central Hall on Oldham street and the historic Mechanics Institute, it was billed by its organisers as “a conference of resistance and solidarity” in the face of the economic crisis.
The Right to Work campaign has its origins in the SWP, and is a revamp of a similar front it ran in the early 80s. It appears that in the wettest dreams of the SWP central committee, the campaign will be the recession-themed answer to the Stop the War coalition, and provide a similar profile boost. There was certainly a lot of careful bridge-building to be seen at the event – with invites extended to the National Shop Stewards Network (who critically endorsed the conference), and with the Socialist Party being one of the few groups allowed a stall inside the building.
Despite initial scepticism I thought it was worthwhile attending, and headed over with comrades from the Anarchist Federation and the Commune, armed with updated copies of Brighton Solfed’s For Workers' Control. Despite horrible first impressions (being asked to sign a petition to jail Tony Blair half a dozen times before I was even inside the building), we were right in our prediction that the event would reach out beyond the leftist hardcore, and attract pissed off workers in the process of becoming politicised - over 900 people turned up in the end, exceeding the capacity of the venue.
Nonetheless, the format of the conference was extremely limiting; the late start (11.30) meant that there was too little time for actual discussion to take place. Given the lack of discussion, its debatable whether the day was really a conference at all. The day opened and closed with large “rally” style meetings, which were addressed by a panel of speakers from the stage. Some of these were genuinely interesting, such as a worker from the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wright which went into occupation last year, a RMT cleaners rep, and a speaker from the ongoing Fujitsu dispute. For the large part though the speakers were either union hacks making radical postures or were from organisations like the Stop the War Coalition and Unite Against Fascism, whose only relevance was the mutual SWP link.
In between the “rally” meetings was a session for workshops, all of which ran concurrently. In retrospect, this part of the conference was the only part of the day of real interest, as it was the only time at which any discussion with other workers about shared grievances could actually take place. While there were a range of workshops of varying interest – from the more practically focussed sessions, such as one on how to deal with anti-strike legislation in the wake of the high court injunction against the BA strike, and others on resisting cuts in education and organising the unemployed - other sessions betrayed the fact that the event was a de facto conference of the left – such as workshops titled “after Copenhagen, the fight against climate change”, and “Jobs not bombs”.
I went along to the session on how to resist anti-strike laws, along with some other comrades. This session was held a little way across town, in the historic Mechanics Institute. Although poor directions to the venue likely affected the numbers who turned up for the meeting, it was well attended. There were around 60 people in the meeting, which was chaired by Paul Brandon from Right to Work (also a Unite bus worker and editor of Busworker freesheet). The opening speech from Linda Bartle, a former worker at Visteon in Enfield who was involved in the factory occupation last year set the tone much of what followed. She described angrily the way in which the occupation had to take on the union as well as the employers and the law. Despite years of paying union subs, the workers were given no funds by the union until the occupation was in its final stages; they were given legal advice which was false and told to leave the factory by officials, and meanwhile Unite didn’t even mention the dispute on their website, let alone encourage its members to support the occupation.
Despite attempts by the chair to focus discussion on the supposed need to create a “civil rights-type movement” to defend the right to strike and heap political pressure on the consciences of parliament, much of the meeting followed the tone Linda had set: workers (many of whom were shop stewards) described the way in which the union machinery had frustrated their attempts to take action by enforcing anti-strike legislation on its membership, and suggested ways to build the confidence needed to take unofficial action. Although several speakers argued for rank-and-filist tactics (in the sense of electing officials from the base committed to breaking anti-strike laws) and others argued the human rights angle, I’d say there was a decent recognition of the fact that the problem with unions isn’t poor leadership, but a set of circumstances where the only way they can maintain their ability to negotiate with management is by enforcing law and order on its membership, and either sabotaging or co-opting independent action (or even just undesirable militancy). These circumstances will remain in place no matter how “left” the leadership. A good number of speakers (including myself) argued that anti-strike laws have been broken with few consequences historically and recently by workers with the self-confidence to do so, with the union playing catch-up. As a result our focus should be on networking with other workers, and arguing for decisions to be made in mass meetings. In the absence of this, union meetings should be opened up to all workers irrespective of membership. Although the meeting didn’t lead to anything concrete, it was definitely worth the £5 I’d paid for the day.
By far the least interesting part of the conference was the final session, in which a statement which had been prepared beforehand and circulated at the beginning of the day was passed, with practically nothing in the way of discussion. Amendments were allowed, and 11 (!) were tagged onto the final statement. It was mostly standard left boilerplate – commitments to support a host of ongoing campaigns and upcoming events, to demonstrate outside the conference of whichever party wins the general election, etc, along with commitments to continue Right to Work as a national campaign. In amongst all of this were a number of “demands” such as “nationalise the banks and businesses that are making redundancies with no compensation and run them under democratic control for the need of the many and not the greed of the few.” Leaving aside the political objections, which aren’t insubstantial, making “demands” without anything like the power able to enforce them is unhelpful but predictable leftist posturing, which distracts from the real experience of the economic crisis on a day-to-day level and the possibility of a response rooted in it. We are in no position to demand that the state is run in any particular way, even should we want to, and perpetuating such illusions is counterproductive.
A major criticism, obviously, is that there was no sign in the conference or on the part of many of its attendees of a questioning of trade unionism per se, or any recognition of the ultimately anti-working class nature of unions. This criticism has already been made on the forums of this site; as another poster noted, Dave Chapple of the National Shop Stewards Network made the most critical comments about the event from the stage, but even these arguments fitted within the general focus on unionism of the conference. While I agree with the sentiment of this criticism, I don’t think much else could have been expected from the conference, given its basis in the unions and the SWP. The virtue of the event was the ability to discuss issues with other workers in the workshop sessions. On that basis, it was definitely worth going to. Its unsurprising that these campaigns and events attract pissed-off workers, and interventions by pro-revolutionaries should be geared towards them. In light of the workshop we attended, I also think we could have made more direct criticism of the unions than what was in For Workers Control. We’re used to automatically going on the defensive when we criticise unions; in the left circles where these kinds of arguments usually register, we have to laboriously argue against established wisdom. At the meeting we went to, people were so pissed off with their unions that such arguments would just be an elaboration of their everyday experiences. Given that the conference agreed to establish local right to work groups and hold meetings on a regional level, I’d argue that pro-revolutionaries should keep an eye on the campaign for opportunities to discuss with other workers at these kinds of events.