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Remploy: strike suspension undermines the struggle

By Andy Yorke

GMB and UNITE officials called off the third Remploy strike scheduled for Monday 6 August, breaking the momentum of the struggle. The action was pulled at the last minute after a national meeting of the Remploy national consortium, involving GMB and Unite officials, in favour of a “new strategy which will have more effect on the Government” focused on protests and actions around the Olympics and government offices.

Unfortunately this is a step back that will take the pressure off the Tories. The first two days of action sent pressure mounting and only by escalating the action, can workers continue to tighten the screws on Cameron’s government.

A sustained strike can pave the way for both a strong solidarity movement and give workers the confidence to occupy their factories – effectively the only option for factories scheduled to close in a few days.

Support committees good but not enough

It is a step forward that the consortium has called for the creation of support committees in towns with Remploy factories. Workers Power has been calling for solidarity committees to be built to tap public support, mobilise the anti-cuts and disabled rights movements, and organise trade union solidarity.  The aim would be not just strike donations but building protests and rallies, as the launch pad for an all-out fight to stop the closures.  By drawing in young activists from UK Uncut, Occupy and the more radical wing of the anti-cuts movement alongside trade union reps, solidarity committees could become real organising centres for action – reducing reliance on GMB and Unite bosses.

The call for support committees is a concession to Remploy workers and reps who want a more active, outward policy by the union. While essential, their appeal to those outside Remploy will remain limited without a sustained strike, which is the only way to really galvanise support and solidarity. Occupations where a factory is closing can stop the machinery being moved out and force Remploy into the national headlines, turning it into a crisis for the Tories.  Solidarity committees, an all-out strike, occupations – these are the essential components of a strategy to win.

Despite the positive steps forward, the union’s official campaign hasn’t given the Tories much more than another headache. Remploy activists need to develop a strategy – and the rank and file organisation to deliver it – that can push them into crisis.

Union leaders talk a good fight

GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny speaking at the GMB Congress in June argued that

“Unless there is a government U-turn on closing the Remploy factories what will happen is that the 2,800 disabled workers employmed in them will be put on the scrap heap and most of them will never work again.”

Unite leader Len McCluskey called the closures “barbaric”.

Tory promises of job support are a sick joke at a time when the government is launching a drive to force the long-term sick and disabled off benefits and into non-existent jobs.  There are already 515,400 disabled workers without a job in the UK according to the GMB. Over ninety percent of the workers who lost their jobs in the 2008 closures are still unemployed, years later!  That’s why the current strike, the first national strike in Remploy’s history, is so important.

No explanation is given for the change of strategy in the consortium’s circular.  The only “concessions” by the government so far – made before the national strike days took place – is further consultations for nine of the 36 factories slated for closure. Even this concession has turned out to be a total mirage. The nine workplaces are being put up for privatisation – and Remploy will only guarantee workers’ terms and conditions for six months after sale, and that the new private bosses will choose which workers to keep and which to throw on the scrapheap.

…Rank and File can turn words into action

The change of strategy also pulls the rug out from under the Remploy workers who gave a strong vote for the strike (80 per cent GMB, 59.7 per cent Unite) and a strong turnout for picketlines, with nearly the entire workforce manning the gates at factories like Leeds.  The abrupt end to the strike will damage morale and sow confusion among workers – they gave a clear message in their strike vote, GMB and UNITE leaders and officials need to follow through on their members’ wishes.

Remploy workers have an alternative – they can take control of the campaign, using the mass meetings, called by the consortium to consult with members, to demand the strike is restored.  The writing is on the wall, the GMB and UNITE leaders are not prepared to take the action necessary to win. In 2008 they talked left but 28 Remploy factories closed and 2100 jobs went because there was no strike action.  Remploy workers should move rapidly to contact their fellow workers in other factories and organise a rank and file network to take control of the strike.

Workers Power visited pickets during the strike at factories around Leeds, and met many workers who were fearful for their future, but committed to fighting not just for their own jobs, but also in defence of the right of the disabled to have productive work suited to their abilities. We produced two strike bulletins which argued that sustained strike action and occupations are needed to mobilise mass support and turn up the heat on the Tories.  We said that Remploy workers needed to develop mass meetings and strike committees into a leadership capable of controlling the strike and going forward with or without the union leaders if they won’t fight.  We stand by that perspective.

With the Paralympic games approaching there is no better time for the Remploy workers to make the case for investing in useful, properly paid work for disabled people. An all-out strike during the Olypmics, alongside the stunts and protests currently planned under the new strategy, would make the governments’ recent run of embarrassments pale into insignificance.

Remploy activists and reps who disagree with the new strategy and want the strike restored should urgently convene a national unofficial meeting to discuss a strategy to win, and set up a rank and file network to push it through.  They can find allies in the GMB and UNITE to amplify their voice and back them up if they make links with other militants in the Sparks rank and file committee and Unite Grassroots Left.

Once again, Workers Power believes an urgent reorientation back to the strike and taking the step to escalate and occupy is the only way to save Remploy factories and jobs.

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