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Leeds TUC meeting to build for 20 October a success

Leeds Workers Power report

The Leeds Trades Council organised a successful meeting tonight at the Civic Hall in the city centre. The aim was to build for the 20 October national demonstration against Tory austerity. Local speakers were capped by Mark Serwotka, the well-known left wing leader of the PCS civil servants union. Over 100 attended, mostly local trade unionists though there was a good showing from students too.

A speaker from the trades council and a series of local union officials and reps argued for a big mobilisation for 20 October and slammed Tory austerity, some angrily, some with a bit of humour. Sally Kincaid, Divisional Secretary of Wakefield NUT, condemned Michael Gove’s engineered attack on GCSE students, and said British teachers needed to follow the example of teachers striking in Chicago and Egypt. A CWU rep ridiculed the Tory u-turns and broken promises, comparing them to his disastrous personal life!

Tony Gledhill, GMB rep for the Leeds Remploy factory and on the National Consortium of Remploy unions, spoke about how 27 factories had been shut by the Tories in the previous month, and out of another nine “saved” for privatisation, four were announced to close just the day before. Meanwhile workers, many with learning difficulties and unable to read or write, were having to sign up to complex redundancy agreements they couldn’t understand, while managers got up to £37,000 in bonuses for shutting factories. The remaining eighteen Remploy factories remained in danger of closure or privatisation.

Laura Miles, on the NEC of the lecturers’ union UCU and chair of the Yorkshire and Humber region, rightly shifted the meeting’s gear to discussing strategy. Her serious speech, one of the best of the night, clearly got the attention of the room. She said she didn’t want to go through more Tory cuts horror stories but wanted to focus the meeting on discussing how to beat the Tories:

How do we make a difference and raise struggles to such a level the coalition can’t push through the cuts? … If pension strikers had taken 3-4 days of continuous action we’d be in a very different ball game to what we have now.”

She noted the tremendous opportunities open to us, with the TUC vote to consider the general strike and over 80 percent vote in the NUT for strikes:

Someone needs to name the date, not next March or April, but this autumn, preferably to dovetail with 20 October.

Mark Serwotka: Unity and alternatives

Mark Serwotka slammed Tory shock and awe austerity but noted it had worked to a degree because

We have not united and stayed united. We need to join all the campaigns and battles together, and unite all under one banner – we are all against austerity.

He was frank about Labour:

We do not have an opposition worthy of the name opposition. Never have we so needed a radical alternative in parliament right now against privatisation and austerity, what Labour would have done thirty years ago.

While he preferred a Labour government to the Tories, the party had to move substantially left. We need the kind of society that “we got closer to in the past and now we have to go much further towards to get to.”

This soft-focus politics, pitched at old Labourite and non-Labour trade unionists alike, was sharpened when it came to his arguments about where the struggle needed to go now and the unions.

 

October is an opportunity to put a million on the streets of London and 30,000 in Glasgow but it will not be enough to force Osborne to change his mind. We need large scale coordinated industrial action across the country as soon as possible after. This can all be done legally if there’s a will.

The “tragedy” of November 30 was “we could see our potential and what is possible”, but it was not followed up and the aftermath had led to widespread demoralisation. “Those unions that want to fight have a big choice” and couldn’t wait forever for other unions to join in; it would be “Waiting for Godot”.

What was missing was the fact that the left union leaders, including Serwotka, had done just that, and gone further in pulling strikes in early 2012 once it was clear that the big unions like Unison and the GMB were pulling out of the N30 coalition, with Unite initially sitting on the fence. Serwotka would not even organise a PCS London strike for 28 March when the NUT and UCU joined forces to strike in the capital!

Serwotka went on to defend the PCS leadership’s record with a list of “small victories”, sectional disputes of staff at tax offices, DVLA and most recently at border control before the Olympics, which led to partial gains when more was possible, or in the case of the border control strikes were called off, while excusing this timidity, saying we couldn’t win as individual unions only as a coalition taking action together.

SWP: by rank and file we mean broad leftism

Serwotka’s defence of the PCS leadership’s record sounded reasonable but was less than accurate. In reality lefts like Serwotka have been part of the problem of the N30 movement failing to go forward, not the solution. The problem is, nobody else pointed this out either, quite the opposite.

Laura Miles had clearly identified the problem at the root of the N30 sell-out:

The rank and file have not got the strength to stop sell-outs. We have to develop strong enough rank and file movements able to go forward without the trade union leaders where they hold back.

Absolutely right.

Yet she also praised Mark Serwotka in gushing terms without a word on his role in refusing to lead the PCS after big unions like Unison began to pull out of the N30 coalition.

Mark is the trade union leader who is head and shoulders above the rest of the trade union leaders of this country and has shown over the last 18 months he is prepared to stand up and put his money where his mouth is.

This shows precisely the problem with the SWP’s approach: rank and file rhetoric, covering a classic broad left approach where they cheerlead left leaders like Serwotka, to get them to speak at their meetings and put their name to party initiatives like Unite the Resistance, confident that in return the SWP will not seek to organise a rank and file movement independent of them in the PCS.

Similar uncritical support for “fighting” leaders in the NUT and UCU saw the SWP and SP left rudderless when these leaders called off strikes, leading to the collapse of the pensions struggle. The right wing leadership – in Unison, for instance – were always going to try to pull out; it was the leftwing leaders who made further action conditional on these unions keeping on board, and who pulled action when they predictably defected. They had no strategy to go forward without the right wing leaders, and the SWP, SP and other “socialists” had no strategy to go forward without the left leaders and could provide no alternative.

The SWP don’t even try to hide this anymore, with Unite the Resistance (a petition was passed round for its November conference): in the 15 September issue of the paper, they explain that UTR is “neither a rank and file group, nor a broad left type formation, looking to capture the top of a union. Instead it seeks to bring together rank and file workers with those union leaders who want to resist.”

In other words, it’s a broad left formation in its classic definition, neither maintaining the independence of the rank and file from the left leaders, nor seeking to control or replace them, but uniting the two together. The necessary consequence of this failed strategy is the kind of uncritical gushing praise on offer tonight, to tempt the Serwotkas on to UTR’s speakers list in November.

Instead of praise Workers Power members were prepared to place demands on Serwotka – why doesn’t he get together with the other left union leaders on a tour to build for the general strike and promote local assemblies? Why doesn’t he use his prestige to demand openly that the SWP, SP and Counterfire, local trades councils and anti-cuts groups come together to launch a united anti-cuts movement? Why doesn’t he openly name the right wing leaders and seek to develop a rank and file movement to build support within their unions and undercut their authority and ability to block coordinated action?

That Serwotka will not do these things, but talk about unity, the need for an alternative, etc. as he has done for years is what reveals that he is, in the final analysis, a paid up member of the union bureaucracy, no matter how left.

The general strike – what happened to it?

Laura Miles and Sally Kinkaid are both long-time, leading members of the SWP, not just in Leeds but nationally. What was remarkable was how neither argued directly for the general strike (only Miles mentioned the recent TUC Congress vote), much less any real strategy to develop one from the 20 October mobilisation. This time last year the SWP was loudly calling for a general strike, though in a one-sided manner, since their members voted against motions calling for the escalation of strikes in individual unions, giving the general strike slogan an all-or-nothing character that left it suspended in mid-air, without a growing strike movement from below to give the call momentum, build up the forces that could make it happen and put massive pressure on the union tops.

Tellingly they seem to have dropped the slogan in any practical way in the run-up to the public sector pension strike, when no demands were dame on NUT and PCS leaders at the 1,300 strong Unite the Resistance conference on 19 November.

Mark Serwotka didn’t mention it either! With “support” like this there will be minimal pressure on the TUC to organise one, or for unions to join in that withdrew from the N30 coalition like Unison or aren’t yet in struggle like the CWU and FBU.

The Trades Council speaker spoke about N30, O20, and fretted that we’d go through the whole alphabet before we’d managed to beat the Tories. If we go through the whole alphabet, we’re sunk! We need a strategy to break out of the current impasse of the left in the unions and anti-cuts struggle more generally.

So it was heartening when a speech in favour of the general strike from the floor by Andy Young, Leeds CWU and local Workers Power supporter, got loud applause. He called for local assemblies of trade unionists and anticuts activists to make the TUC decision a reality and unite the ant-cuts movement, and make sure that the 20 October was not just one day but the start of a national, unified struggle against austerity.

Loads of trade union reps signed our petition and asked about the Leeds Hospitals Trust Unite branch motion that had called on the local TUC to call an anti-cuts assembly for these two purposes. Both the local postal CWU branch and the Leeds Trades Council are discussing the motion next week – watch this space!

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