Away from the conference floor, delegates to Unite’s third rules conference had a busy time on the fringe meeting circuit. From untold stories of trade unionists and working class history, and chlorinated chicken, to the campaign for jobs and the union’s strategy for fighting the far-right, there was plenty of opportunity for political discussion and debate.
It was standing room only for both the Unity over Division and Fight for Jobs fringes. John Cooper, Unite convenor at the Vauxhall Ellesmere Port plant said that as an industrial, fighting back union, Unite had a duty to create as many opportunities for jobs as possible.
“The fight for jobs has never been more important than now. It’s critical that we have a leverage strategy ready in all factories where jobs are at risk.”
Executive officer Sharon Graham (pictured below) explained how leverage – the strategy of levering an employer into negotiations by using detailed company information against them – had been used successfully in the past in “hostile situations”, in particular to win back the jobs of sacked shop stewards.
“Now, with factory closure after factory closure, how do we extend leverage to stop employers buying off our members’ jobs?” she asked a packed audience.
She estimated that leverage campaigns against top ten companies had, on average, taken six months to work, and said they could and should be utilised in campaigns to stop auto industry and other employers closing plants.
Delegates were visibly moved by the personal and shocking experiences of BAEM members (pictured above) who had talked frankly to the camera for a new Unity over Division film about challenging racism at work and in our communities.
Challenging the far right
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner explained why the union had launched a campaign to challenge the narrative of the far right.
“The emerging far right isn’t the same as in the past,” he said. “This is much more sophisticated. There’s a global network of activists financed by powerful billionaires. It picks up on the genuine fears of people who feel their communities have been forgotten by politicians, who’ve suffered under years of austerity and feel no one is batting for them. We need to listen to people and create an environment where it’s safe to challenge the populist narratives that feed on those fears in order to sow hate and division.”
East Midlands regional secretary Paresh Patel explained how he had organised a Unity over Division day of education workshops after finding that some union activists were “flirting with the far-right narrative”.
“Some members have bought into the line that immigration is responsible for issues such as the lack of access to good housing, schools and the NHS,” he noted. “We ran a series of workshops designed to engage with them and counter the arguments that they were hearing.”
Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke, speaking at an Institute of Employment Rights and Campaign for Trade Union Freedom event, warned of the threat to employment rights in a post-Brexit, free-trade deal UK.
“When we leave the EU the government will have to negotiate new trade deals around the world,” he explained. “Employment rights are bottom of the agenda when the government is negotiating deals with the likes of the US. And most trade deals include attacks on union rights. Liam Fox, the international development secretary, will just be told what the terms and conditions are, take it or leave it.”
Tony explained the link between chlorinated chicken and workplace rights and standards – that poor hygiene standards were why chickens processed in the US were dipped in bleach to kill bacteria.
“You may say why not raise the standards to avoid using bleach. Well that would raise production costs and the US just doesn’t work that way… it’s the same for trade union and workers’ rights.”
The Union History Project fringe drew an enthusiastic crowd of trade union historians, keen to learn about and get involved with Unite’s aim of building the biggest ever collection in the UK and Ireland of research materials, artefacts and stories on trade unions and the working class.
Unite education director Jim Mowatt said it was vital to identify things that are important and save them for our movement.
“This is our history, our working class history and no one else is going to tell it for us,” he said. “We need insights through stories, books, banners and murals. People’s memories. We have to make them active again.”
‘What the future looks like’
Rebecca Long-Bailey (pictured below), the shadow business secretary, sent delegates away from conference on a high, with a promise that a Labour government would guarantee trade union rights, repeal anti-union laws and roll out sectoral collective bargaining across industries.
But the biggest cheer from the packed meeting on Building a Radical Left Economy came for Becky’s pledge that a Jeremy Corbyn government would bring rail, water, the national grid and other vital public services and infrastructure back into public ownership.
“And through alternative models of ownership, a Labour government will give workers a stake in their companies, making sure the workforce is properly represented and has a stake in the future,” she said.
“We know that Labour wins elections when we tell people what the future looks like. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
- Pics by Mark Thomas