Launch of the London Region of Reclaim our Rights
Grand Committee Room, House of Commons, 2 February 1999
The London Region RECLAIM OUR RIGHTS campaign was launched in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons on 2 February 1999. The room was packed out, with some 500 people attending, and standing room only for latecomers. Excellent speeches were made, notes of which are reproduced below, followed by an hour or so of discussion from the floor. The meeting had a militant atmosphere, showing a determination to fight the anti-trade-union laws even among ordinary members of the Labour Party, much at odds with the policy of the leadership.
Tony Benn MP
The first to speak was Tony Benn MP,
whose speech was a characteristic mix of apparent support for the workers on the one hand, and the sowing of illusions in social democracy on the other hand. We reproduce his remarks as they are a model of the muddle-headedness typified by the likes of Tony Benn, from the negative example of which workers can learn a great deal. On a benevolent note, let it be said in Mr.Benn’s favour that he was at least willing to associate himself with the Reclaim Our Rights campaign. The following are the remarks made by Tony Benn.
I intend to work with Arthur Scargill, one of this country’s greatest trade-union leaders, even though we are in different parties. A US President said to Congress: `Labour is prior to capital. Capital is the fruit of labour. Labour is superior to capital. This was said by Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
To get a majority you have to identify with workers and root your struggle in our history. The question is who governs Britain? New Labour (of which I am not a member) has scrubbed history. Even as far back as 1381 it was said that the earth is our common treasury. The Combination Acts represented the first indication of emerging capitalist society, of exploited people organising together. They fought for and won the right to vote, then they wanted a political party to represent them. Hence the Labour Party with Clause IV in its constitution. I am totally committed to this clause. Workers should get the full fruits of their industry. That movement got us all our trade-union rights, national insurance, etc. These were the achievements of centuries of struggle. Mrs Thatcher made civil war against the trade-union movement because it was potentially a threat to the class she represented.
There is a view today that everybody is middle class. Actually the opposite is the case: the teachers, for example, no longer have the privileges they once enjoyed. Because of this the trade unions are more popular than they have been for years. But we have to publicise ourselves. We should use the Internet in the way the Liverpool Dockers did, getting solidarity that way from all over the globe.
Globalisation is an attempt to subject the world to gamblers. Parliamentary leaders are only allowed to keep their positions if they train people to meet the demands of international capital.
We should be more imaginative in the kind of industrial action taken so as not to alienate the public, like the Chelmsford bus strike, where the workers ran the buses but didn’t collect passengers’ money. Teachers should ring fence exams but otherwise should open up the schools to everybody to use as they will.
I presented a Bill 5 years ago for deregulation of trade unions. It was based on a draft Heseltine had drawn up for business. I crossed out `business’ and substituted `trade unions’. The Labour front bench ordered party members not to support it, so they didn’t.
Labour ministers are no longer interested in distribution of wealth [where they every? – Lalkar], but in its creation, they tell us. In fact they want to forget those who create the wealth in favour of those who own it.
Adam Smith said that the rich are the pensioners of the poor, and that is the truth.
International capital is trying to destroy democracy in order to get total control of society.
(Magnet Kitchens campaign
It is two and a half years since a bullyboy firm in the name of corporate greed ruined the lives of 350 families. When the workers went on official strike, each worker received an ultimatum from the firm either to commit himself or herself not to strike, then or ever, or be sacked. Our representatives in parliament – Blair and Mandelson – were no help at all. I waited 2 hours to speak to Blair. He didn’t even know what Magnet made. I believed in Blair. I have voted Labour all my life, but not one union took industrial action in support of the Magnet workers.
The trade-union leaders need to stiffen up. We have some good trade-union leaders, but some of them need a dose of viagra. But if you haven’t got the balls in the first place, viagra won’t do any good. Bill Morris appeared on Question Time on television. He could not even help us to the extent of giving our struggle a mention.
(Hillingdon Hospital workers)
Note that there will be a demonstration on the 17th February at the Granada Headquarters for the Hillingdon workers to get their jobs back. The tribunal ordered that the Hillingdon workers should be reinstated within 6 months, but Granada has appealed against this decision. We have had to fight the union leadership all the way. We fought to be reinstated in the union, but they have shunted us into branches that never meet. Our job in the health service is not for sale. We are fighting for the entire working class, not just for ourselves.
Our dispute is like that of the Magnet workers and Hillingdon workers. It is not based on money, but on an agreement that the company is not honouring. Our company is partly German owned and partly US owned. Cycle Time Reduction was introduced into the company, and it was agreed that if we made any profit it would be shared among the workers. 2 years later they said they had made no profit. Therefore, we said, let’s go back to the status quo. They refused. A dispute ensued. We observed all the laws concerning balloting etc. We held a 24-hour strike. The result was that 275 people were sacked for going on this strike. Even those who were sick or who had not yet started their shift. Note that this government goes everywhere to protect human rights, but forgets that charity begins at home. What about our human rights?
We were out on official strike. Our company had been making profits of £1 million a day since privatisation yet they wanted to increase their profits even more by casualisation. They offered a £6,000 pay rise but with strings attached, which were not acceptable. Hence the strike. Scab vans went through the picket lines. One had its wing mirror damaged as it did so. I was accused, even though the CCTV cameras showed that this was done by someone wearing different clothes from what I was wearing. They sacked me and brought criminal proceedings against me. The criminal proceedings collapsed in view of the evidence, but they refuse to reinstate me. They just used the incident as an excuse for intimidating the union.
Where do we go from here? The Hillingdon workers were sold out by the union bureaucracy and Labour MPs. Such rights as we had came about as a result of the workers’ movement – workers taking on the laws (not just lobbying MPs). The Jubilee line workers took unofficial action. They were vilified for this. 500 pickets and iron determination brought the employers to their knees. These workers had to put together their OWN funds because you can get nothing from trade-union leaders. The Dockers came to us. We said: you KNOW the leadership is going to betray you, so you should not rely on them. We should put together a strike support group for everybody. And we should stop acting like sects.
The local Labour MP has turned his back on us. Andrew Bennett MP, Glynn Ford MEP, Sheddon MP are on the board of the company we are fighting. It has debts of £2 million. The Fraud Squad has investigated, but nobody has been brought to justice. Because of this loss workers had to take pay cuts, which have never been restored. In 1997 we were given 90 days notice requiring us to sign to accept further cuts. We voted to strike in March 1998. The company has not budged. In December we started an industrial tribunal to be heard in London in June. This is partly a victory. Unless, however, 200 workers get their jobs back, there is no victory. There is corruption in the Labour Council in Tameside. It is time someone did something about it. No MP wants to know about us. The Hillingdon and Magnet struggles have been a big inspiration to us.
Bob Crow (RMT)
We are in dispute until Steve Hedley gets his job back. When the Labour Party was in opposition it opposed all 9 anti trade-union Acts. It should now repeal them. In July it will put Fairness at Work on the statute book. All the present disputes after this legislation will be in the same position. Workers will still be liable to be sacked if they go on strike. There will be no need to produce lists of names any more (only “suitable information”). But there will still be no right to reinstatement.
The RMT was told in the summer that it jumped the gun when it called a strike. Deputy PM Prescott (an RMT-sponsored MP!) was against us. Mr Justice Sullivan recently said our action was too late because it was damaging public safety. We re-balloted. Instead of 84% we got 85% support in favour of a strike and on Thursday it will be announced. No unelected judge will be able to stop us. Why do you need 40% under Fairness at Work before you can get recognition? Our boss in America regularly buses in agency workers the day before the ballot so 40% can never be reached. We must not co-operate with anti trade-union laws.
The best speech of the day came from Arthur Scargill, who exposed the hypocrisy of the Labour Party, its total desertion to the camp of the bourgeoisie; ridiculed the hollow claims about the independence of the judiciary; paid a glowing tribute to the heroic 1984-85 NUM strikers; and called upon the working class to defy the unjust anti-working class laws. Let Arthur Scargill speak for himself: –
I thought as I came here today that I had better get here early because the meeting was bound to be packed out with New Labour MPs! Actually there are only two here, one of whom is Tony Benn. It is a matter of shame that people elected to office as Labour MPs do not have sufficient principles to attend a rally in support of workers’ in struggle!
Today is an important anniversary. 106 years ago troops killed trade unionists here in Britain. This was during the Featherstone Miners’ Strike in 1893. The state used Lee Enfield rifles to shoot them down. In the struggles of the working class over the years, workers have lost their jobs. Our forebears have lost their lives in the course of the struggle for the right to organise.
16 years ago the NUM decided to come out on strike. The dispute had started in 1983 and went on until 1985. 13,000 people were arrested, 7,000 were injured and 11 died. This week we are urging our members to strike until the employer gives in. The NUM leadership will NOT back down. It is impertinent that someone can parade a new Labour government programme which represents utter betrayal. How can there be justice at work when there is no right to strike because you can be sacked if you do? How many people understand that this is in the Bill? ALL the clauses that workers object to are still there.
We went to the High Court with an eminent barrister to argue over what is meant by `midnight’. We argued for 2 days as to which stroke of the clock represented midnight exactly. The judge said it was the first stroke. If workers have not taken action by then, they are out of time. I said in the North of England workers have to be down the coal mine by 2345, and the judge quibbled as to whether they were at work before 12, but on the other hand I was told we could not go on strike because we were a split second too late. We are fighting a system not a law. There is no justice to be found in the courts. Benn can draft Bills but nothing will change. When a government elected with 33% backing tells us we have to have 50% for a union to start a struggle!
I was at Orgreave and Saltley in Birmingham. We stopped the entire city. It was not trade-union leaders but activists who had enough of the way miners were being treated. The whole city was paralysed. Thousands of police could do nothing because thousands of workers were supporting the miners. Orgreave battled for nearly 2 weeks and they had to call off their violations of a signed agreement. Why were miners being hospitalised? They were told they had to respect the right to keep the plant open for work. Three years later I was outside Orgreave, all by myself. I phoned the Chief Constable’s office and asked him to send the police because the employers were not keeping the plant open for work. They were closing it down. Needless to say the Chief Constable did not this time send 3,000 riot police out of respect of any right to keep the plant open for work
Justice Hoffman would be interested to hear, on the question of independence of the judiciary, of the `independence’ of one of the judges who heard an NUM case. He said he was an honorary member of the UDM and in charge of the Security Forces but that he was “totally independent”.
The only time the law responds is when people take it into their own hands. We have legislation in this country which violates the UN Charter on human rights, the ILO Convention and European law. But we’re faced with a choice. Either we accept it and suffer the consequences or we resist. Workers who defy the law must be supported.
MPs who support Solidarnosc or workers in struggle in Budapest certainly do not support workers in struggle in Britain. That’s completely different.
People in our movement must stop attacking one another. Out there a class enemy is sacking workers right, left and centre. When the chips are down you must be on the side either of the bosses or of the workers. If the bosses are in favour of something it’s generally a good idea to vote against it – that was the advice my Dad gave me. He also taught me the 11th Commandment: Where there’s a picket line thou shalt not cross it.
The May 1st demonstration will start at Marx House, Clerkenwell Green, and will be led by a miners’ brass band. But remember our struggle can’t be confined to marches and petitions. We must commit ourselves to defying the law and be prepared to accept the consequences.
In the past many in the TUC have said one thing and done another. Not me. I was found guilty of contempt of court in 1984. But I’ll never bow the knee and pay that fine. What we did in 1984/5 we can do again. We must believe in ourselves.