One year after the closure of Refugee Migrant Justice (RMJ) in June 2010, the other main UK provider of free legal advice and representation to asylum seekers and migrant workers has now also been shut down. On 11 July 2011, over 200 workers at the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) were told that their employer was in administration.
IAS workers were organised by the GMB union. Tentative links had been made by RMJ union reps with IAS reps going back a number of years. The experience of our struggle to defend RMJ from closure was no secret. However, on 15 November the GMB announced that 82 jobs at the IAS were also at risk.
So why was no attempt made by GMB and some on the left to draw the necessary conclusions from the closure of RMJ? A potentially successful industrial struggle against the closure of IAS could have been waged.
Following on from changes made in the way legal aid was paid under the Labour government, Ken Clarke, the Con-Dem minister for justice, completed the job and sent in the administrators to close the RMJ in June 2010. Eleven offices of the RMJ across the country were closed, with the loss of 343 dedicated and highly skilled workers leaving some 12,000 clients without legal representation. Many clients then disappeared through fear that they would be returned to their country of flight and to torture and persecution.
RMJ Unite reps organised a demonstration outside the offices of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in London. Calls were made at that demo by two RMJ Unite reps to occupy the RMJ head office, supported by the national Unite official, and also to forge links with the PCS union in the MoJ.
However, a call to organise a meeting of union reps to discuss this proposal was ignored. Due to a naive attachment to legal niceties a decision was made, during a meeting between lawyers with "experience of occupations" and some London-based union reps, to not occupy but instead "build a broad based campaign". This decision was made without the involvement of union reps and members in other offices.
An occupation of the RMJ head office with the continuing provision of free legal advice, together with a call to the wider trade union movement and the refugee community itself for financial and other support, would have provided a beacon of resistance to cuts in legal aid. This would have been a concrete defence against attacks on the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed under the Con-Dem onslaught. Indeed, some not for profit organisations and charities also under threat were waiting in anticipation for a lead on how to fight anticipated cuts.
Our unsuccessful struggle to defend the RMJ was the first skirmish in a battle against a divided but intransigent Con-Dem government. But the lessons of our struggle must not be lost. No 'broad based' campaign can replace a determined working class struggle to defend our jobs and services.
If we learn the lessons of past struggles the question is not whether we can beat this government but with what do we replace it.