The Socialist 31 May 2007 |
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Local campaign successes show effective leadership in action
LOCAL TRADE unionists and other campaigners in Waltham Forest in north east London have achieved a victory. They have stopped the council, for at least a year, from abandoning local authority provision of school meals. UNISON activist and Socialist Party member Nancy Taaffe remarked: "at a time when it feels like the working class does nothing but lose, this small victory feels like we've won the world cup".
This success was not achieved by a sentimental change of heart on the part of the council leaders. Nor was it achieved by conducting a low-key campaign. It was only won by local community activists and trade unionists - with Socialist Party members playing a key role - leading an energetic campaign and making sure that a strategy was democratically discussed at each stage involving as many people as possible.
Events were carefully planned and when campaign meetings took place, a leaflet was given out to those present to take away and use to build for the next meeting or event. The first meeting was attended by forty catering workers and the following week over one hundred people turned up.
The catering workers were furious at the council's proposals and wanted to fight them no matter what help was at hand. But the campaign was greatly strengthened by the presence of local socialist activists and trade unionists, whose role was very important in helping to secure a victory.
Local victories and partial victories have also been celebrated in other areas. The campaign against closure of the Maudsley hospital emergency mental health clinic in south London won a concession when it was announced that the clinic would stay open for information purposes.
In Southampton, a four year campaign to save St Mary's leisure centre won a £250,000 refurbishment of the centre. More recently, a strike by Southampton care workers fought off plans to cut pay for current staff and the council UNISON branch has won a ballot of its members for strike action against privatisation of 800 jobs, redundancies and other cuts.
In Brighton last month council tenants dealt a massive blow to the council's housing privatisation plans by voting against them. In Greenwich, south London, a determined stance taken over recent weeks by the local UNISON branch, with mass meetings of up to 600 workers, has already brought rewards. The council has made concessions, for instance many workers will now have improvements in pay instead of reductions and manual workers will have a reduction in weekly hours from 36 to 35. However, many workers there still face reduced pay and white-collar workers face downgrading and the removal of payments for being 'on call' and other entitlements.
In all these struggles Socialist Party members have played an important role alongside other activists, and where a full victory has not yet been achieved, have been at the forefront of putting forward a strategy for developing the campaign further. Socialist Party activists have not developed the ability to play this type of role in isolation.
They have benefited from regular political discussion and analysis with other party members both locally and nationally, including on issues such as the limitations of the main political parties and the lessons that can be learned from previous workers' struggles against attacks on wages, conditions and services. Such discussion, combined with vital experience gained from participating in struggles, enables socialists to help formulate a winning strategy in vital campaigns as they arise.
We recognise the need for local trade union campaigns to be linked and co-ordinated, and are therefore building for the 'national shop stewards network' conference taking place on 7 July, which will be an important forum for debate and discussion.
Capacity to struggle
IN WALTHAM Forest, Socialist Party members urged everyone in the campaign to have no faith in the local pro-big business politicians, nor to rely solely on orientation to the media. They argued for every chink in the armour of the opposition to be exploited.
Above all, they had faith in the capacity of the newly active catering workers to struggle, and to play a role individually and collectively. Through participation in a successful campaign, the confidence and aspirations of those workers grew, as was shown in the shouts of "and now give us a wage rise!" when the council leader backed down over the school meals cuts in front of the angry demonstration.
Contrast this approach with that of most of the national trade union leaders, who often refuse to even acknowledge the massive anger that exists over attacks on the health service and on other issues, never mind taking a lead in campaigning against them. They play the role of attempting to prevent struggle, rather than helping it. If the union leaders gave a real lead against NHS cuts, devising a campaign strategy - through democratic discussion with rank and file union members - for a programme of industrial action, demonstrations and other events, the government could be stopped dead in its tracks on privatisation and destruction of the health service.
A key step should be to prepare for the national demonstration called for October, not just by printing some leaflets and booking a rally venue, but by mobilising the millions of NHS users and workers to build thoroughly for such an event.
The contrast is painfully clear. But the lid will not be kept on workers' anger indefinitely. In time, the anger, frustration and will to struggle will surface massively, not just locally, but on a national arena.