John McDonnell April 2012

John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington

As I write this, I have just got back from a picket line outside Reuters, where the cleaners employed by Rentokil Initial are campaigning for the London Living Wage. It was a typical new style picket line, with drums and music alongside the traditional flags and union banners. The picket was organised by the London Region of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a new union set up in the tradition of the original IWW or “Wobblies” as they became known.

This new resurgence of the IWW was established by activists Chris Ford and Albert Durango to organise the cleaners and other vulnerable workers in sectors where other unions have not risen to the challenge. The IWW has followed the example of the way RMT has organised the cleaners on the London Underground and the intensive work of RMT representatives like the famed and heroic RMT steward known to everyone by her first name, Clara.

Most of these workers originate from Latin America or former Eastern bloc countries. Many have insecure nationality status, limited language skills and little experience of the labour market and working conditions in this country. This makes them wide open to exploitation.

Despite this vulnerability, these determined members of the IWW and RMT are showing what real trade unionism means and how effective unions can be. Their campaigns have involved being able to speak the language and understand the culture of the workers they seek to represent. Recruitment has been achieved by demonstrating that once a person has joined the union they gain the solid protection of the union.

The members of these unions know that the union is on their side. There are no cosy behind the scenes relationships between the union and management and no sweetheart deals. Through persistent pressure on employers – which includes a willingness to negotiate sensibly but strike and demonstrate whenever necessary – the IWW is forcing the pace of companies coming to realise they have to pay the London Living Wage, and the RMT is ensuring that cleaners are increasingly gaining the recognition and pay that other rail workers have achieved.

What does all this say about the potential unions have now and in the future?

It’s fairly obvious. Trade union membership has fallen in this country over the last three decades from 13 million to just above six million. In unions like RMT and PCS, where there is an active rank and file movement, the members have elected a leadership that represents the members and is directly accountable to them. It is these unions that are growing. They are relevant and effective.

In sectors where the traditional unions are not willing to fight for their members and there is no effective rank and file campaigning organisation to enforce accountability on the bureaucracy, the unions are increasingly irrelevant to workers in their workplaces and are in decline. No amount of amalgamations can hide this descent into irrelevance, and blaming anti-trade unions laws is just a fig leaf of an excuse. The IWW has also demonstrated that even the most vulnerable workers are willing to stand up and fight where there is a union that is willing to show strength and leadership.

In the coming period union after union will be asked the question: are you willing to fight or are you going to allow this Government to walk all over your members, cut your wages, pensions, conditions and jobs?

The Coalition is making its position explicit in this year’s budget and the legislative programme which will follow it, which will be outlined in the Queen’s Speech in May. Forcing through regional pay rates to cut the wages of over half the workforce is an “in your face” challenge to the unions. If the Government wants to play hard ball and to fight unions on a regional basis, we must demand an equally serious response from the unions. This means a call for a rolling programme of regional general strikes, co-ordinated across the country, building for national industrial action.

When cowardly trade union leaders argue that their members won’t respond to the call for strike action, don’t just point to the massive response on 30th November last year but point also to the courage and determination of the IWW cleaners. These are people with so little, but willing to risk the little they have to secure justice.

If certain trade union bureaucracies refuse to act to preserve the peaceful enjoyment of their salaries and benefits paid for by their members’ subscriptions, then we must make the call to reclaim our unions  from these sell outs. That will require the development of powerful rank and file movements in each union. It is that issue that we now need to address as a matter of urgency.

  • John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.
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