Britain: Decisive action needed against victimisations

Defend Rob Williams!

Rob Williams speaks at meeting in support of Visteon workers

"What are trade unions for?" This is a question which many workers ask increasingly when the unions themselves, in the face of the bosses’ current offensive, appear to order a retreat or even capitulate to this pressure. The trade unions’ strength lies not in their apparatus – the buildings, the financial resources or bank accounts, let alone the full-time officials and their salaries – but the use of workers’ combined power to repel attacks by their employers, even if this means sometimes defying unjust laws imposed by the capitalist state.

Yet this simple proposition is all too often either ’forgotten’ or ignored when a brutal offensive is launched against the very principle of trade unionism, such as with the summary dismissal – temporarily retracted following mass union pressure – of Rob Williams, the Unite union convenor of the Linamar car parts plant in Swansea. What is at stake here is not the fate of one individual – as important as Rob has been, both in the plant and in the wider labour movement – but the right for workers to be represented by the best militant fighters.

If the Linamar bosses are allowed to get away with this, no convenor or shop steward is safe, either in the already weakened car industry or in the wider trade union movement. Allow the employers to inflict a defeat here and no trade unionist, shop steward, let alone a convenor, will be able to put their head above the parapet without the bosses seeking to cut it off. Following in its wake will be an attack against the rights, wages and conditions of the workers in this plant and generally. These are the lessons of history which unfortunately many trade union leaders are incapable or unwilling to learn from.

The vicious action of the Linamar bosses is an echo of what happened on a much bigger scale when British Leyland (BL) chief executive ’wonderkid’ Michael Edwardes was used by Margaret Thatcher almost 30 years ago to smash the trade unions in a nationalised car company. Edwardes took the decision to sack Derek Robinson, a prominent Communist Party member, convenor of the Longbridge stewards and chairman of the BL stewards’ combine committee.

This was clearly perceived as a step towards destroying workers’ rights throughout the combine. The sacking of Robinson provoked a spontaneous walk-out involving at least 50,000 workers. Commenting 16 years later, the Financial Times described Robinson’s sacking as "the Cuban missile crisis of Britain’s car-making industrial relations… [Robinson’s] ejection put the entire shop stewards movement on the defensive".

The right-wing trade union leaders of the time collaborated in derailing the momentum of the solidarity strike action by calling for an ’inquiry’. This gave the initiative back to management and ultimately resulted in the isolation of Robinson. What followed was an orgy of attacks on BL workers’ rights and the ultimate destruction of the company. Militant (forerunner of The Socialist), at the time pointed out: "Even former AUEW [engineering union] right-wing supporters have been staggered by the blatant refusal to defend the basic trade union principle: defence of a victimised shop steward."

Anti-trade union laws

This must not be allowed to happen in the case of Rob Williams. But if the previous record of the trade union leadership – particularly of the union involved here, Unite – is anything to go by, they will seek to blunt and sideline the wave of anger which has greeted the attempt to dismiss Rob. They are already trying to hide behind the vicious anti-trade union legislation, first introduced by Thatcher 30 years ago and maintained by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which gives Britain the most anti-working class, anti-trade union laws of all the advanced industrial countries.

We do not minimise the effects that this legislation has had in seeking to discourage workers from going on strike, sometimes on vital issues affecting them. This reluctance has been abetted by a conservative officialdom that has dominated the unions. The Liverpool dockers were let down and abandoned by former Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now part of Unite) general secretary Bill Morris. The reaction of TGWU members helped in the election of Tony Woodley, who was perceived as a left alternative to Morris. Gate Gourmet workers were similarly abandoned by the TGWU leadership after being initially encouraged to strike by that same leadership.

Rob Williams and Linamar must not be allowed to suffer the same fate. These anti-union laws are intended to cower the working class. Yet, they have had more effect on the right-wing trade union leadership than on working-class people engaged in struggle. Witness the totally ’illegal’ action of the successful Lindsey refinery workers’ strike, which bypassed the anti-union laws and, in effect, cancelled them out through mass action.

Also, the Visteon workers were prepared to occupy their plants without waiting for permission from the full-time officials. The result is that they have now been offered a significant concession in redundancy pay (see pages 6 and 7). Weakness invites aggression; workers’ action can force the bosses to retreat.

For the employers to have taken legal action against the Lindsey workers would have been difficult, but if they had, the effect would have been to spread the strike even wider. This happened in Britain in 1972 when the then Tory government of Edward Heath used anti-union legislation to lay the basis for the arrest and imprisonment of dockers’ leaders, the ’Pentonville 5’. It led to the threat of a one-day general strike by the TUC, called only when it was clear that they would not have to carry it out because the government was retreating. Together with mass spontaneous strike action, this led to the release of the dockers by a ’fairy godmother’, the up until then virtually unknown Official Solicitor.

The poll tax struggle also, in which Militant supporters played a leading role through the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, cancelled out the poll tax through 18 million people refusing to pay it. In the process, the ’iron lady’ Thatcher was reduced to iron filings and departed from the scene of history.

Sequestration threats

The resources of the working class movement, particularly of the trade unions, have been built up through painful and bitter struggle and the sacrifice of generations of workers. Therefore, it would be light-minded to put these resources in jeopardy on incidental and secondary issues. But equally, those resources will count for nothing if a legal threat to them is constantly used – as the official trade union leadership does – as an excuse for not taking action in defence of victimised workers or in crucial industrial battles. This is why the Socialist Party has not advocated risking sequestration of union assets on all occasions but only ’defying the law where it is necessary’.

Rob William’s attempted sacking is one of those occasions, a defining moment, when the employer’s provocative action must be defeated. Unless there is a complete withdrawal of this action, without strings, all the resources of the appropriate trade union, Unite, must be used to force this anti-union outfit to retreat. This means the official Unite leadership, particularly Tony Woodley, must be implacable in defence of Rob Williams maintaining his position as convenor. If the bosses go ahead with his sacking, then Unite should support strike action in the plant and put out a call for strike action, initially throughout South Wales, of Unite’s membership in defence of this victimised workers’ leader.

If the bosses move for sequestration of union assets they must be met with decisive action from all Unite members and the entire trade union movement. Moreover, if the government does not step in to prevent sequestration then Unite’s political donations to New Labour – which total £14 million since Gordon Brown became prime minister – should be immediately withdrawn.

In spite of the avalanche of job losses and the shadow of mass unemployment, including huge short-time working in the car industry, the marvellous solidarity action for Rob Williams, from both Linamar workers and the wider trade union movement, indicates that trade unionists are not prepared to allow the employers to use this recession/depression to undermine and ultimately destroy trade union rights.

The bosses have exercised in the last 20 years a virtual ’dictatorship of capital’ in large swathes of British industry where the unions are either non-existent or weak. They now want to use mass unemployment as a weapon to further this process in hitherto organised factories like Linamar. "So far and no further" should be the response of the trade unions.

Decisive solidarity strike action if they go ahead with this sacking would inspire and mobilise working people to resist this onslaught of the bosses. Failure to do so and workers could answer the question "What are trade unions for?", with "Not much". In reality, mobilised union power and strength is the only defence against brutal bosses and their political representatives.

Militant, fighting trade unionism – symbolised by Rob Williams and the union organisation in Linamar – must not only be preserved but strengthened in order to prepare the working class for the capitalist offensive that is under way in Britain and worldwide.

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May 2009