Jobless Unionists Fight Unemployment
THE defiance of a group of unemployed workers in Liverpool could mark the start of a fightback against unemployment by Britain’s trade unions. Branch number 6/612 of the Transport and General Workers Union used to organise workers making the sleek TR7 Triumph sports car in British Leyland’s factory on the Speke industrial estate. In 1978 the plant was closed and the workforce consigned to the ranks of the unemployed. The union branch was kept going, initially just for a few months, to tie up loose ends such as pensions and redundancy payments.Then came something totally unexpected.
More and more members began attending branch meetings and taking part in union activities. As people struggled to understand how and why they happened to be on the dole, they started asking tough questions and looking hard for answers. A new sense of shared purpose and commitment began to develop. So the union decided to continue branch 6/612 and to include workers from other Merseyside factories that were closing down Current membership is around 400 — most are unemployed buti some. are either on Manpower Services schemes or have jobs.
Branch secretary Billy MuIholland believes it is vitally important to keep unemployed workers active within the trade union movement He is opposed to any suggestions of a separate ‘unemployed workers union’, which would have no bargaining power and would drift into isolation from the mainstream labour movement Paradoxically, 6/612 branch is now the liveliest and most forward-looking in the Liverpool area Normal union branch meetings are usually preoccupied with bread and butter issues like bonus schemes and work practices. By contrast, meetings of the 6/612 branch are noted for the breadth of the discussions that take place and the action flowing from them.
Last year’s People’s March for Jobs from Liverpool to London was first proposed by 6/612 branch and pushed through with local trades councils until it actually happened Branch members are also surprisingly active in support of workers in Britain and abroad who still have jobs. They joined picket lines outside a local Plessey electronics factory in support of women cleaners who were fighting pay cuts. The action was successful. They also pooled their meagre resources to send financial aid to black workers fighting for justice in Dunlop’s factory in East London, South Africa Currently the branch is giving strong support to a local community campaign to keep open the comprehensive school in Croxteth.
A common thread among members of 6/6 12 branch is that virtually all of them used to work for multinational companies which have abandoned Merseyside for Third World pastures where wages are lower and trade unions either tame or nonexistent. Tate & Lyle, British Leyland, Massey Ferguson, Ross Foods, Courtaulds the list seems endless have reduced Merseyside’s industrial areas to a virtual wasteland of abandoned factories.
Billy Mulholland, who used to work for Dunlop, recalls how they were the first group of workers to stage an international strike jointly with Pirelli workers in Milan, Italy a fact commemorated by a plaque at Liverpool’s Pierhead Yet the workers never succeeded in organising themselves on a permanent basis to deal effectively with companies able to move plants, capital and jobs around the world ‘We just couldn’t convince the workers of the need’, he said. ‘But now the branch does classes on multinationals and we have a tremendous wealth of experience on the subject Perhaps if we’d had that before the closures, the story might have been different’.
Close links are maintained with the Manchester-based North West Transnationals Project (NWTP), which produces educational materials, helps run courses and organises practical solidarity campaigns on international issues. Currently the 6/612 branch and the NWTP are involved in a campaign against importing uranium from the Rossing mine in Namibia Seamen, road transport workers and dockers in the region are preparing to stop Namibian uranium shipments, which contravene UN sanctions.
What lessons emerge from the experience of the TGWU6/6 12 branch for the wider labour trade union movements?
First, long-term unemployment need not lead to demoralisation but can stimulate workers to become far more militant in struggling for a fairer, more decent society. The 6/612 branch takes up its full delegate entitlement to all local Labour Parties and the Trades Council and plays a very active role in these bodies. These efforts can have far-reaching effects — last year it was the 6/612 branch which formulated a policy calling for the unemployed to be in unions which became the basis of the TUC’s official policy on this important issue. Some unions, however, are still reluctant to actively recruit the unemployed since they fear having to bear the cost of servicing members who pay low contributions.
Second, unemployed trade unionists can play a key role in bringing into the trade union movement thousands of young people who have never had a real job or joined a trade union Member of 6/612 branch produce a broadsheet which is sold outside Job Centres and aims to recruit the unemployed into the union They have set up job centres which are not simply dispensing tea and biscuits but run courses on welfare rights, health and other social issues.
With one in every seven British workers on the dole and the numbers still rising. trade unions have a tremendous opportunity to mobilize the unemployed as a potent political force. If the commitment and sense of purpose of Liverpool’s TGWU 6/612 branch could be reproduced across the country, the cloud of demoralisation now hanging over Britain’s unions would soon be lifted As Billy Mulholland says ‘Unemploymemt is grim and we’ve got to give people some hope. As long as we’re around we don’t intend to let people forget that there is even one person unemployed.’
Ken Ferguson works for the Northern News Co-op in Manchester, UK