Saturday, January 28, 2017
So long and thanks for all the fish...
This is what I said to the Lambeth Branch Annual General Meeting on Thursday. If those who were good enough to come to the meeting had to suffer it I don't see why you shouldn't;
I was first elected to a senior branch officer position in our predecessor NALGO branch in October 1990. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. Mikhail Gorbachev was President of the Soviet Union – and we had won a national pay dispute the year before.
Here in Lambeth Joan Twelves was Leader of the Council, campaigning against the Poll Tax and Herman Ouseley was our Chief Executive.
After a year as your Branch Chair I was elected as full-time Assistant Branch Secretary, and a further year after that I became Branch Secretary, a position which I have held, with a couple of short breaks, ever since.
If I were to try to say even a fraction of what I might say about the last quarter century of life in Lambeth and the union we would get nothing else done – and for those of you who have been here as long as I have, or even if you haven’t – I think perhaps you may already have suffered enough from listening to me over the years.
I will pick out just a few memories and suggest some of the lessons those memories may offer for our future.
In 1991 we occupied advice centres and youth centres which were threatened with closure – we did not win everything we were aiming for but we did win victories, much as library campaigners forced the Council back in the last year.
As ever, we learned then, as we have over and over again, that if you fight to save jobs and services you may not win all that you hope for – but that if you do not fight you shall win nothing at all.
The following year we took six coaches full of branch members taking unofficial strike action to Hyde Park to show our opposition to pit closures – and were repudiated by our General Secretary Alan Jinkinson.
That had been our first brush with John Major’s anti-union law that required ballots before strike action, a restriction which this Tory Government has made tighter than ever. It was also the first time I was told off by a General Secretary.
In 1994 Labour lost control of Lambeth Council for the first time since the 1970s and a hung Council attacked our trade unions. For two years we had to hold this Annual General Meeting in our own time – and on each occasion more than a hundred members took time off to attend.
Also in the mid 1990s other members of the branch, too numerous to mention, founded and led the campaign which eventually rescued our member Abdul Onibiyo from his unlawful deportation to Nigeria and saw him returned to the job which Lambeth had kept open for him.
That episode is a good illustration of the important lesson that trade unionism is not about individuals. I have done a lot here over the past quarter century, and those who know me will know that I am not modest, but everything that is worthwhile which we achieve as trade unionists we achieve by standing together.
We did the same thing when the racist nail bomber, David Copeland, bombed Brixton in 1999 – and we led and organised a march from Brixton to Trafalgar Square which united local people in opposition to racism and the far right.
In Lambeth we have always understood that trade unionism doesn’t stop when you leave work in the evening, and we have never waited for permission to organise campaigns for justice and against oppression either locally or nationally.
When Jean Charles de Menezes was killed by the police in Stockwell in 2005 we were able to offer his family our help and support at the beginning of their long campaign for justice.
However, the strength of our trade union branch is founded upon our organisation in the workplace – and if we are going to sustain that strength into the future that will have to remain our key priority.
Simply being organised is never enough however, we also need a willingness to fight, or we can never win anything, as well as a willingness and an ability to negotiate so that we can end the disputes we start.
Twenty years ago the Council tried to increase our working week and cut our annual leave and maternity leave. By mobilising our members and uniting with the other trade unions we saw off this threat – and over the ensuing two decades, thousands of workers have had several days a year of extra leisure because of effective local union organisation.
If you have colleagues back in your workplace who are not trade union members because they do not think that trade unions can achieve anything then I suggest that you ask them to give up voluntarily five days of their annual leave, because they only have those days because of you, and people like you over the years, have organised as trade unionists and stood together for better conditions for working people.
As I said, I could go on and on.
I could tell you about how the largest privatisation in the history of English local government in 1997 was a complete and utter failure.
I could tell you chapter and verse about how the idiocy of the cooperative council savaged valuable local services since 2010.
I could tell you more than you want to know about successive Chief Executives and Council Leaders.
And I could tell you all manner of things also about our trade union.
I am and always will be a committed trade unionist.
Trade unions are the only possible guarantee of dignity and justice in the workplace, they are the tool which workers have invented over the past two hundred years in order to even up the balance of power between employers and employees.
However, we must never be starry-eyed about our own trade union and, in particular, we always have to fight for democratic control of our trade union by its members against those within the union who want to tell us what to do.
Our branch has faced repeated attacks over the years from those in the union who find us awkward, militant and troublesome. I myself have faced numerous investigations and at present am under investigation because I have challenged malpractice in the last General Secretary election. I am proud to be judged on the basis of those who oppose me.
There will always be a fight for democracy in our trade unions – and you will need to be vigilant to defend the union as a useful tool to defend your interests.
As I have said, I could go on and on.
But I won’t.
This is the third and final time that I shall stand down as your Branch Secretary and today is the last occasion on which I shall address you as such.
It has been a great honour, and mostly a lot of fun, and I am very grateful to you all.