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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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.