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People's Assembly protest 21 June 2014

Unions on the People's Assembly protest 21 June 2014. Photo: Marienna Pope-Weidemann

For trade unions to fight back and win we need to tap into the massive political anger and idealism that is running right across society argues John Westmoreland

For trade unionists the last 30 years have seen a huge shift in power away from organised labour and towards the bosses. We now live in a world where it seems that the international corporations have more say than elected governments.

David Cameron’s blustering about ‘British values’ and ‘standing up to Europe’ are simple devices to hide the fact that real power is shifting towards the giant corporations. 

Vasco Pedrina of the Social Europe Journal sums up the scale of the attack thus:

'Since the 1980s, we have witnessed the political breakthrough of neoliberalism with its massive wave of privatisations, deregulation of the financial sector and of employment relations, as well as the partial dismantling of social security systems. That wave was followed by the enormous expansion of financial markets, along with their speculative excesses. All of that was a result of severe economic crises; resulting in a catastrophic social impact and very ominous political consequences, marked by the upsurge of extreme right-wing populist parties.'

Workers in the public sector face an onslaught as socially valuable services are decimated. The business model whereby schools and hospitals have to compete for funding by meeting efficiency criteria, is preparing the ground for wholesale privatisation by breaking public sector trade unions and forcing professionals to comply with an increasingly vicious and arrogant management regime.

For union activists life can be grim. As power has shifted from the unions to management and the cuts in pay and status bite there is a mixture of fear and uncertainty and furious anger. Socialists have to relate to the anger to overcome the fear.

The anger is increasingly political as a study of changing social attitudes by Ady Cousins has shown. Under the descriptor of the ‘democratic deficit’, the majority of people in the UK have lost faith in national institutions which previously inspired trust.

The institutions which earned the most distrust were political – parliament, the main political parties, and government institutions. Not far behind were the police, media and of course bankers and the big corporations. Added together there is a mass perception that we are heading towards a disaster with untold consequences for us all.

Part of the democratic deficit that needs further emphasis is the deficit caused by the draconian anti-trade union laws that Labour refused to repeal and the Conservative Right want to intensify, especially in light of Thursday’s fantastic strike and day of protest.

Trade union officials, already swamped by casework would be made more cautious and conservative than they already are if Cameron and Johnson get their way. The evidence from last Thursday’s action is that for trade unions to fight back and win we need to tap into the massive political anger and idealism that is running right across society; from the ‘Freedom Riders’ in South Yorkshire to the Stand Up For Education campaign that has seen teachers, students and parents out leafleting to build for Thursday’s action.

The Peoples Assembly was able to bring activists from across the movement together with members of the NUT. In York the People's Assembly organised the demonstration and rally which was a huge success. We need to stress the idealism of this growing movement towards social movement trade unionism because it is clearly forcing the government onto the defensive. The hated Gove showed his anger and frustration by saying that the strike was not about education at all, but about ‘pay and pensions’.

Work pressure

As a trade union activist myself, who is, according to York College UCU branch, being victimised for my trade union activities in defence of teaching staff who felt they were being bullied, I want to add a little on my own campaign.

Firstly it is important to note that across education there is a huge pressure to work harder for less as schools and colleges have to manage reduced funding and improve standards at the same time. At York College we have consistently defended our members and fought to defend education at the same time. There is truly excellent teaching at York College. This has been a very useful tactic for the branch. Colleagues clearly see my victimisation as an attack on education itself.

This has been reinforced by the spectacular development of an on-line petition in my defence that was set up by Doncaster People's Assembly activist Mick Wattam, which contained testimony from students, teachers and non-teachers at the college, parents and the wider trade union movement.

The fear of members and the conservatism of the officials has been massively shifted by a loud and clear voice in defence of me as a trade unionist and the education that we have always championed. Cameron and Johnson’s jibe that we don’t represent the majority has been turned against them. The result of the petition and the campaigning work of the branch committee saw a unanimous vote to ballot for industrial action at last week’s branch meeting.

The mood of the meeting I am told was determined and vociferous. However, the branch is not simply looking at strikes but at a wider social campaign to get me back in the classroom. A support group is to be set up linking my defence to the wider fight for education, and the branch has pledged to link up the campaign to Stand Up For Education and the People's Assembly. The fear is reducing and confidence is rising - we can win.

Already colleagues and activists are meeting to look at how to make the campaign as effective as possible with a social trade unionism approach. The branch and union will lead the industrial action and this will be supported by the People's Assembly activists who will broaden the campaign and carry it into the community. Hopefully the campaign will leave a mark on the wider labour movement. I hope that out of our collective struggle we can build confidence, build the social trade union movement and involve a new layer of young people in the fight for social justice.

Model branch resolution in defence of John Westmoreland


This branch notes:

John Westmoreland is being victimised for his trade union activities, as stated in documents released to John.

John has faced a year of persecution which has damaged his health and family.

That the grievances against John have been a device to allow the Principal to hide behind ‘the rights of individuals’ and then lead the victimisation of John from the shadows.

That the attack on John has taken place in order to detract attention form the bullying practices of some York College managers.

That workload has increased during the period of John’s victimisation.

That there has been huge support for John as a teacher who has never before faced disciplinary measures at York College, and is widely recognised as a champion of good education.

The branch has no confidence in the processes followed and that the implementation of college policies is seriously flawed.

This branch believes:

That we need to change our tactics in defending John and other staff from victimisation and bullying.

That Alison Birkinshaw should be held to account for her part in the victimisation of John.

That John should have the disciplinary  charge against him dropped.

This branch resolves:

To ballot the membership for industrial action up to and including all out strike action.

To set up a York College friends of JohnWestmoreland campaign group.

To support the initiatives of Stand up for Education and the Peoples Assembly.

To publicise a full report on John’s victimisation for staff, students and the wider public to read.

To invite members to get involved in the above.

John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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