The AWL: a week in the life

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2009 - 1:49

We begin an occasional series in which AWL members describe a week (or thereabouts) in their political life.

The London Underground worker

Wednesday (11 November): Had a “union day” today. As a local RMT rep for London Underground station staff, I visited my workplaces to investigate members’ issues. Some shocking stuff is going on. One person has been given an attendance warning for being in a car crash! But people liked the newsletter I’d written — it tells them information they are lacking from other sources about what’s going on with our pay ballot.

Thursday: Had a weekly educational with a comrade. We’re working through Fate of the Russian Revolution, a collection of Trotstkyist writings, trying to make sense of the USSR, as it developed into an imperialist, class society. I am beginning to understand the “political tradition” AWL draws on: opposition to all forms of imperialism, but opposition which makes the struggle of the working-class central.

In bed early for 3am start.

Friday: My biggest achievement of the day was getting sugar and washing up liquid for the staff messroom! People had been buying their own and washing up with hand soap, even though we’re entitled to this stuff. We are socialised into feeling out of control of our workplace — it doesn’t even occur to people to demand the smallest things to improve it. It’s that sense of having a say over our place of work that I want to encourage as a union rep.

Saturday: After work (early shift) I attended the RMT’s conference on working class political representation. Disappointed to find out it is more about top-down initiatives that had been cooked up behind closed doors. No-one from Workers’ Liberty was called to speak in the debate. But at least we were there, arguing for more democracy in this initiative for workers’ representation. If even a few activists took this idea forward, it might make the wider campaign much healthier.

Monday: Attended a local reps training course. I am there with a great bunch of RMT reps who encourage me with their tales of standing up to management. Thank goodness the union keeps throwing up brilliant people who are prepared to stand up for their convictions, day in day out.

Went to the RMT London Transport Region Executive meeting afterwards. We discussed how to implement a motion to defend station staffing levels on London Underground. We are going to get a campaign off the ground.

Tuesday: RMT recruitment day. I join RMT activists on my stations after I finished work and we signed up three people! Curiously, the union seems to have gained appeal now the prospect of striking is off the immediate horizon. Or perhaps it’s because we all realise big changes are ahead that could threaten our jobs and we will need to defend ourselves. Today was day one of rebuilding solid union membership where I work.

In the evening I went to my AWL branch meeting. My chance in the week to discuss politics, catch up with activists from other workplaces and hear reports of activity I was unable to attend. We planned our political activity for the coming week.

The student activist

Gender Studies at Hull University is being cut. The local postal workers were until recently striking against their management bullies. Our students’ union does not yet have a position on education funding. These are the themes of my recent political life!

As an AWL activist all of these struggles have been key to our work as a revolutionary socialist organisation that seeks to draw the links between student and worker struggles.

When the national postal strike started myself and other AWL members and activists went down to the picket lines and showed our solidarity with the striking workers and talked about the fights we face as students and how we could support each other.

Later we spent time outside our student union asking students to sign a petition in support of workers. While explaining the issues around the dispute, we were also introducing them to our paper and other literature and campaigns we are involved in.

Our Student Union Executive Committee passed a motion drafted by an AWL member who is a sabbatical officer in support of the postal workers — arguing students should not be used as scabs. If the dispute starts up gain AWL members at HUU will direct the resources of the university into the practical and political solidarity the postal workers will need.

An important aspect of our work has been about improving the structures of the student union.

At a general meeting we demanded that the business “experts” and Tory councillors that make up our trustee Board are made accountable to ordinary students.

If our union insists on giving the bosses a say on what we do then they should come to our democratic structures and be held to account for their decisions on the direction of our union. For instance they have voted against a proposal to pay the lowest paid staff an equal minimum wage.

AWL members called for the Trustees to be directly elected, with anyone able to stand, and for all those who are elected to come to General Meetings so their shady dealings can be unmasked and scrutinised. Much of the argument was based on our opposition as a whole to such a board which we believe is both undemocratic and unnecessary.

The AWL, together with activists from Education Not for Sale, in the Hull Free Education Network helped to organise of the first demonstrations to happen on our campus for many years.

After two planning meetings and some laborious banner making about 30 people turned out to drop banners facing the main admin building, to chant, hand out over 500 leaflets and march to outside our union.

HFEN is a broad campaign against the cutting of our courses and for free education. For the AWL it is also a forum in which to argue for our politics and positions on wider issues and, importantly, how a campaign should move forward. This kind of work is vitally important for keeping the pressure within the campaign to keep doing more, and giving it a positive direction.

An important part of our work as AWL members is to promote the politics and activities of Workers’ Liberty and not to just become “the best activists” on a particular issue.

As well as selling Solidarity, we have public meetings every two weeks. The last was on “What is Socialist Feminism? Why do we need it?” A comrade from Sheffield AWL led a very productive discussion. That will help us develop a view of feminism that cuts against the liberal and largely anti-working class “official” feminism that comes from our student union.

These kinds of debates and discussions play an important part in educating students.

We encounter all sorts of people in our activities — people who are openly hostile, those who have very little knowledge or conception of socialism or some who just have a lot of questions.

It is an important part of the AWL’s work to educate all these people and by having debates that often seem heated or group and individual discussions we often find there is more agreement then was first thought. At the very least it allows a greater questioning of preconceived ideas about socialism, or free education or the inconvenience many students felt by the postal strike.

AWL members all over the country are engaged in work like this and it helps to keep our group dynamic and open. The work is sometimes routine and appears to achieve little, but with fights going on everywhere it is important that we continue to argue sharply for what we stand for.

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