Rebuilding working-class power

Submitted by Matthew on 12 March, 2014 - 11:23

The “New Unionism” of the 1880s saw hundreds of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, many of them migrants, and prominently including groups of women workers like the Bryant & May match workers, launch mass organising drives that shook up the old labour movement.

Their struggles challenged the orthodoxy of the existing unions and confronted conservative attitudes about whether such workers could, in fact, organise. The struggles of that period, and the “Great Unrest” which followed early in the 20th century, paved the way for the modern labour movement.

On 29 March 2014, working-class activists will gather for a conference that both looks at the history of “New Unionism” and discusses what new approaches are necessary to reinvigorate and rebuild labour power today.

New Unionism 2014 is sponsored by Workers’ Liberty, the University of London branch of the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB), the Ruskin College branch of the University and College Union (UCU), the Independent Left grouping in the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), and the Lambeth Activists group in the Lambeth Local Government branch of Unison.

The IWGB will tell the story of their “3 Cosas” campaign, which has won significant victories for outsourced cleaning, catering, and security workers at the University of London.

Another session will look at experiences of micro-unions, “pop-up unions”, and breakaway unions, their relationship to transformative struggle inside larger unions, and the limitations and potentials of each approach.

Kim Moody, US labour activist, author of books including US Labor in Trouble and Transition, and co-founder of the Labor Notes journal, will speak on the fate of the organising model in the US and the UK, and Mike Treen, National Director of Unite (New Zealand), will speak via Skype on his union’s organising drives in the fast food industry, including the 2006/2007 “Supersize My Pay” campaign. Activists from the Turkish rank-and-file network UID-DER will also speak via Skype.

Lambeth Activists, a rank-and-file network in the Lambeth Local Government branch of Unison, will lead a workshop on how to transform a union branch, and Gemma Short, a Workers’ Liberty activist in the Local Associations National Action Campaign in the National Union of Teachers, will lead a workshop comparing and contrasting rank-and-file networks to existing “broad lefts” within unions.

Colin Waugh of the Independent Working-Class Education Network will present on the legacy of independent working-class education, from the 1909 Ruskin College strike and the “Plebs’ League” to today.

Some sessions will look at key episodes from labour history — Edd Mustill, also from the IWCEN, will lead a workshop looking at 200 years of British labour history, focusing on moments of reinvigoration and recomposition, and Jill Mountford of Workers’ Liberty will give a talk on the life of Mary Macarthur and her role in the 1911 chainmakers’ strike.

Rail workers and RMT activists Becky Crocker and Chrissie Willetts will report from the recent International Transport workers’ Federation (ITF) Women’s Conference in India, as part of a session looking at women transport workers’ struggles against sexism in society, in the workplace, and in the labour movement.

The conference aims to provide labour-movement activists with opportunities to discuss where our movement is at, and how we can rebuild it.

Tickets are priced at £10/7/5 (waged, low-waged, unwaged, including lunch), and can be purchased online here.

The conference also has a blog where speakers will post reading material in advance.

The conference has a professionally-staffed crèche, and will include a social event on Saturday night.

• For more information, email awl@workersliberty.org or ring 077966 90874.

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