Debate: A violation of human rights, TGWU-Amicus merger

Submitted by cathy n on 30 January, 2007 - 3:35

I’d like to reply to Chris Leary’s article about Ashley X the severely disabled child who underwent radical medical intervention to keep body childlike (Solidarity 3-104).

The issue here is the violation of an individual; the denial of basic human rights to a human being. I disagree strongly with the use of the word “treatment” to describe what was done to Ashley — the procedure was not performed to “treat” an ailment but rather alter her state of being — to keep her small for the rest of her life.

The justification that “a smaller body and an absence of breasts mean that it is less likely that Ashley will develop bedsores” is crazy; a person of any size will not suffer from bedsores if they are well cared for and attended to. As for this — “by removing her uterus and womb, the massive risk of cancer in her reproductive systemis reduced” — can’t the same be said for all women? Should I have a hysterectomy to lower my chances of cancer?

I do agree with Chris that the state provision for illnesses such as Ashley’s is insufficient but I question whether it is bad enough to draw the conclusion that her parents are right for making the choice to halt their daughter’s growth.

The idea that a matter of finance and convenience is enough to justify the modification of a child is disgusting and suggests a lot about the values of the society we live in. What next? Stomach-stapling for the under-threes because they are easier to carry and smaller nappies are cheaper? An extreme example, yes, but the point is the same.

Can we, as socialists, really support the idea that drastic surgery is a suitable response to severe disability when consent is not a realistic option? Personally I find the prospect of preventing the natural development of already severely disabled people vile and disturbing.

Ashley is a person, a young woman and this is a severe violation of her body for the sake of reducing the stresses of her parents daily life. Yes, provision for families like Ashley’s should be better but that should not become an excuse for this kind of extreme modification of people who just don’t fit into our ideal.

Heather Shaw, Rochdale

Merger will stifle renewal

To be sure, the working class will one day overthrow global capitalism. In decades to come, the ranks of a united TGWU-Amicus will rise up and deal with the bureaucrats.

But to seek refuge in such general consolations, as Peter Baker does (Solidarity 3/104), is no answer to the actual objections, here and now, to voting for the current merger terms.

If a merger on the current terms, now, would stifle the limited renewal taking place in the TGWU, by putting it under the control of Amicus officialdom armed with a rulebook no better than the TGWU’s current one; if it would blot out the prospect of a large union energetically confronting the New Labour leadership for several years to come (and very possibly until Blair and Brown have completed their “project” of transforming Labour into a replica of the US Democrats) - if it would do those things, then the “epochal” consolations about what our children and grandchildren can do are secondary.

Even if you think that merger on the current terms would, on balance, be a step forward, there would still be a strong case for voting against those terms.
The top officials want this merger. If the current terms are voted down by members demanding more democracy, then they will make concessions rather than abandon the project.

A “no” majority is unlikely with all major established factions in both unions campaigning for “yes”. But over the next 18 months the union leaders will be drafting an undemocratic new rulebook based on the merger terms. A sizeable “no” minority vote would at least establish a force in the merged union which can campaign for democracy without facing the paralysing argument: “You yourself voted for the terms on which this rulebook is based”.

Peter does not dispute that in the merger terms the rank and file has won none of the democratic measures which Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty campaigned for — and campaigned for as essential, if the amalgamation was to be a real step forward.

He concedes that the one democratic reform won in either Amicus or TGWU recently - election of officials — has been lost.

He dismisses that as unimportant, however, with a peculiar logic. “Much more far-reaching... democratisation” is necessary, he says. Of course. “Much more far-reaching democratisation” is necessary in society than the election of MPs. That does not mean that it would be a thing of no importance if election of MPs were replaced by them being appointed by an elected President.

What would this “more far-reaching democratisation” be, in the union? Apparently, to “abolish the distinction between the officer caste and the rank and file. The principle is not to elect “good officers” to lead the fight, but for the workers to take control of and responsibility for their own organisation from top to bottom”.

Peter can’t mean that a union of two million members can be run solely by lay officials who meet, organise, and administer union affairs in their evenings after work. In a society where workers are wage-slaves with very limited free time, not even anarchist trade unions can run without full-time officials.

A “distinction” between full-time officials and the rank and file is inescapable. It can be limited by putting the officials on workers’ wages, making negotiations open to the rank and file, and... making the officials subject to frequent election.

Electing “good officials” is not enough by itself. But it is better than having bad officials appointed over the heads of the rank and file.

Peter looks forward to the merged union absorbing others and displacing the TUC. “Given that the General Secretary and Executive of this new union will be subject to direct election by the membership the merger represents a step forward... a powerful, progressive and accountable alternative to the TUC apparatus”.

But the TUC — bad though it is —- is a loose confederation. To merge all other unions into the Amalgamated Union is to merge them into a single, and quite centralised, union. Do we want the British labour movement to become something like the French - where, for practical purposes, the CGT, for example, is “the union”, and its industrial federations mere sub-sections - but without the breathing space provided to the French rank and file by the existence of rival cross-industry groupings?

As Marx wrote: “A centralist organisation, suitable as it is for secret societies and sect movements, contradicts the nature of the trades unions. Were it possible... it would not be desirable, least of all in Germany. Here, where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk by himself”. (Letter to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868).

Martin Thomas, Brisbane, Australia

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