We need to make our unions effective

Submitted by Matthew on 21 October, 2015 - 12:42

Rachel Mullen, a young activist in the Bakers Food and Allied Workers’ Union and a delegate to Labour Party conference, spoke to Solidarity.

I work for Greggs, in one of their shops, in Gateshead. I became a shop steward five years ago, when I was 20. I work in the same branch as my mum, and she helped me get involved in the union.

I was involved in taking a proposal to our national conference for a dedicated youth rep on our National Executive. That could have been a double-edged sword. They could have said, okay, we should just have this one position for young people. But in fact it’s had a good effect in getting young members more involved.

I’ve also been involved in the Labour Party for several years, but the last six months have been very different. I’ve been on the left of the party, with a socialist agenda, from the start, and so is my union, but it’s only since the summer that much larger numbers of people seem to have been listening.

I was very struck by the Labour Representation Committee meeting I spoke at this year. In previous years it was just about full, this time it was overflowing.

After the disappointment of the election, and the Tories stepping up their attacks, it’s clearer than ever that we need an alternative.

In addition to representing members in places like Greggs, the main thing the union is doing is the campaign to unionise and organise workers in fast food.

It was launched from the young members’ conference because there are so many young workers in the fast food industry, facing issues like zero hours contracts and differential rates for the minimum wage.

We’ve been organising stunts and protests outside the big chains and trying to get into discussions with workers in them. We’ve stressed that the only way to get proper contracts, better wages is to unionise, but at the moment unions aren’t allowed in these companies.

In Greggs, things aren’t perfect but the fact that we have unions means the company operates differently and we get higher wages and contracts with guaranteed hours.

Seeing young members involved in this campaign has challenged some older members’ view of what young people are like — that we’re not interested in trade unions or in politics. Yes, the majority of young people don’t know what the labour movement is. That’s all the more reason for the labour movement to be trying to educate and involved them.

We’ve taken inspiration from America, from the Fight for $15 campaign and we are starting to pick up new activists. In Scotland we have a group of people recruited in the last year. That’s what we need to establish everywhere.

The leadership debate has changed the atmosphere at Labour Party conference. People are more on the left or at least shifting. Basic left-wing policies on austerity, on council housing, on the NHS make sense to people. There is a renewed idea that people should be able to live with dignity.

I think we need to challenge exploitation, whatever form it takes — low wages, denial of healthcare, energy prices, rail prices. We need a society where people can live without being exploited.

The left needs to get out there talking politics to people, including to people who aren’t already on the left — including even people who are currently right-wing. Make the case, that’s how we’ll make headway.

It would certainly help if we had a bigger, stronger Labour left organisation. If all the different organisations could come together more, it would help organise all the people swimming around.

In the bigger unions the leaderships are more distant from the members and maybe less accountable. And the leaders and even the activists get more distant from the day-to-day concerns of workers and more worried about making radical arguments, because maybe they’re no longer sure how they’ll go down with the membership.

On the other hand it’s not a case of small unions good, big unions bad. We need to change the big unions too, to make all our unions effective.

Being a socialist is not about you as an individual, but what’s good for the whole population, collectively. It’s about the interests of the big majority, 90 or 99 per cent. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to a better life, but it’s about collectively aspiring for a better life for all.

The banking crisis and the way the media have misrepresented it shows why society should be run according to the market. The rich caused the crisis but we’ve been paying — to me that makes the case for a different kind of society.

Repoliticise the unions!

Ian Hodson, President of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union, spoke to Solidarity in a personal capacity

What are your general thoughts about Corbyn’s victory?

The election of Jeremy Corby was a welcome outcome of the leadership election. For the first time in many years the Labour Party will represent something different to the stale politics we have witnessed since the election of Thatcher.

We are witnessing a shift in a political landscape where it felt nothing could ever change, where we have to accept that life becomes tougher for each new generation. For the first time we will see an alternative to austerity. The real enthusiasm we witnessed during the leadership campaign, with thousands turning up, is something that hasn’t happened in my lifetime.

What should happen now?

We have to build in every town, every city, a movement that explains what the alternative would look like.

There was a huge enthusiasm built up for politics and we need to tap into that by making sure we keep people involved and be part of this fantastic opportunity that Jeremy’s election offers.

We have a party leader fighting for a fairer, more decent society for all. But the establishment is going to try and derail this opportunity, so we need to recognise that our movement is stronger when we act collectively. That means ending the sectarianism and working together to achieve a better country and the better world we all want to see.

What were your impressions of Labour Party conference this year?

As a trade unionist it was refreshing to see the party leadership being prepared to acknowledge trade unions and their pride in being part of our trade union movement — something that hasn’t happened for many years.

A lot of the spin had gone; the focus was on policy and dealing with the needs of our society. Politics felt human again and less scripted.

How do you think the unions should capitalise on Corbyn’s victory?

As an affiliated union it is important that our voices are heard, but also the voices of those trade unions that are not yet affiliated My union believes in democracy and that Labour conference should democratically develop policies for a fairer society.

The union movement should use this opportunity to repoliticise its members, to build links with the new grassroots movements springing up, to explain the need for collectivism and rebuild our once strong links in our communities.

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