Where next for fighting unions? Organising the Left - Rally, Liverpool, September 2023

Building Fighting Unions Means Organising the Left #TUC23


“We don’t want just a change of government, we want an end to attacks on our class.”

Fran Heathcote, PCS

Matt Willgress, Labour Outlook, reports from a vital event in Liverpool.

UNISON Time for Real Change’s Andrea Egan welcomed a crowd of hundreds for a discussion on “what next for the movement?” at the “Building Fighting Unions – Organising the Left” rally on Tuesday night in Liverpool.

The struggles of recent times have starkly illustrated the need for unity – and Left groups in a number of groups had started to work closer together, with this rally being called by NEU Left; PCS Left Unity; RMT Broad Left; Unison Time for Real Change; and Unite United Left, and held in association with ‘Arise – a Festival of Left Ideas.’ Further actions of this unifying network were now being planned and a joint statement launched from this rally.

Fran Heathcote speaking on behalf of PCS Left Unity gave a thoughtful and impassioned contribution, reflecting on lessons and consequences of 40 years of neoliberalism, starting with Thatcher’s offensive.

Throughout the decades, often it has been the lack of a united response which has damaged the labour and trade union movement, including eith regards to the defeat of the great Miners’ Strike under Thatcher, and also in terms of fighting against PFI and other attacks in the New Labour years.

Linking these questions to the present day, she said “The reality of life is cuts in living standards and the destruction of rights [but] now the question we have to ask is what is to be done about it?”

The answer and “what is required is United and co-ordinated action” across sectors.

In the context of “ongoing class war,” what “we need [is] to build a United front of struggle, wherever possible around a common set of demands.”

She concluded by paying tribute to Mark Serwotka, calling for a clear socialist alternative, and making the key point that “We don’t want just a change of government, we want an end to attacks on our class.”

Matt Gould, Unite EC member speaking on behalf of Unite United Left, was next up and emphasised how the bosses try and divide-and-rule different unions in same sector, do our unity is vital.

Unions can win gains working together, and this is often proven at a local level – moving forward “a left coalition can be a powerful movement for the benefit of all workers in this country.”

Libby Nolan, UNISON President speaking on behalf of UNISON Time for Real Change, opened by explaining how UTFRC is a collection of activists who want to change the union to one that takes on the fight, and is a member-led union.

They regard this initiative as particularly important, as achieving unity on the left can help mean that as a “collective group we can be a collective force.”

John McDonnell MP then received a warm welcome from the crowd, and opened by paying tribute and thanks to the panel for taking forward our movement in recent times, and in particular for “not in any way be afraid of taking industrial action.”

In the last 18 months we have seen an extraordinary amount of industrial action, and we should remember the gains that have been made, such as the wins at Heathrow in his constituency, including fighting off fire-and-rehire.

Additionally, “the role of an MP should be automatic solidarity with disputes” in this context.

It is also of great significance that the “Government has failed in portraying unions as the enemy within,” due to “underestimating the support amongst the working-class for the industry action that has taken place.”

The case of Mick Lynch illustrates this – he has been demonised again and again, but has massive support amongst the public.

In the next year, there is a clear danger of the Tories using the Minimum Services Levels legislation to target unions in run-up to a General Election.

Our response must be that when “the first union that is targeted and fined, the whole of the movement has to come out… that is how we will defeat this unfair, illegal legislation.”

He concluded by saying that we need trade union rights from day one as part of a full New Deal for Workers, as has been developed collectively by the movement over the last decade.

NEU Vice-President Phil Clarke. speaking on behalf of NEU Left, then explained how his union’s campaigning has won 70,000 new union members in six months.

Organised lefts provide a vital backbone to struggles such as those of the NEU, PCS and other unions.

This initiative was vital, as “Our enemies are highly organised,” meaning that we have to be too, with a high-level of co-ordination and organisation.

He concluded by arguing that “Getting [this] co-ordination going.. only that level of unity… can win.”

Alex Gordon, RMT Broad Left then took the stage and welcomed the rally by pointing out that “there is a crying need for co-ordination and organisation of socialists across the trade union movement.”

This was shown by the fact that the 2023 TUC Congress has decided to back non-compliance and many demands around resistance for workers’ rights, in a co-ordinated way, but the fact os that whether this is taken up will depend on how well the Left is organised across the unions, meaning that “Liaison of the left is key for fighting back.”

We also need to be ready for a Starmer government that could be hi-jacked by right-wing, neo-liberal ideology.

Therefore, the need to rebuild a class struggle left in our unions and movement is urgent – building a socialist politics based on class struggle.

‘Arise – a Festival of Left Ideas’ was delighted to be asked to be part of what could prove a very important development on the Left. As Andrea Egan said, the “Profiteering bonanza of the rich” of recent years has now been faced with a new fightback.

This vital initiative has the potential to help deepen that fightback in the months and years ahead. In the words of Alex Gordon, “Let’s go forward from tonight & build an organised left throughout our trade union movement.”

  • The ‘Building Fighting Unions – Organising the Left’ rally took place at the TUC Conference no September 13th, 2023 and can be watched on Facebook here.
  • An initial statement in support of the rally can be read here, and a statement launched at the event will be available shortly.
  • Matt Willgress is the national co-ordinator of Arise – A Festival of Left Ideas. You can follow Arise – A Festival of Left Ideas on Facebook and Twitter.
Featured image: John McDonnell addresses the organising the left rally at TUC Conference on September 13th, 2023.

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