By Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the CWU
On the 9th December student demonstration I found myself kettled alongside large numbers of students and school students. It was, and wasn’t accidental. I had been in the Red Lion Café in Whitehall, preparing for another meeting with Coalition MPs as part of the CWU’s campaign against the privatisation of Royal Mail.
It was accidental, in so far as I was engaged in other political activity. But it wasn’t accidental that I got caught up with the students – because, in one way or another, a large part of the country also got caught up in supporting your inspiring struggle.
In those few hours we all accumulated some anecdotes. Mine were to challenge the BBC reporter who claimed people were being led out for toilet breaks. The other was to start a chant, “let us out,” which people joined in with.
But the alliance between the students and the trade union movement is not really accidental.
Following the most severe recession since the 1930s, those with money and power are determined to make those with neither bear the burden of the recovery.
The trebling of fees, and the abolition of the EMA are part of this – students and young people are expected to pay for others failures. At the same time, workers in both the public and private sector are facing unemployment, wage cuts, pension cuts and attacks on working conditions.
Suddenly we are allies in misfortune. Some of us – but most certainly not all of us – are in this together. The question is are we going to take it, or are we going to fight for our rights? Clearly students and school students are answering that one.
The trade unions are beginning to organise. Slowly, but definitely, we can see the organisations of 7 million workers preparing themselves for fights. The March 26th TUC demonstration is important in this. As are the many local and sectoral campaigns which the unions are starting.
Because of the severity of the attack, we can expect some defeats. But make no mistake, there is going to be a serious fight back.
So let us support each other in our struggle. Certainly trade unions should support the protests to defend the EMA on January 19th, and the demonstration in London on January 29th called by some of the most effective student organisations.
But neither trade unionists, nor students should forget the impact the cuts are having on the most vulnerable and least organised sections of society. The unemployed, people with special needs and disabilities, and benefit claimants have all been singled out for heart breaking cuts in services and living standards. We must make the case for supporting those least able to defend themselves.
I share the willingness of Len McCluskey, General Secretary of UNITE, to actively seek out connections between students and the trade unions. In alliance we can render some real set backs to the Coalition’s policies.
Trade unions are changing, just as the workforce is. Although far too few young workers and students are members, nevertheless the Unions are very effective organisations for defending living standards. Young people need to join and make them more effective.
In recent years, there has been a radicalisation in the unions. Nowadays the fight against racism and fascism is a normal part of the union’s agenda, inside and outside the workplace. The struggle of women has led to a position where the majority of trade union members are women – despite continuing problems of under representation in the leadership of unions. Most unions have comprehensive equalities policies, including a commitment to support lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people. The unions have also played an important part in the anti-war movement, the solidarity movement for the Palestinian people, and the promotion of a more equal and peaceful world. Environmental issues have a wide hearing these days inside unions.
I know that many students have to work part time to maintain their education courses. I am proud to say that we have students in CWU membership who work part time in Royal Mail sorting offices.
Recognising this common interest, let’s make sure we turn it into effective action in solidarity with each others struggles.