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Interview: ‘Stop looking to government - we need to build our strength in the workplace’

As GMB conference meets in Bournemouth, its general secretary GARY SMITH speaks to the Morning Star

GMB conference broke yesterday afternoon for delegates to campaign for a Labour election victory.

Though the focus of conference has been strongly industrial, multiple delegates referred to the hope a final end to Conservative rule after 14 years represents.

GMB’s general secretary, Gary Smith, stands by that despite the doubts over whether Keir Starmer’s Labour will change all that much.

“I don’t expect Labour to sort out all our problems,” he tells the Morning Star. 

“The trade union movement’s whole focus should be on listening to members and building industrial campaigns that build unions.

“All we want Labour to do is give us a bit more of a level playing field. The employment contract is not a fair or equitable one, and Labour can shift the dial to make it fairer in terms of our right and ability to organise. That’s really what I’m looking for.”

Many on the left and in unions have condemned Starmer for watering down the New Deal for Workers legislation, but Smith argues it is still “the most radical piece of employment legislation in generations,” reasserting the principle of collective bargaining and equal pay rights, a huge issue for GMB which is fighting equal pay battles for women workers in cities including Birmingham, Coventry and Sheffield.

But can those battles be won without addressing the crisis in council funding — something Labour, with its constant stress on spending restraint, seems unlikely to do?

“It is about funding of course, but it’s also about political will. It’s about politicians having turned a blind eye, and, candidly, unions not being on top of equal pay, not listening to the members and building the industrial campaigns.

“The privatisation of public services, council services in particular, was partly about getting round equal pay commitments — you privatise the problem. And the New Deal for Workers talks about the scandal of privatisation to get around equal pay, and looks at how you enforce equal pay.”

Labour promising a return to sectoral bargaining for social care, and restoration of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body, “gives us a real opportunity in terms of getting hundreds of thousands of working-class women organising and negotiating their pay and conditions.

“Of course it’s about money, but we aren’t going to get more money from local or national government if we don’t have stronger trade unions. We’re down to what, 12 per cent union density in the private sector?

“Stop looking for governments to solve all our problems. We’ve got to get our own house in order and build our strength in the workplace.”

But there are areas where political solutions seem essential — what about water, where privatisation has raised bills, run down the infrastructure and filled our rivers and coasts with sewage? What about steel, where the whim of a private company is permitted to dictate the ruin of our domestic steelmaking capacity? Labour refuses to consider nationalisation in either case.

“At some point Labour will have to face the debate on public ownership of water,” Smith believes. “Not least because of climate change, and the resulting water stress in the south-east. 

“Our policy is that water should be publicly owned, it’s a public good, it’s something everybody needs access to.

“The private sector said it was going to deliver cleaner beaches, cleaner rivers — what happened to that? Under Labour and the Tories, we had this system of regulation that allowed people at the top to make a fortune through financial engineering and mismanagement of the infrastructure — closing reservoirs, building executive housing on top.”

Smith points out that the ownership model for water is different in Wales, England and Scotland, and says the future of its ownership in England will become a more pressing political issue in time.

The fate of the steel industry he argues is tied to the abandonment of manufacturing and energy-sector workers by a left “talking to itself about a just transition, exporting jobs and importing virtue” by allowing the infrastructure for green energy to be built halfway around the planet.

“If something does not change and the left does not get sober about what’s happening in terms of industry and jobs, the resulting anger and discontent will break to the right, particularly in England.”

This is already visible in the surge in support for Reform UK, the hard-right turn of the Conservative Party and the success of the far right in the European elections.

“The Reform stuff is hugely dangerous, the anti-Muslim hate we are now seeing. But what is the left going to do? I’m sorry but we talk about jobs that don’t exist rather than listening to the experience of communities, coming up with concrete plans to bring back jobs and skilled work.

“How do we give people a voice? That’s our challenge.”

Before returning to that, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the Islamophobic hate has been directed at people marching in solidarity with Palestine, currently subjected to a brutal Israeli invasion of Gaza. Gaza protests have included direct action at factories building arms or parts exported to Israel, something controversial with unions that represent workers in those factories such as the GMB.

Smith immediately points out that he visited Israel and the West Bank on his own initiative last year, and was “struck by the inhumanity of the treatment of the Palestinian people, the way society has been structured to put fear into people’s hearts.”

He condemns the Hamas attack of October 7, but says it is clear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to go and says to look out for the union’s statement on Palestine due to be published today.

On factory protests, he argues that “too much of the left has got used to turning up and protesting rather than going in there, speaking to workers.” Solidarity like that of the Rolls-Royce workers who refused to repair aircraft for Pinochet was organised by workers themselves, he notes.

“We’ve consulted our members in defence manufacturing about their views on arms sales to Israel and will be saying more about that.

“I support the right to protest but would ask, how are you engaging with the workforce, who’s speaking to them?”

Smith argues the bulwark against a rising far right is ultimately convincing communities that the labour movement is their voice.

“Stop the top-down lecturing. Give people confidence that they can be a collective force which delivers change.”

He cites the Amazon campaign as one where workers themselves, many of them financially insecure and oppressed by racism, have built that confidence by taking on one of the biggest companies on Earth.

GMB’s focus remains such campaigns, he says. “In the last period we’ve had 1,800 industrial action ballots, balloted 75,000 workers for industrial action. We’re leading the struggle over equal pay, a massive part of our story, in Leeds, Sunderland, Sheffield, Glasgow, Renfrewshire.

“We won £16 an hour for carers in South Lanarkshire Council, over £15 in Moray.”

Are these battles building the union? Smith says yes — it grew by 10,000 members in 2023 — and gestures to the banners around the Bournemouth International Centre depicting members taking action.

“This is not top-down slogans, this is not about Westminster politics. These pictures show people in struggle, industrial campaigns that give people a voice.”
 

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