The day itself, of course, also happened to be the day of further protests against the most racist (to say nothing of also sexist and authoritarian) president of recent American history, Donald Trump. SUtR organisers quite right cancelled the morning session to allow us all to join around 40,000 other people on this lively and important demonstration, and it put people into the right frame of mind for the day.
The opening session contained greetings and introductions from a range of trade union speakers. Ronnie Draper, general secretary of the of the Bakers’ Union, spoke about how his union was combating the myth that immigration, rather than employers, are the cause of low wages. Suzanne Matthews of Unite the Union spoke her work organising black workers with the TUC. Janet Maiden from Unison Health spoke about NHS workers defending the ideal of multiculturalism. The conference then split into three workshops: one on Brexit and Workers’ Rights, one on building solidarity with refugees and a third on the threat of the Prevent policy.
I went to the refugee solidarity session. It was kicked off by Sara Tomlinson of Lambeth TUC, who had been involved in the Care for Calais organisation. Teachers from Lambeth had been volunteering at a pop-up school at the refugee camp operated by a courageous refugee activist who has since received the NUT’s “Service to Education” award. The school served around 100 adults and dozens of children. The school provided a vital centre of normality and stability for the refugees and was more than just a place of education (in a sense, this is true of any functioning school!). It was destroyed when the camp was forcibly dispersed in November, and conditions for the refugees are now far worse, as they now live completely rough as fugitives, and risk death to sneak onto literally any vehicle they can. Care for Calais has continued distributing basic aid to refugees, even though this is now far harder, and continues to appeal for support. Trade unions are encouraged to help out by sending useful items like sleeping bags to Stand Up to Racism and to get trade unionists to the site to help, as Lambeth teachers have. A very good report from Mile End hospital followed about them organising their own-workplace based solidarity collection. Activists are strongly advised to reproduce these actions at their own work.
There was also some good information about things that have been done to help refugees inside Britain. Unite Community in the city of Chesterfield has managed to organise English for Speakers of Other Languages classes for refugees, based on its existing programme to help Eastern European workers learn English. This actually helped build solidarity between the communities and has also resulted in refugees and migrant workers joining the unions at work, which they might otherwise never have had the opportunity to do.
The other sessions also got very positive report backs. For people who do not know about Prevent, a very handy pamphlet has been produced to explain it. Essentially an institutionalised programme of getting education workers to report “potentially extremist” behaviour by students, who are almost exclusively Muslims, has created a surreal atmosphere of paranoia and discrimination that would be funny if weren’t so horrible. Young Muslims have been called in for questioning for wearing badges that say “Free Palestine” or mispronouncing words so someone else can think they heard the word “bomb”. Children growing up in such climate can scarcely be said to be free and enjoying their rights: our movement must oppose Prevent, and champion an education that is actively anti-racist. The session on Brexit was also useful, and contained a report back from the new Free Movement of Labour Campaign, which has been invited to send a speaker to Barnet TUC’s AGM next month.
Generally, this was a timely and very well organised conference that turned what could be a very bleak few hours into a useful organising event. I would support having another one in future.