Top photo: Oshor Williams, John Smith, John McDonnell MP, Doug Nicholls. Photo by Ade Marsh Photography
The 19th – 21st May saw the 2019 Biennial General Conference of the GFTU. I was invited to take part, as they sponsor my PhD research into the early years of their history as part of their education programme. It was my second BGCM (the first being before I began my research), and it was a real pleasure seeing the GFTU crowd and catching up on their work within the trade union movement.
The ‘big’ bit was the launch of The Many Not The Few, a graphic novel history of the political working class and trade unionism from its early inceptions. We attended a parliamentary reception, hosted by John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP, and I gave a speech about my research. But more on that in another post…
The BGCM itself was a constructive mix of motions from affiliates, speeches from guests and updates on current work being carried out by the GFTU. I’ve got some personal highlights, although there were many interesting and engaging topics being discussed. I could go on for days, but just for a snapshot:
Katie Lomas – NAPO
There was clear celebration in the air, as news that Chris Grayling’s awful treatment of the Probation Service would finally be rectified through a return to nationalisation. However, Katie described her celebrations as ‘muted’, given that she and the National Association of Probation Officers were keen to point out that the government U-turn was nowhere near as far-reaching as it needed to be. There is still a way to go to get back to the fully-nationalised probation service that works to keep communities safe, and Katie’s speech was full of passion and promise. She is doing incredible work both for NAPO and as a local Councillor, and for me really epitomises the new energy that I can see in the trade union movement.
Outgoing President, John Smith
John gave a speech to mark the end of his time as the GFTU’s President. He reflected on his past as a trade unionist, which began when he joined the Musician’s Union in 1969. John talked fondly of his own experience being trained as a musician when he was growing up, and the idea that music and the arts were there to be everyday parts of normal life was easily taken for granted. However, years of savage Tory cuts had meant that music tuition now seems to only be given to those that can afford it. There are invaluable skills to learning music, and John was clear to point out that the idea of collectivity is instilled through playing music in a way that can be hard to come by as a child. A musician is taught their instrument, and is then often a part of an orchestra or band, and so they are able to learn how to work with their peers in order to create together.
There have been significant changes since John joined the Executive Committee of the GFTU in 2003 – with the GFTU investing their reserves in the Quorn Grange Hotel being the most notable. The pride he felt at how well the developments were going was clear, as he spoke fondly of the educational work being done by the Educational Trust, and the international solidarity being strengthened by the GFTU’s increasing connections across the world.
John is well known for his welcoming manner and kindness. After my first BGCM, before I had started my thesis on the GFTU, John sent me the newly published account of the MU’s history in the post. It was one of the first times of many that I felt welcomed and encouraged by the GFTU staff and affiliates, and I wish him the best of luck as he moves on to his next steps as the President of the International Musicians’ Federation.
There were some very engaging speakers mixed in with some important motions and ideas for the future of trade unionism during the conference. A personal highlight was having the privilege of listening to Osman Baydemir speak about the terrible conditions that the Kurdish are being forced to live through in Turkey. A former mayor of his home town, Osman has been an active and outspoken Human Rights campaigner both during his time as a lawyer and as an MP for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). He spoke eloquently of people being unfairly imprisoned, beaten and killed for simply being Kurdish. It was an honest and clear reminder of the work we are yet to do in the search for equality and fairness around the world. The fact that he stood in front of a conference, and held us all captivated, whilst only having learnt English for the last six months was astounding. We spoke after of how vital the means of communication is between activists, and he was clearly driven to be able to talk meaningfully with people. I’m hopeful that Osman will continue to spread his message, and I’ll be starting the book on Turkish history that I bought at the conference soon.
The last part of the conference was reserved for the speech of the incoming President, Oshor Williams. I always enjoy hearing Osh speak – he is one of those people with such an easy going manner, that people can’t help but feel relaxed and listened to when they’re sat chatting with him. I’d known that he had been a footballer once upon a time, so it was interesting in his speech to hear a little about that part of his life and about how he got involved in his union.
He described the environment for a young black man in the football industry as being terrifying and often full of violence. The hate directed at him and anyone who looked like him came from fellow players, managers and fans alike. As a very junior member, he was expected to complete the jobs no one wanted to do, such as cleaning up locker rooms and washing down the flood lights. With hardly any health and safety measures in place, some of those jobs were very dangerous – having to clean an unventilated room with a dangerous chemical led to him being so violently sick he had to miss training sessions. Those at the top were regularly free to abuse their positions of power: a well-known top dog would drive up to the club, toss the keys of his Land Rover to the nearest apprentice, and bark instructions to clean it.
He joined the union because he was told to, not that he knew what they were for or what they could do for their members. It wasn’t until another player witnessed Oshor being threatened with dismissal over a very minor infraction and decided to contact the union on his behalf, that Osh saw what the union was for. The manager in question was told that he was out of line, and that if he wanted to sack anyone he would have to do it properly and give notice of the right to appeal. The manager had his tail between his legs, and Osh was able to understand that a) despite being in a very junior position, he had rights, and b) that he would be given support to make sure those rights were upheld.
The union went on to support Osh through gaining coaching qualifications and further education. He stressed that even though he never sought the union out, the union was there to support him when he needed it. It made me think of how easy it is for us all to take for granted the rights that we enjoy in Britain in 2019. We have a long way to go of course, but trade unionism on the whole has fundamentally changed the landscape of all workers. And as I sit here, having enjoyed two Bank Holidays this past month, I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky to be even a small part of that movement.
And the rest…
I wish I had more space, but no one likes a blog that drones on. I’ll write a separate post soon about how amazing it feels to present my research in parliament in front of John McDonnell MP, but for now this is the most concise way I can sum up a hugely successful and inspiring BGCM.