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Tony Woodley Speaks To The Socialist
Tony Woodley, newly elected general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) gave an exclusive interview last week to Bill Mullins, the Socialist Party's Industrial Organiser.
CONGRATULATIONS ON winning. The result must have lifted the spirits of a lot of workers. Why do you think you won the election?
We won because working men and women in this country are desperate for change. They're desperate to see trade unions acting like unions again. They're desperate to see the trade unions and government starting to deliver on the priority issues at the workplace.
The priorities are improving the minimum wage, which is a poverty pittance wage at the moment; protecting pensions, where companies have stolen £19 billion of pension surpluses over the last 12 or 13 years. But now they want to walk away from pension schemes or have our people pay double or treble for the privilege of staying in the scheme.
Workers want a union that stops factories closing down and destroying their jobs. Obscenely, workers are not even sacked over the phone any more, they get text messages. It's absolutely outrageous that we haven't got the same labour laws and protection as other working men and women in Europe.
What I have said consistently as a national negotiating officer - I'm not a bureaucrat - is for us to start to focus our time and money on fighting back. Workers are frustrated at seeing union leaders who are too close to the fat cats in the government and the government too close to the fat cats in business - both forgetting their roots.
My priorities are to refocus my time and the union's time, money and effort into trying to improve life for working men and women at the coal face.
The Labour government is hostile to any idea of a major increase in the minimum wage or getting rid of the anti-union laws. The TUC is pretty passive on these issues. How would you work with the other Left general secretaries who've been elected recently?
I've said that my intention is to call a summit to combine and co-ordinate with other like-minded trade union leaders in order for us to co-ordinate the pressure. I'm not for breaking the link with Labour. Why should we anyway, it's our party? It's the party that's been highjacked by the middle classes, we shouldn't walk away from it. We've got to use our influence.
Some time these people running the party will realise they don't just need our money and they don't just need our organisation - there's still over eight million trade unionists in this country - they actually need working men and women to start voting for them again, when they've got real opposition. We've got to be there to pressurise and demand, to try and convince the government to stop listening to big business and start listening to their traditional supporters.
I haven't been elected to be an MP or Prime Minister, I've been elected to fight back industrially in the workplace. But you can't win all these improvements just industrially, that's why the Labour Party was created. So I'm not promising to change the world but I'm promising to try.
The Labour Research Department has calculated that since 1979 the unions have given £200 million-plus to the Labour Party. We've got very little from it, just a diet of cuts, privatisation and PFI. How are you going to put Labour back into the Party?
First of all don't have selective amnesia. I've negotiated an awful lot of money for manufacturing industry which we would never have got off a Tory government. The Tories wouldn't even talk to us for 19 years. They wouldn't even meet me, as the chief negotiator for the car industry, at all.
I've negotiated £80 million off this government for manufacturing - it's not enough, it's a pittance. But it's not that they've done nothing, they just haven't done enough because they're too closely wedded to listening to big business, to the rich and the powerful. And that's why we've got to exert our influence and our power by any means possible.
We don't agree with you but we wish you well in the campaign to put Labour back into the Party. When would you draw a line in the sand on this issue?
There are people in Scotland with their own Parliament and their own budget who've voted for the Scottish Socialist Party and others. And we've seen in Wales a vote for Labour candidates who didn't preach New Labour policies.
I don't see the trade un-ions being a focus group. The trade un-ions are far greater than that. Too many trade union leaders are looking for political patronage and are not fighting back for the members. If we get trade union leaders who understand what the priorities of life are we might start to try and make a difference.
If you finally drew the conclusion that you weren't getting anywhere in the Labour Party, could you ever see the idea of the unions coming together to create a new party?
No I think it's a pipe dream. We don't need a new party, we need to reclaim our old party.
What do other readers, especially TGWU members, think about the ideas Tony Woodley has raised?
or write to The Socialist Postbag, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD.
In The Socialist 14 June 2003: