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Arthur Scargill opens RMT Annual Conference

Arthur Scargill was an invited guest and gave the opening speech at the 2022 annual conference of the RMT. This is the text:


It is an honour to be invited to attend the RMT 2022 AGM, but it is a real privilege to be invited to speak at the commencement, when your Union is taking strike action on a claim for a wage increase and no loss of jobs as a result of “new technology”.

I applaud the outstanding leadership of the RMT National Officials whose advocacy in meetings and in the media including T.V. has been inspirational.

The claim by RMT for a wage increase is on any test justified. In the first six months of 2022 we have seen the cost of living increase to 11.7%.

The Government has repeatedly said that RMT’s claim is a matter between the Union and employers in the rail industry.

Yet on Tuesday, 28 June, the Transport Secretary Grant Schapps acknowledged to the BBC that he and the Treasury had set an overall mandate which dictated how much money was available, and that he had final sign-off on what was agreed!

In effect, he confirmed that it is the Government and not the employers who are dictating policies – as has been the case before including the miners’ strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984/85.

Background to miners’ strike action in 1972

As the result of the refusal by the National Coal Board and the Government to concede the NUM’s pay claim, Britain’s miners took national strike action on 9 January 1972 for the first time in 46 years.

In the days that followed, mass picketing together with support from unions such as the NUR, the National Union of Seamen, ASLEF and the TGWU had an impact but unfortunately, leaders of unions with members working in power stations and in the steel industry refused to support us and respect NUM picket lines, let alone take supporting action.

However, one event was to be the pivotal moment leading to the victory of the 1972 miners’ strike. It took place here, in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city.

For three days, a handful of local NUM pickets had been unable to prevent hundreds of scab lorry drivers from taking thousands of tonnes of coke from a depot at Saltley in the centre of this city. Miners from other coalfields responded to a call for help and on Saturday, 5 February several hundred NUM pickets including me arrived in Birmingham.

The response by trade unions and the people of Birmingham was amazing – from the local Labour and Communist Party Secretaries to union officials Alan Law of the TGWU and Arthur Harper of the AEU.

But by Tuesday, the 8th, it was clear we needed more help.

On Tuesday evening arrangements were made for me to speak to local and regional leaders of key trade unions of the day, including the TGWU, AEU, NATFHE, Vehicle Builders, NUR, UCATT, the GMW, the FBU and groups of shop stewards from other unions – about 13 meetings in all.

I argued as passionately as I could that what the miners needed wasn’t money or messages of support: “We don’t want your pound notes. We want you to take strike action. Will you go down in history as the working class of Birmingham who stood by while the miners were battered, or will you become immortal?”

We needed solidarity action – and we needed it by Thursday, 10 February.

What happened on 10 February 1972 remains a lasting symbol of what workers united can achieve. On that morning, 30,000 Birmingham women and men came out on strike and 20,000 marched to join the miners on the picket line at Saltley Gate.

That day, they marched into history.

The Government was shaken to the core. Today, 50 years later, they remain terrified of what the working class of Birmingham showed could be achieved by workers uniting in struggle.

As Margaret Thatcher writes in her autobiography “The Downing Street Years”: “In February 1972 mass pickets…forced the closure of the Saltley Coke Depot in Birmingham by sheer weight of numbers. It was a frightening demonstration....”

The battle of Saltley Gate marked the beginning of a year of historic trade union struggle. In July 1972, there was the London dockers’ strike and the incarceration of the Pentonville Five, whose release from jail was forced by massive trade union campaigning and action.

In October 1972, UCATT building workers were involved in a strike against exploitation in the construction industry, organised by men like Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson. It took nearly 50 years until the Court of Appeal in 2021 effectively admitted that the arrest and imprisonment of the Shrewsbury pickets was unlawful

The events of 1972 show how powerful our Movement can be. Today, RMT needs that same support of other trade unions, who should be taking supportive or secondary strike action.

It is not for me to advise any Union what it should do. The RMT leadership has conducted an outstanding campaign and you have a right to ask other unions to take supportive collective strike action against employers and the Government who are taking collective action against your members.

It would not surprise me if the Government started to use legislation either to stop the RMT strike or to bring action against the Union’s leadership, as was the case with the NUM in 1984/85 – indeed, recently released papers reveal how Thatcher was indicating to the police and the judiciary ways and means of arresting Scargill and charging him with conspiracy.

Only last Wednesday, three GMB Union Officials arrested on a picket line in East Sussex were brought before Hastings Magistrates Court charged with “obstruction of the highway” – exactly the same tactic deployed against me by the Government and police in the miners’ strike in 1972, in the Grunwick Dispute in 1977 and at Orgreave in 1984.

Sequestration and Receivership

Unions should not be intimidated by any threat of sequestration and/or receivership. The Courts appointed first a Sequestrator and, second, a Receiver against the NUM in 1984 but we were able to continue servicing our membership not just in the year-long strike but until 1989 when all legal actions against the NUM and its leaders were abandoned by order of the High Court.

In 1990, in response to a media smear campaign, I had to reveal how we had functioned – in cash and an independent trust fund - during the 1984/85 strike, but by 1992, every smear story had been discredited or dismissed by the Courts.

I don’t think what we did in 1984/85 can be compared to Prince Charles, who received €3 million euro in cash from Qatar’s Prime Minister – from which his Prince’s Trust donated £100,000 to GCHQ, the Government’s spy centre which had conducted surveillance on Mick McGahey, Peter Heathfield and me.

The RMT and its members are facing new laws which will prevent the Union from being able to defend its members, laws which if enacted are in breach of United Nations and International Labour Organisation conventions.

When faced with an attack against the right to strike, trade unions and their members should act in defiance of this unlawful legislation.

I am appalled by the refusal of the Leader of the Labour Party to support RMT and its members.

And I am sick and tired of listening to politicians who support the right to strike in Eastern European countries but oppose and threaten British workers who legally have the right to take action without any interference from Government.

I also have nothing but contempt for the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair who sponsored a London gathering to discuss “centrist politics” last Thursday .

It was attended by former Tory Minister Rory Stewart, former Scottish Tory Leader Ruth Davidson and Labour front-bencher Peter Kyle. Other notables included Bill Clinton’s former U.S. Treasury Chief, Larry Summers and George W. Bush’s former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Blair later told BBC’s Newsnight that Sir Keir “must be clear that a Labour Government cannot afford a wave of strikes”.

As a retired trade union leader and Socialist, I would suggest that all affiliated trade unions seriously consider whether it’s time to cut their ties with the Labour Party and look towards a Socialist alternative.

Our Movement has historically defied unfair laws. Trade unions won the right to exist not because of benevolent politicians but through strike action.

We must follow in the footsteps of the weavers of Yorkshire and Lancashire, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragettes - and more recently the Women of Greenham Common, by adopting a policy of non-compliance with unjust laws.

Today it’s our turn to emulate great trade union leaders such as Jim Larkin, James Connolly and A.J. Cook who inspired their members to fight.

We have to fight back. The Movement should start by standing side by side with RMT.

I have been an active trade unionist and Socialist all my working life and I will continue to the day I die to remain committed to the trade union movement and to the vision of a Socialist society.

Arthur Scargill

3 July 2022

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