|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
THIS YEAR’S Trades Union Congress in Brighton was billed by the media as a turning point where the new ‘awkward squad’ of left-wing union leaders would come to the fore to give the New Labour establishment a good kicking. So, did the Congress live up to these expectations, and what did it mean for the direction of the British trade union movement?
The last time I attended the TUC was in 1996 as a delegate for the old Civil and Public Servants Association (CPSA) union. Every union leadership was in favour of everyone keeping their heads down, avoiding anything controversial, and waiting for a Labour government. Collaboration with big business was advocated as the way forward by the TUC bureaucracy and Tony Blair got a lengthy standing ovation for his address to congress. The only union leader to stand out from the right-wing crowd – Arthur Scargill – was extremely isolated.
TUC 2003 was quite a contrast. It is true that the TUC bureaucracy is still powerful. Motions from unions were merged into 23 giant composites designed to iron out differences to the extent that they could be passed unanimously. Nevertheless the frustration of workers that has led to the election of left leaders was reflected in many of the resolutions and debates.
The first debate was on rights at work which carried a composite which included the demand put forward by the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) for the right to legally take secondary action. Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime & Transport union (RMT), pointed out that the bosses legally take secondary action by shipping scabs from one end of the country to the other, so ‘if it’s good enough for the bosses it’s good enough for us’, he said to thunderous applause. Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), rightly pointed out that after six years of Labour government ‘British workers are still the easiest and cheapest to sack in Europe’.
The debate on pensions was a good example of how the TUC bureaucracy attempts to water down resolutions from the unions. PCS had put forward an amendment to a First Division Association (FDA) motion on pensions. Our amendment called on the TUC to organise a demonstration, a rally and a day of action in response to the attack on public sector pensions in the government’s recent green paper. In the end, the large composite involving 13 unions called for the demo and rally but only ‘consideration’ of a day of action. Had we stayed out of the composite we wouldn’t have got any of our demands carried. Nevertheless, the motion goes much further than the TUC general council would have wanted. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, clearly caught the mood when he said of action on pensions: ‘If Austria, France and Italy can do it, so can we’.
In addition to debating motions, the Congress was treated to hearing some guest speakers. Much of the media coverage before and during the Congress concentrated on the appearance of Digby Jones, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and the chancellor, Gordon Brown. Digby Jones had spent most of the previous week attacking unions in the media, particularly those that dare to stand up for their members instead of collaborating with the bosses he represents. He appeared as part of a ‘stand up panel’ along with Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and Brendan Barber for the TUC.
They each did a little speech and were then interviewed by TV journalist Sheenagh McDonald. Digby Jones didn’t get a particularly hostile reception because he had clearly been told to cool it and made a grovelling speech. According to Digby the bosses only want to make profits to pay more taxes so that more hospitals can be built, literacy schemes run, etc. The biggest round of applause of the session went to the journalist when she suggested to Hewitt that if the minimum wage was paid to young people more of them might bother to vote. Hewitt looked stumped and waffled a meaningless reply.
Gordon Brown also tried to be popular. He repeatedly referred to the Congress as ‘friends’. His speech was littered with populist soundbites. The minimum wage was ‘a tribute to Tony Blair’s premiership’, and ‘John Smith’s promise fulfilled’. He was working for the 1944 Labour dream of full employment, we were going to remove every BNP councillor, have a national childcare strategy, and new rights for 16/17 year-olds. However all the real substance in the speech, on privatisation and public sector pay for example, signalled no change from their pro-big business, pro-capitalist policies. At a congress where virtually every debate reflected frustration at the failure of New Labour to carry through measures to benefit workers, while they continue to do favours for the bosses, delegates were not going to be fooled. He got 15 seconds of fairly muted applause, in stark contrast to the standing ovations enjoyed by Labour leaders in the past.
The international debate was dominated by the war in Iraq. Delegate after delegate condemned the invasion by US/UK forces and called for withdrawal. Tony Woodley moved the composite for the TGWU condemning ‘US warmongers’ and calling on Blair to ‘apologise’. The previous night at the ‘Stop the War’ meeting he had called on Blair to ‘apologise and resign’. The resignation call had made the headlines the following morning. Despite Woodley’s slight toning down of the attack, as the resignation call mysteriously disappeared, delegates spoke of ‘Blair’s lies’, the ‘illegal war’ and ‘the government imploding’. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the stage-managed, pro-Labour leadership TUCs of the 1990s.
Debate throughout Congress was dominated by the huge gap that has opened up between the policies of the TUC and the programme being pursued by the Labour government. Underlying this, and fiercely debated at the fringe meetings of congress, was the question of how organised workers can now regain a political voice. The so-called ‘awkward squad’ have been elected because workers in the unions are rejecting Blairite candidates. Some, like Tony Woodley, are calling on trade unionists to ‘re-claim our party’. However, it is obvious that they have no strategy for achieving this even if they could overcome the disgust most workers now feel for what was once ‘their party’. Other leaders like Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka are clearly interested in the alternative consistently advocated by the Socialist Party – building a new workers’ party. After six years of Labour government these are the issues central to the debates in the unions.
The need for a real alternative to Labour was best summed up for me by Diana Holland, new chair of the Labour Party National Executive Committee, sent to give sororal greetings to congress. Why should the unions support Labour after six years of disappointment? Because, she explained, New Labour’s first six years were better than Thatcher’s first six years (from 1979-1985). Well worth all those millions of pounds of workers’ money you are given by the unions then, Diana!
Actually, I don’t think so and most PCS members I meet are glad that PCS isn’t affiliated and doesn’t pour money down that particular drain.
Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union national executive committee member (personal capacity)