Fighting talk at the TUC

by Daphne Liddle

THE ANNUAL conference of the TUC this week has set in motion plans for massive public sector strikes to defend pensions, including at least one, and possibly several, national strikes in November that could involve over two million workers.

This is in the teeth of threats from the Con-Dem Coalition to bring in new anti-union legislation and the disapproval of Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the giant union Unite, set the tone. He said: “This debate could be a ritual. We have it every year. Unanimously vote for the composite and then get on with working within laws which we do not really expect to be changed.

“It is time — past time — that we took a different approach. This composite makes it clear what is needed. Let me read just one sentence from it:

‘Congress calls on the TUC to develop an industrial strategy of resistance so that workers are not left to fight alone against draconian laws and exploiting bosses.’

“What does it mean? It will mean learning from the student movement’s struggles to support decent education.

“It will mean building on the impetus of the magnificent trade union march for an alternative this year, the biggest in our movement’s history.

“It will mean learning from our best fighting traditions. But it cannot mean meekly accepting the laws as it stands. Unite has spent enough time going in and out of courts arguing for the basic right of employees to collectively withdraw their labour. At British Airways and elsewhere.

“Of course we must win the argument for trade union rights. Use the language of fairness and freedom which resonates with those who are not our members. But let’s also say — if tax avoidance is lawful and unpunished. Let’s plan for anti-union law avoidance in the same spirit.”

He added that “coming to the end of 13 years of Labour government with the Thatcher laws still in place is a stain on Labour’s record. And a betrayal of its historic mission and purpose of advancing working people’s rights....

“Law is an essential thing for a civilised society of course. But class law, pushed through a parliament full of expense cheats, by a cobbled-together coalition which no-one voted for is not going to paralyse me and it should not paralyse our movement.”

McCluskey promised to bring Wisconsin to Westminster if the Government tried to outlaw the strikes. “Our rights — including the right to organise and struggle together for a better life for working people — are not the gift of ministers or judges. They are ours to assert.”

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said: “We will give them the biggest campaign of civil disobedience their tiny little minds can ever imagine. Bad laws have to be broken,” he said. “If going to prison is the price for standing up to bad laws, then so be it.”

Ed Miliband made a bland speech that was more union-friendly than any made by Blair or Gordon Brown. But he was heckled when he called for strikes to be postponed until negotiations had finished.

Bob Crow of the RMT said: “You can’t play political games when workers are facing the biggest all-out attack on their rights and their livelihoods since the war. A Labour leader who doesn’t stand by the workers is on a one-way ticket to oblivion.”

Matt Wrack, the leader of the Fire Brigades Union, said he thought the speech was “pretty feeble”, adding: “It was almost like he wanted to tick a box criticising strikes.”

Union leaders also had plenty of anger over Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to last month’s riots, with references to the “feral ruling class” and a return to Victorian values of the “undeserving poor”.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber spoke of the riots: “The Prime Minister chose to describe these events as ‘criminality pure and simple’. But it isn’t so simple and what happened in August actually revealed deep fractures within our society.

“A society that ranks among the most unequal anywhere in the developed world; where a super rich elite have been allowed to float free from the rest of us; where a generation of young people are growing up without work, without prospects, without hope. None harder hit than the black youngsters held back by an unemployment rate approaching 50 per cent.

“And yet as they have retreated to Victorian language about the undeserving poor, they have said nothing about moral disintegration among the rich. The financiers with huge assets sneakily channelled through the tax havens. The out-of-control traders and speculators who razed our economy to the ground. The super rich tax cheats whose greed impoverishes our schools and hospitals?.“And in a year when we commemorated the 25th anniversary of Wapping, let us say loud and clear that moral standards must apply to you too Mr Murdoch.”