The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 13th September 2019
The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
READERS may have noticed that the annual general meeting of the Trades Union Congress took place in Brighton this week. In the not too distant past this event grabbed the headlines with live TV coverage except when Playschool came on. Nowadays things are very different.
On Monday the Times the “paper of record”, had just one story about the TUC — about the paltry annual report from the Taxpayer Alliance listing the huge salaries of selected public sector trade union general secretaries. On Tuesday it had nothing on Monday’s proceedings. Jeremy Corbyn’s address on Tuesday was extensively covered. But that is because he is Leader of the Opposition. They would have done the same if he had given the same speech at a Birmingham car factory.
Corbyn’s speech that was largely devoted to announcing that a new Labour government would set up a new employment rights ministry was predictably denounced by the Daily Mail as a return to the 1970s. To some extent that was true as the Labour leader was merely proposing to abolish the anti-trade union laws passed by Margaret Thatcher and maintained by the Blair and Brown governments. Corbyn’s promise of a new ministry did little more than bring back memories of the old Ministry of Labour.
This lack of interest in proceedings by the bourgeois media simply reflects the fact that the TUC is not what it used to be. In 1968, its centenary was marked by a postage stamp. Last year’s 150th anniversary passed almost without comment but Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit got a commemorative fifty pence piece.
At present the TUC claims a membership of 6.35 million workers in 49 affiliated unions, but that is slightly less than in 1939. The high point was 1980 when it peaked at 12.2 million in 109 affiliated unions.
The percentage of workers in trade unions is less than a quarter at 23.4 per cent to be precise. Just over half the workers in the public sector are members but only 13.2 per cent are unionised in the private sector. This year union membership rose by 100,000, but this was entirely in the public sector and the decline in the private sector continued.
The most dramatic change from previous decades is that women now outnumber men as union members. The fact that women predominate should not gladden the heart of feminists as this new balance merely reflects the destruction of large swathes of British industry.
Young people clearly need convincing of the benefits of membership. 77 per cent of present members are over 35 with only 4.4 per cent being between 16 and 24.
Unfortunately an enormous amount depends on a small number of overworked activists. Tory restrictions on facility time in the civil service has caused numerous problems in that sector. Active trades councils are few and far between and many of those continuing depend on retired activists.
There is a common habit of trade unionists deploring the impact of Margaret Thatcher for all the problems which ought to have ended a generation after she departed from office. If a tenth of the ordinary members who complain that “the union never does anything” stood for office themselves the trade union movement would be much stronger. The very low turnout in even the most important union elections suggests that a lot of work has to be done with existing members.
Across the country trade union density is highest in the north-east with 28.9 and lowest in London with a miserable 18.2 per cent.
The present 49 affiliates range from Accord with 23,927 members in some major banks to the 1,329 strong Writers Guild of Great Britain. Needless to say they do not play a major role in thw proceedings. Four giant unions alone account for more than half the members: Unite, Unison, the GMB and the National Education Union dominate the TUC so it is rare for there to be any serious upsets when the votes are counted. If by any chance something goes against the wishes of the bureaucrats their response is generally purposeful inaction rather than provoking anger by open opposition. One thing the TUC is extremely good at is skilfully compositing motions so that they mean next to nothing.
To be fair to the TUC they have to satisfy many different interests. The General Council’s pious words in support of peace and disarmament is countered by the need to keep the union members in Unite and Prospect, who make nuclear weapons, in jobs that their leaders say would go if Trident was scrapped.
Likewise saving the planet is all very well but the expansion of Heathrow Airport is absolutely vital for expanding the membership among airline pilots, baggage handlers, air traffic controllers and admin staff. Indeed there was a motion in support of “Widening access to the airline pilot profession”.
Being Green does not necessarily mean opposing nuclear power in the eyes of trade unions any more than for big business.
That the TUC’s affiliated unions now number a mere 49 is largely a result of amalgamations over the decades. The Liverpool and District Carters’ Society and Motormen’s Union which started up in 1890 will now be part of Unite after doubtless being a branch of the Transport & General Workers’ Union.
These mergers can of course bring strength but many are the product of industrial decline such as Community which includes the old Iron and Steel Confederation and National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades whose connections are difficult to see.
There are, of course, some unions outside the TUC. These include street unions like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), who have represent workers with insecure contracts such as cleaners, couriers and security workers, and the United Voices of the World (UVW) which won a victory for cleaners at auctioneer Sotheby’s by squirting water pistols at wealthy bidders.
Both the IWGB and UVW have targeted migrant workers in insecure occupations. The larger established unions such as Unite and GMB have also done this but have a lamentable tendency to give up when speedy results are not forthcoming. It remains to be seen what happens to the IWGB or UVW if they suffer a serious setback. Large unions have the resources to survive hard knocks, smaller unions may not.
In an age when unions are struggling to recruit low paid and insecure workers it was telling that the group of workers who were involved in a major strike during the Congress were the not-exactly poverty stricken members of pilots’ union, BALPA, who brought British Airways to a halt.
Further up the social scale there are trade unions, such as British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Professional Footballers Association. These do a great deal for their members but have little impact on the wider trade union world.
The worthy General Federation of Trade Unions, which was once a rival to the TUC continues as a provider of back office and training services to the smaller unions.
Unlike most of the labour movement British trade unions are remarkably free from splits. But there are still some “company unions” like the non-TUC Immigration Service Union which was formed by the less liberal staff when in 1981 the main union called for the repeal of the Immigration Act.
While the TUC can be criticised its one great advantage is that it is broadly based, with no rivals. This is in comparison with the situation on the continent where there are more militant groupings of trade unions, but these always sit alongside rival trade union federations based on divisive religious or political platforms.
Nuts and bolts
To return to this year’s Congress most of the motions seem to be of the sort that are against sin. At lunch time on Wednesday, with only a few housekeeping matters to resolve not a single motion was actually rejected.
The very first motion on “Creating a green transport system” was typical. It said that remote rural areas had a human right to bus services, but also demanded a switch from road to rail.
From the education sector came two motions on discipline in schools which were approved. One strongly deplored “Pupil violence and indiscipline” while another wanted to abolish isolating troublesome pupils under the slogan of “ban the Booths!”
Predictably the TUC has opposed Brexit along with pious calls for cross border solidarity and demands for a new general election, Perhaps they could have had a word with Jeremy Corbyn about why be blocked one after making repeated calls for precisely that course of events.
Congress agreed that Education was a good thing and pointed out that poverty and privatisation damaged children’s education and that pupils with additional support needs required proper resourcing.
Privatisation was also deplored in the Civil Service and NHS, but any calls for nationalisation seemed to be absent apart from those buried away in motions relating to the railways.
Naturally everyone was in favour of equalities, employment rights, keeping the over 75s TV licence, deplored insecure work, supporting “Smashing the gender pay gap” and the International Labour Organisation convention on workplace sexual harassment.
While motions were passed to “Free our unions” and “repeal the antiunion laws” we can be sure that trade union bureaucrats will not rush to campaign for them as they rather like the fact that the need for different rounds of balloting before industrial action reduces the likelihood of them having to join strikers on the picket line.
There was little on international affairs as the days of supporting or opposing the Soviet Union which used to generate fierce battles between the left and right have gone. Worthy causes such as Justice for Colombia and a call for the US blockade of Cuba were supported. The latter was supplemented by a speech from Ulises Guilarte de Nacimiento, the general secretary of the Cuban TUC which is celebrating its 80th anniversary.
The grandees of our own TUC very much support Cuban solidarity, partly because a glass or two of Havana Club at the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s reception is always welcome, but too often that is about as far as it goes.
In 2006, the TUC’s international officer had a nice chat about the forthcoming Congress with a labour affairs official from the US Embassy which was later helpfully made public by Wikileaks. In the course of his conversation the TUC official lamented the fact that delegates might criticise Israeli actions. But he reassured his American visitor that support for Cuba was nothing to worry about as it was a “warhorse issue” which keeps the left harmlessly occupied.
This correspondent recalls a time when the murder of trade unionists in Colombia was in the news. Protests were planned but the TUC’s response was that they should be postponed until such time as a nice round number of murders had been reached.