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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


TUC meets in cyberspace

by New Worker correspondent

THE 152nd Trades Union Congress met on Monday and Tuesday in a greatly abbreviated format, with only four people on the platform at Congress House in London whilst the delegates made their contributions from home in the front of their computers. The general public were invited to watch but it would be surprisingly if many did.

The event passed largely unnoticed in the bourgeois media, which from the point of view of those of us wanting to encourage militant trade unionism was perhaps no bad thing. This correspondent looked in briefly, but this was not a rewarding experience. The speeches were of the sort one has heard before and will hear again before long.

The Daily Telegraph was only interested in reporting the Taxpayer Alliance’s report on the salaries of leading general secretaries whilst nothing could be seen on The Times website on Tuesday afternoon. In the 1970s the proceedings of the annual conference received blow-by-blow TV coverage, except for the 20 minutes when Playschool came on. Then the debates were lively and general secretaries were parodied by comedians alongside cabinet ministers and royalty. Trade union militants were vilified rather than mocked or ignored as they are today.

In recent months TUC unions have seen a rise in membership to about 6.44 million. The figures to May record an increase of 91,000 (74,000 in the public sector and 17,000 in the private sector) in the last year but this is still merely half the figure of its glory days of the 1970s.

Density is much less; it is at present merely 23.5 per cent. The TUC’s press release on this growth welcomes an increase in female membership by 170,000, which means that there are now more women members since 1995, however this merely reflects a decline in the older industries. A major problem is that whilst less than a quarter of members are under 35, more than 40 per cent are aged over 50. The TUC calculates that members earn 3.6 per cent more than unorganised workers. Claims have been made that many members have joined since these figures were compiled because worries about job losses grew as the lockdown dragged on.

These figures ignore members of trade unions out-with the TUC, such as the British Medical Association (BMA) for doctors and those such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who valiantly attempt to organise low-paid couriers and cleaners.

now only 49

The TUC now has only 49 unions in its fold, largely as a result of smaller unions merging into ever larger organisations. These mergers mean that four unions alone account for more than half the TUC’s membership. Size does not only bring strength; it has also brought problems. In the case of Unison, which has united most grades of local government workers, its size has led to very bureaucratic structures. In some cases, the union has been accused of being more interested in cuddling up to Labour councils rather than representing the interests of its members.

The conference was opened by this year’s President, Ged Nichols, whom readers will be surprised to know is general secretary of Accord, a small 23,000 strong finance union founded in 1978 as the Halifax Building Society Staff Association.

moaned

He moaned that we are at “risk of a catastrophic no-deal” Brexit before sounding like a preacher saying he was against sin by pointing out that: “It’s not the great and the good that have kept the country going. Not the hedge fund bosses and the captains of industry. But the labour of working people.”

General secretary Frances O’Grady continued in a like vein in a speech that was short on detail, saying that the TUC will be “standing together for a fair deal for working people” and called for the job retention scheme because “the pandemic isn’t scheduled to end in October”.

The few specific demands were to start by making employers publish race pay-gaps and banning zero-hours contracts. She also demanded that the minimum wage be raised as planned.

She went on to say that “if the government doesn’t act, we face a tsunami of job losses” before continuing: “So my message to the chancellor is this: We worked together once before. We are ready to work with you again – if you are serious about stopping the catastrophe of mass unemployment.”

So that’s the problem solved then, and we can all sleep easy our beds knowing that the TUC has demanded talks with a Tory chancellor.

Another virtual speaker was Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who correctly said that “our Party was born out of the trade unions” but made absolutely no reference to repealing the oppressive Tory union laws. As might be expected he deplored the incompetence of the Tory Government but whilst deploring Johnson for “reopening old wounds on Brexit” added that he should also “get the Brexit deal you promised”, which hopefully means he has at last given up any hope he had of reversing the 2016 Referendum.

can’t go back

Starmer said: “We can’t go back to a society where over half of care workers earn less than the living wage … and we can’t let the Tories use this crisis as an excuse to weaken workers’ rights.”

He also had a number of schemes for handing out money to bosses, such as expanding part-time working and rewarding employers who keep people on rather than cutting jobs, and targeting “those sectors most in need – for example retail, hospitality…aviation…and those hit by local lockdowns”.

The conference agenda was more of a shopping list with a list of calls for recognition for various groups of workers, various calls for a vaguely different post-coronavirus economy, pleas for aid to various sectors and the nationalisation of public services. All 66 motions were passed with not a single one being rejected, a testimony to the fact that they were all so bland that than nobody would take offence by them, or if they did were unworried about them coming into effect.

There were groups of motions demanding “Respect and a Voice at Work”, “Good Services” and “Winning More for Workers”. The National Education Union (NEU) put forward a motion deploring Child Poverty that was unlikely to find anyone who would support the concept.

Much of that is due to the Standing Orders skilfully compositing conflicting motions into something acceptable to all opinions. For instance, the Bakers Union called for a £15 hourly wage whilst the shop workers had a more modest demand for £10, so we got a composite which read: “We need a real living wage: we need the national minimum wage immediately increased to £10 per hour for all workers regardless of age and we call for £15 per hour for all workers – we need working people to be able to live and not simply survive.”

One thing that was conspicuous in its absence was any demand to mobilise workers to undertake any action that might bring these calls to reality.

The only international item on the agenda was a Unite motion on Palestine, deploring annexations on the West Bank and calling for the TUC to write a stiff letter to that effect to the Prime Minister. That will teach him.