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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

At the TUC

by New Worker correspondent

ON MONDAY morning the Press Gazette, the online trade paper for journalists, published a diary for the week 13–19 September to alert reporters to what stories they should be covering. It included a United Nations debate of Afghanistan, a court case involving Prince Andrew, a possible row about the amount of time to be devoted to a Commons debate on the Health and Social Care Bill, and the launch of a new mobile phone by Apple. It even included the Liberal Democrats’ conference – but omitted the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress, which took place online between Sunday and Tuesday.

The listing does actually mention one union event, the annual congress of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which abandoned plans to meet in Liverpool in favour of an online event due accusations of “serious sexual harassment”.

What was the reason for omitting the annual gathering of the main British trade union body? It could be the utterly sick and biased bourgeois fascist press demonstrating a complete contempt for the revolutionary proletarian working class as the mythical ‘Dave Spart’ in Private Eye would put it. On the other hand it might just be possible that the Press Gazette assumed the event does not really matter very much. This correspondent adheres to the second school.

The TUC annual conference was a sombre affair held online for the second year running because of the pandemic. But in the past Brighton or Blackpool would briefly be taken over by swarms of delegates and observers attending what was once the high-spot in the labour movement’s calendar.

One does not need to be particularly ancient to recall the times when the annual gathering was attended by battalions of the now largely extinct tribe of labour correspondents, and it received wall-to-wall coverage on TV. This was the time when the careful “Chairman” or “Madam Chairman” allowed the more ‘embarrassing’ speakers to come to the rostrum.

In those days what happened at the TUC mattered. Labour Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet ministers turned up in their droves, and had to, if they knew what was good for them, and the debates helped shape policy, not just for the TUC but for the Labour Party and governments.

postage stamp

In 1968 during the Wilson era the Labour government marked the TUC’s centenary with a postage stamp, which was then a very rare honour. In those days, the outcome of debates was uncertain due to the large number of unions under the TUC umbrella. On one occasion the Chair opened a session by saying “My noble lords and ladies”, before remembering where he was.

The Tory press sternly denounced “trade union barons” and “mindless militants” – except when the “barons” were stitching up the “militants”, in which case the “barons” suddenly became “moderates”. Today the “loony left” tends to be environmental activists rather that trade unionists.

Being part of the establishment has its downsides for workers, but at least attention had to be paid to the TUC. This year one of the few reactions in the bourgeois press to the TUC was the Times deploring the high pay of trade union general secretaries, which is often higher than the Prime Minister, and complaining about the new Unite General Secretary for defending protests outside the houses of grasping bosses.

The trade union movement is not what it once was. Today it has 48 affiliated unions with a claimed 5.5 million members. There are another one million in other trade unions not affiliated to the TUC. Union density overall is only 20 per cent. This covers a just respectable 50 per cent in the public sector and only 13 per cent in the private sector. Reflecting this, the largely manufacturing union Unite has lost its first place in terms of size to another dinosaur – a local government and health service union, Unison. Density is particularly low (four per cent) in the poorly-paid hospitality sector where unions are most needed.

The non-TUC affiliated unions include such grand organisations as the British Medical Association (BMA), small street unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the very specialist National Association of Racing Staff.

This year’s TUC conference, as always, had a theme, “Unions Building Dignity at Work”, which sounds nice but means next to nothing in order to avoid causing offence to anyone.

There were 72 motions (some composite), all of which were, in a trade union environment, largely free of any serious controversy. There were only two motions on international questions (but there was an address by the leader of Brazil’s trade union federation), one on Palestine from the National Education Union, which denounced Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza, which sounded good but said nothing that has not been said before by Boris Johnson’s Government only, in slightly more diplomatic terms. The other, from the Prison Officer’s Association (POA), objected to Colombia’s police killing 44 protestors and an uncertain number of trade unionists.

nothing controversial

Obviously, nothing controversial on the blockade of Cuba or US intervention in Venezuela can be allowed. Likewise, nuclear disarmament is not a polite subject because we have to be realistic and balance the possibility of global nuclear annihilation with keeping military industry workers in a job, and keeping them paying their dues to Unite, GMB and Prospect.

To reinforce that latter point, a motion demanding urgent action on climate change contained clauses in support of nuclear power and the continued use of gas, which makes it less green. Had it opposed nuclear power it could have been defeated by unions with members in those industries.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, in his traditional speech, sounded unusually radical, talking about his tool-maker father working a 13-hour day to support his family. He pledged to raise sick pay, end ‘fire and rehire’, and introduce a £10 per hour minimum wage. He could hardly do otherwise, and even sounded positively Leninist by deploring the Tories for “putting up taxes for Amazon workers but allowing Amazon to squirrel profits away in tax havens” – but that is only to be expected whilst at Congress House.

He took care however, to avoid spelling out how much he would tax Amazon – and in any case he is unlikely to repeat such remarks when called upon to address the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Given that he spends most of his time purging the Labour Party of its activists he is unlikely have a chance of implementing these policies even if he is sincere, which to say the least is doubtful.

There were of course some stupid motions, such as that from the Musicians’ Union complaining about how Brexit prevented their members from touring Europe because of some restrictive rules imposed by the European Union.

The most radical motion was one opposing the Tory’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which tellingly came from the TUC Trades Union Councils Conference and had not been touched by head office bureaucrats watering down motions, particularly those parts demanding any action that might involve doing some work.

As a result, the TUC is now in favour of the Government introducing a plan for a post-pandemic “recover and rebuild” plan, wants to protect disabled workers, opposes cuts to firefighters’ terms and conditions, something being done about global warming and many other desirable objectives. What is actually done to implement them remains to be seen. Readers are advised not to get their hopes up. What is needed are less pious phrases and photo-opportunities from General Secretaries, and much more active rank and file shop-floor organisation to boost union membership and develop effective shop stewards’ committees in every workplace so that workers, instead of fighting off job and wages cuts, can go on the offensive for higher wages and better conditions.