Edging towards a second vote
The EU was a central theme for the second successive year, reports Peter Manson
June 1868 marked the formation of the Trades Union Congress and so the 2018 gathering - held in Manchester between September 9 and 12 - marked 150 years since the TUC was formed.
But unfortunately the anniversary has not been marked by an upsurge in union militancy or an agreement on united action to defend and advance workers’ conditions. And the TUC congress was dominated - just as in 2017 - by arguments around Brexit: should the unions throw their weight behind the call for a second referendum of one sort or another?
The overwhelming majority of union bureaucrats believe that a withdrawal from the European Union will adversely affect working conditions. Typical in this regard is Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, who wrote in the Morning Star:
My union has long argued that Brexit should be stayed. Not because we had any illusions in the EU as a socialist nirvana. But because, imperfect as it is, it offers workers better protection than any Tory government ever would (September 10).
The opposite viewpoint - published in the same edition of the Star - was put by Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT transport union: “… politicians want us in the EU, so that the EU can stop Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for nationalisation and for state aid and for workers’ rights”. Which means that we must do the opposite and support Brexit.
But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady was having nothing of that. The protection of state-run enterprises and pro-worker legislation are perfectly possible within the EU, she insisted. In a sense she is right: in reality, both the EU and the UK are, in their current form, institutions that serve the interests of capital and, of course, improvements in working conditions and the ability to win concessions depend on the organisation and strength of our class.
However, along with the other anti-Brexit bureaucrats, she believes that a UK withdrawal would produce detrimental conditions from the unions’ point of view, and so she told congress that Theresa May should “take her deal on the terms of Brexit and put it back to the people”. If the deal “doesn’t deliver justice for working people, if it doesn’t protect jobs, rights at work ... then the TUC will throw our weight behind the call for a vote on the terms of Brexit.” In other words, a ‘people’s vote’.
In contrast to all this, it was refreshing to read the opinion of Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union:
For the past two years I have been clear that our responsibility must be to bring our members together, whether they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. I don’t believe we do that by elevating the debate about a second referendum, or a ‘people’s vote’, or on the details of our relationship with the EU, above all other issues.
During the referendum campaign the truth is that the country had a choice between two Tory alternatives: the status quo or a Conservative-led Brexit. Neither option will deliver the change in the country our members need and I believe it is a mistake to continue to allow the terms of the debate to be dictated to us in this way (Morning Star September 10).
Quite right. As comrade Ward put it, “The only way to unify people in this country is to make clear that the fight for workers’ rights does not start and end in Brussels.”
But, in the end, delegates voted to ratify a general council statement, which declared that another referendum, giving people the “final say” on the terms of Brexit, should not be “ruled out”. Only RMT voted against.
It seems that this year it was the likes of Dave Ward who were calling for joint action from the public-sector unions on pay. : “... the CWU is pushing for unions to come together and agree a plan for a day of action in early 2019.” Mick Cash also called for “a national campaign to smash the pay cap, which will include the use of coordinated industrial action if required ...” (Morning Star September 10).
But such a specific call was conspicuously absent in the Star article by Mark Serwotka. He talked more vaguely about “ideals of bringing workers together under one roof to fight for fundamental economic and social change”, which he hoped would be “revitalised at this year’s congress” (September 10). But the priority for Serwotka - who on September 11 was elected TUC president - now seems to be the next general election: “PCS is looking into how, as a non-affiliated union, we can practically support the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government.” It was in this context that he added: “One way would be to win the arguments for unity with all those experiencing the effects of austerity and organise them into effective action.”
However, there was no motion before congress for a day of action or some other form of united fightback. This despite the possibility that there could now be a renewed attack on public-sector ‘facility time’, whereby union representatives are released from work to carry out their union duties on full pay. This has already been partially curtailed in various government departments, where the main union is PCS, but - following the release on the eve of congress of figures showing the millions in wages paid over the last year to union officers while carrying out their union duties in the public sector - several Tories expressed outrage. James Duddridge, who has occupied several minor ministerial posts, contended: “No-one should be paid by the state to be a full-time union official.”
Also given a lot of publicity on the eve of congress were extracts from the speech John McDonnell was due to deliver on September 11, in which he pledged that Labour would oversee an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people”. However, the shadow chancellor seems to have had second thoughts about that phrase. In the event, he actually told delegates rather less ambitiously: “When the balance of power shifts so dramatically away from workers, as it has done today, it is time for us to tip it back in the direction of the workers” (my emphasis). Labour would aim to “restore the balance between employer and worker” through “a significant extension of trade union rights”. And the word ‘irreversible’ appeared in a less specific context: Labour will “transform irreversibly the workplace and our working lives”.
A Labour government would ban zero-hours contracts and introduce a “real living wage” of £10 an hour, as well as scrapping “anti-trade union laws”. Despite the use of the plural, he mentioned only one piece of legislation: “We will repeal the Trade Union Act in our first hundred days” - presumably leaving all previously enacted anti-union legislation in place. For example, it was clear that the requirement for a ballot before any strike would remain: “We will legislate to secure online and workplace balloting for industrial action votes” (my emphasis). The pledge to introduce online balloting is in line with the demand put forward by comrade Serwotka, who believes PCS would have reached the required 50% participation threshold this year if voting for strike action had not been restricted to a postal ballot.
Despite the modesty of such pledges, McDonnell declared that under Labour the “anti-trade union era will end” and there will be “the biggest extension of independent collective rights that our country has ever seen”. There would also be an end to private finance initiative schemes in the health service, etc and government contracts would only be awarded to companies that recognise trade union representatives.
He also mentioned £500 billion to be “invested over 10 years in our infrastructure, road and rail, digital, research and development and, yes, alternative energy sources”. But he claimed that such spending was approved by organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry: “That is a figure supported by the CBI, who, again, we are working alongside to develop our proposals.”
After having outlined plans to force companies to issue shares to their workers, he ended by promising his support if there were “further strikes in the railway industry this winter” - “I’ll be on the picket line with you.” That was enough to ensure he got a standing ovation.
Modest as these commitments were, they were not to the liking of the rightwing press - another reason why a Labour government must be prevented at all costs. According to an editorial in The Daily Telegraph, “Jeremy Corbyn owes his position to the efforts of leftwing bosses such as Len McCluskey ...” and McDonnell’s pledges represent “payback time for the union bosses for bankrolling the takeover of the party by the hard left”. The paper warned: “... if Labour wins the next election, the hard-left unions will once again be driving the government’s social and economic policies” (September 11).
If only the unions really were “hard-left”. Nevertheless, the opposition of the media - echoed in various ways by the Labour right - emphasises once again that the Labour Party should be seen as the main focus of the class struggle at this time.