TUC on its knees

Incredible though it may seem, there are still some who attempt to portray the contemporary British trade union movement as a hotbed of militancy and socialism. As regular as clockwork, when it comes to trade union conference time, the inevitable spate of ‘reds under the bed’ articles crop up in some sections of the bourgeois press. A Daily Telegraph headline ominously states: “Unions are given seats at the centre of government” (September 8) and the same paper proclaimed the next day that the TUC was putting Blair “under pressure with a ‘shopping list’ of demands”.

Given the militant and dangerous nature of the TUC, it does seem curious that George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, addressed the conference, with his message of piety and meekness. Not inaccurately, Carey pointed out that the Christian churches and British trade unions have much in common, also claiming that much of trade union work is for the “advancement of Christian values”. He also reminded the bosses that they had a “moral responsibility” to recognise trade unions and “legitimate” union action - leading an irate Daily Mail to dub him “god’s shop steward”. It has long been observed that our labour movement owes more to methodism than Marxism - but this trend appears to have made a qualitative leap forward with Carey’s appearance, even if he is an Anglican and not a methodist.

Inevitably, the delegates held a one-minute silence in remembrance of the late Princess of Wales. John Monks, the TUC general secretary, claimed Diana for the trade union movement, expressing the hope that “her legacy will be the flowering of a new compassion and bringing people together in rejecting rampant, uncaring individualism”.

Not a good start, it has to be said.

This year’s TUC bash was unusual in some ways though, and not just because of Carey’s ‘leftwing’ sermon. As all the bourgeois press never tire of pointing out, this was the first TUC congress to be addressed by a prime minister in over 19 years. Unfortunately, the prime minister in question happens to be the “labour capitalist” Tony Blair, as some bourgeois commentators have started to call him.

Blair told the trade union delegates, “We have nothing to lose but our domgas, so let’s lose them”, and said the labour movement must “shed its prejudices” - just as the Labour Party had done. He reassured the bosses and Middle England that “we will not go back to the days of industrial warfare, strikes without ballots, mass and flying pickets, secondary action and all the rest of it”. He hammered home to the TUC that it has to work with business and - yawn - forge a “new trade unionism”. He said this should be the real content of the TUC’s official slogan, ‘Partners for progress’.

In response to a TUC call on Monday for the right to take solidarity action, he ended his speech with a clear warning, “You don’t want it and I won’t let it happen”.

As if that were not bad enough, Adair Turner, president of the CBI, mounted a defence on Wednesday of the ‘flexible’ labour market. Blair has already asked the TUC - which this week identified 20 large companies that deny union recognition even though more than half their workers are union members - to narrow the gap with the CBI over the issue. He sees this as a first test of the TUC’s commitment to working together with employers to improve company performance.

This distinctly unmilitant ethos finds its perfect partner in John Monks. He has repeatedly stressed the need for “national dialogue” with the bosses and the government. Reassuringly, he stated: “Unions are into the art of the possible and into being constructive and they are aware of the difficulties of the present position. Unions are still managing to cut deals in the public sector within existing cash limits.” This does not mean that the trade union movement has become a spineless donkey for Blairism and class collaboration - oh no. As Monks put it, “The TUC does not always want to be playing Ernie Wise to Labour’s Eric Morecambe.” Definitely the perfect analogy.

The TUC of today is a pale shadow of its former self. Seumas Milne, author of The enemy within, observed in The Guardian that “industrial action is increasing - albeit from historically low levels”. This is a much needed reminder to Socialist Worker, which, because it serves its idiotic upturn line, repeats the first part of Milne’s observation, but not the far more important second part. We are a very long way indeed from the militancy of the 1970s, with the Pentonville Five and the miners’ strikes. The contrast with the genteel picketing of BA in July - and its accompanying ‘mass sickie’ - could not be sharper. Days lost through industrial action had reached 29 million by the end of the 1970s, as against 1.3 million last year, and TUC membership stood at more than 12 million, compared with barely half that figure today. The picture is not rosy, whatever the SWP might say.

It is certainly coming to something when John Edmonds of the GMB - a union bureaucrat par excellence with an impeccable rightwing record - delivers just about  the most militant attack on Blair and Blairism. “When I hear the Labour government using Tory phrases, I shiver a little”, he told the delegates, and went on to attack the bosses’ insistence on a flexible workforce. He urged New Labour to honour its commitment to full employment rights from day one - given at the TUC four years ago by John Smith - some hope.

Typically, The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party,talks about how “the rightwing of the TUC do not offer any real way to solve the problems of casualisation, low pay, union recognition, etc” (September 5, my emphasis). Sorry, comrades, the entire trade union movement has no “real way” forward - including its ‘left’ wing in particular.

The Guardian eloquently paid tribute to the TUC’s current plight and its lack of any fight or programme of action. As its editorial said, “The unions should also be acknowledged for sticking with Mr Blair and his predecessors through the long process of change that birthed New Labour. They helped Neil Kinnock take on the far left and then voted for the party reforms that made victory on May 1 possible” (September 9). Communists would be the first to acknowledge this as an extremely accurate analysis.

As we know, some left groups had made a fetish of preserving the trade union ‘link’ - ie, the unions should keep subsidising Labour’s attacks on the working class. Anybody who questions this sado-masochistic orthodoxy is automatically, and sometimes vehemently, denounced as an “ultra-leftist”, or worse.

This must mean that Peter Kellner of The Observer is an “ultra-leftist” - which gives hard-on-their-luck Weekly Worker journalists some hope. In an article on the trade union link, ‘comrade’ Kellner asks the perfectly reasonable question: “What has the money bought the unions? The brutal answer is: nothing.”  This puts Kellner well to the left of the SWP and pro-Labour Trotskyists like Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Even more scandalously for the likes of the SWP and the AWL, Kellner observes that Labour’s union cash is “a gift without strings ... Why on earth should they continue to hand over £8m a year for no return?” (September 7).

The TUC tops and bureaucrats have all contributed to Blairism. From New Labour to new trade unionism. The unions have been emasculated, their members downtrodden and demoralised. Whatever Carey might think, the meek shall inherit nothing.

Monks says that there will be “no going back to the old way”. Let us hope that he is right - that the trade union movement rejects humility and the siren call of ‘public opinion’. Union members need to break from the spell of Blair’s hypnotising grin and fight unashamedly for their rights.

Eddie Ford