Welcome to the real world

The TUC conference represented a perfect snapshot. Trade union delegates, heads down, were lectured - if not harangued - by Tony Blair, as he urged them to enter the “real world”. Sure, a lot of the delegates did not particularly like what they were hearing, but a low-key sulk was their response, not militant and open resistance. Once again, Blair ran the show and played to the media gallery, and Middle England, with considerable skill.  A visitor from an alien planet who wanted to get a quick insight into the current state of our labour movement would have found last week very instructive.

Of course, in many ways the trade unions - the TUC bureaucrats in particular - are not living in the “real world” - Blair is quite right. If they had been living on the same earthly terrain as the rest of us they would not have urged workers to vote for New Labour. Nor would they cling on desperately to the ‘link’, let alone fight to preserve it. Why fund the enemy?

In Blair’s real world, cabinet ministers are entitled - it is their ‘right’, you could say - to a £17,000 pay rise next year, raising their income from £87,851 to £105,060 per annum - slightly above all the proposed minimum wages, we can agree. This year Blair and co have done their Mother Teresa act and practised self-denial - which means Blair has forsaken the £43,000 extra owed him. Still, £102,000 is not too bad to be getting along with for now. If only public sector workers could have the luxury of turning down a 22% pay increase, which is seven times the amount on offer to five million public sector workers. But thankfully The Guardian put things in perspective: “There is no doubt that by any normal criterion the prime minister deserves every penny of the £143,860 salary that an independent review body recommended for him” (editorial, September 17).

As part of his inclusive and communitarian vision, Blair is imposing a freeze on the £80 billion public sector pay bill. Head teachers have already demanded a 10% pay increase, as their numbers drain away. The pool of experienced nurses is shrinking dramatically as well - the nurses’ unions argue that their members’ salaries have fallen as much as 46% behind comparable workers in the social services. A recent Royal College of Nurses report, Taking part: registered nurses and the labour market, says that the turnover rate is 21% now, compared to 12% in 1992, and two thirds of nurses are working more than their contracted hours. Treasury sources have jumped in to describe the nurses’ pay claims as “a joke” - even though the unions have not yet put forward any figures.

No section of the movement has a serious answer or way forward. The SWP’s ‘solution’ in the latest issue of Socialist Worker is to talk up a survey produced by the law firm, Dibb Lupton Alsop. This report suggested that more strikes and industrial action were expected in the coming year. Forty-two percent of bosses employing a unionised workforce said they had experienced some form of industrial unrest over the last year. Strike ballots or threats were almost double the level of action in 1994 - ie, from an historic low point.

A bit sadly, Socialist Worker concludes:“It suggests that union membership has bottomed out and is now undergoing the beginning of a recovery” (September 13). If this is what the SWP really thinks, it is clutching at straws, Pollyanna-style.

In the same issue, comrade Hazel Croft’s article asks the question, “Will the TUC miss the tide?” Comrade, there is no militant or leftwing tide to either miss or surf along.  In reality, the SWP constitutes itself as the extreme left of the trade union bureaucracy. It has no independent political strategy. Instead it is passively waiting for union membership to increase, hoping for the spontaneous upsurge, which will magically solve all our problems.

The Socialist Labour Party seems to be moving, if anything, in the opposite direction to the SWP. Its acting general secretary, Arthur Scargill, has mooted the idea of an “alternative” trade union centre, in “opposition” to the TUC.

Scargill’s disgust and impatience with the ‘official’ TUC is quite understandable - and quite healthy, in some respects. But adopting such a ‘red unionist’ stance at this time could only be counterproductive. Given the balance of forces, any such split would be miniscule and impotent. Militant trade unionists, socialists and communists need to fight their corner within the existing union structures, not talk to themselves in splendid isolation.

Paul Greenaway