TUC shuts up shop

Bureaucracy bows to warmongers

With disturbing alocrity the General Council of the Trades Union Congress seized upon the opportunity presented last week by the suicide attacks in the United States to curtail this year?s congress. Things which had been showing clear signs of moving to the left and of reflecting  dissatisfaction with the second-term Blair government. Here was the first domestic casualty of imperialism?s ?war against terrorism?.

Blair himself withdrew from delivering his planned speech on Tuesday afternoon, after news of the events broke. Then, on Wednesday morning, TUC president Bill Morris delivered a recommendation that, ?It would not be appropriate to continue with our proceedings in their present form ? all outstanding motions, composite motions and emergency motions should be remitted to the General Council?. Having secured approval of the Congress, Morris announced that the General Council would meet immediately following the closure.

Thus, whilst it was not felt to be appropriate for delegates of the working class to discuss social and political issues in an atmosphere of heightened political tension, it was of course, entirely suitable for the trustees of the labour bureaucracy to do so. Of course the reaction to the events of the ruling class was just the opposite - Blair and co went into overdrive, entering into round after round of intensive meetings and consultations. Far from cancelling the congress, genuine working class leaders would have set aside the humdrum and devoted as much time as necessary to the appropriate response both to September 11 and the imperialists? ?declaration of war?.

It was as if the bureaucracy had suffered a fright after the opening day of the proceedings on Monday, when it found itself at the head of the anti-government groundswell. As general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, brother Morris himself had moved the unanimously approved resolution which castigated Blair?s asylum and immigration policy. This called for closure of the detention centres and an end to the ban on asylum-seekers working while they wait for decisions on their applications. It also reiterated a demand for an end to the practice of issuing vouchers instead of cash benefits. In response to earlier pressure from the TUC, the government had conducted a review of the voucher system, only to conclude that it should continue unchanged. Delegates applauded warmly as Morris emphasised that, ?The voucher system is demeaning and it stigmatises - it is an indictment of a society which prides itself on the principles of social justice.?

The resolution avoided the crux of the issue by focusing on the  call for a  European agreement on managed asylum and immigration, rather than what workers really need, which is open borders and an end to all controls on migration. It nevertheless stung Blair. The text of his undelivered speech, distributed by the Downing Street press office, revealed a late insertion to the first point due to be made. This stated that, ?The lives and future life chances of those fleeing torture and persecution are far too important to play politics with and Bill Morris and others are right to remind us of that.? But Blair reasserted his determination to brush the criticism aside and restated his firm resolve to ?make sure our system is not abused?: ?Over the next few weeks, we will announce a further series of measures as we and others in Europe come under renewed pressure from migration,? the text reveals.

Further evidence of Monday?s mood came from the successful resolution on employment rights. For the first time in several years came a demand for a substantive rolling back of anti-union laws. This was the call for legalisation of secondary (ie, solidarity) industrial action and the removal of all limitations on the right to claim unfair dismissal when sackings occur during strike action. Once again though, the resolution lacked any bite, in its avoidance of setting out any action to be taken by trade unionists to secure these reforms. Accompanied by demands for statutory employment rights to apply from the first day of employment and for removal of the exemption of small firms from union recognition legislation, the proposals are merely to become submissions to yet another government ?review?.

The enduring role of the union bureaucracy, in holding the working class to the status of humble supplicants, remains of key importance to the ruling class (and to the bureaucracy itself, of course). This was demonstrated amply by the fact that not only was the prime minister scheduled to attend the second day of the congress, but his trade and industry minister, Patricia Hewitt, addressed the delegates on the first day.

The bourgeois press was unanimous in concluding that Hewitt?s performance was incompetent. She succeeded in pleasing neither of the equally hostile camps at the conference - the public sector unions, facing an onslaught of privatisation, and the manufacturing unions, confronted by a rising tide of job losses accompanied by apparent government indifference. All that she could offer public sector workers facing transfer to private employers was a strengthening of the Transfer of Undertakings, Protection of Employment regulations to remove the exclusion of occupational pension rights.

There was certainly no reaffirmation of an assurance that Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, insists that the government had previously given him, to the effect that the private finance initiative in the health service will not involve the termination of workers? NHS employment contracts. Contractors have baulked at this, to the extent that work on building the first three of 29 new PFI hospitals has been suspended. With the government now clearly leaning towards their capitalist friends over this dispute, Unison has threatened strike action. Armed with the results of an opinion poll, commissioned by the General, Municipal and Boilermakers union, which found that 24% of Labour?s 2001 general election voters will abandon them if key public services are privatised, a clash with Blair the following day was in prospect. The latter?s speech would have revealed that he could only bolster Hewitt, with an ?assurance? that private sector involvement ?certainly shouldn?t be at the expense of the terms and conditions of employment of the staff?.

New Labour?s spin machine had previewed Hewitt?s speech as ?the most forthright defence of British manufacturing in many, many years (The Guardian September 11). She had taken to the platform following a contribution from Des Farrell of the GMB, who had quoted figures showing that, whilst in the last five years of Tory government an average of 2,200 manufacturing jobs had been lost each month, this had risen under New Labour?s first term to 8,000 a month and indeed the current figure was standing at 12,000 per month. ?We have a choice,? Hewitt pronounced: ?Britain can take the low road. Low wages, low skills, low quality goods. That?s no future for our country or our workers. Or we can take the high road to productivity. A high value-added, high skill, high wage economy.?

There was nothing new about this rhetoric of course and, in a week during which one of Britain?s premier league high technology companies, Marconi, was pronounced by The Financial Times to be a ?basket case?, there is little surprise that her audience was not convinced. The union chiefs themselves, previously champions of productivity drive after productivity drive, no doubt remembered bitterly that it was themselves, rather than any government ministers, who had to facilitate a salvage mission on another British manufacturing flagship, Rover.

The fact is that there is no rosy future for British workers, or indeed the workers of the world, within the scenario of intensified rates of exploitation by capital. There is now a palpable sense that the ?social partnership? sermon, preached for so long by the rightwing union leaders and, in particular, by TUC general secretary John Monks, has worn thin and is not even believed by its mouthpieces themselves.

For the time being though, the old order continues. The curtailment of congress means that TUC policy on the privatisation issue, for instance, remains that formulated by a pre-congress General Council meeting. This is based on a commitment to ?a grown-up dialogue? with the government, a ?genuine partnership?, etc, etc. In short, it is unadulterated tosh and nobody is convinced that it can lead to any concessions. Hence there has been a certain mood shift to the left which has brought forth a layer of leftish trade union leaders.

Kevin Maguire?s commentary in The Guardian, was a roll call of ?a new generation of union leaders - fiercely independent and unrepentantly leftwing? (September 13). The words ?social partnership? do not pass the lips of general secretaries like Mick Rix (Aslef rail union), Andy Gilchrist (FBU firefighters), Billy Hayes (CWU postal and communications workers) and the ?hard left member of the Socialist Alliance?, Mark Serwotka (PCS civil and public servants.

Whilst former Socialist Labour Party member Bob Crow is the favourite to succeed the late Jimmy Knapp as leader of the RMT railworkers, even Dave Prentis of Unison ?is threatening to prove more troublesome to the government than his predecessor, Rodney Bickerstaffe?- so wrote Maguire. And these shifts come at a time when the reigns of another four big union chiefs - Sir Ken Jackson (AEEU engineering and electrical workers), and his opposite numbers from the three general unions, Roger Lyons (MSF), Bill Morris (TGWU), and John Edmonds (GMB), are all due to close by the end of 2004.

Whilst Maguire stretching the term ?left? , in some of the above cases, there is of course nothing new in left turns occurring in the composition of the TUC General Council. Whilst this reappearance of the phenomenon will no doubt be celebrated by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party as a potential source of salvation for the working class, communists stand by a more sober and measured assessment. We will point out, for instance, that there was a left reformist majority on the General Council when the general strike of 1926 was betrayed.

Union leadership positions and elections for them are indeed of great importance and the Socialist Alliance should bend every effort to try to secure united left candidacies in these forthcoming contests. But of far greater importance is the building of a militant rank and file movement within the unions: in other words the process of transforming our working class organisations into combat battalions in the struggle for socialism.

Derek Hunter