Turn talk into action

Ian Mahoney reports about the angry rumblings from major unions at this year's Trades Union Congress

Blair is certainly not pleased with this year's TUC. At a private dinner with union general secretaries on September 13, he expressed his anger at widely publicised calls during the week for restrictions on secondary action to be loosened and a government rethink over pension rights in the public sector. "It won't happen," he bluntly told them, demanding the unions undergo "a fundamental modernisation" - an echo of an earlier speech by Gordon Brown (The Financial Times September 13). Invariably, the deployment of the term 'modernisation' is followed by advocacy of a return to the sort of working conditions that prevailed for our class before the rise of the modern union movement. A pretty 'old-fashioned' brand of capitalism, in effect. Thus, Brown and Blair stress the need for wage restraint and "flexible working" in the face of the challenge from imperialist rivals and rising economies such as China's. Certainly, there seems to be a mood of verbal belligerence on both sides. At a fringe meeting on September 12, TWGU general secretary Tony Woodley was less than enthused by the looming replacement of Blair by Brown: "We do not want a new Labour leader with the same views as the one who's on the way out. We need one who will actually change things." Derek Simpson of Amicus has said that other candidates should not be ruled out for the Labour leadership - but the moment you try to put a name to that third option, you realise the dire state of the Labour left at present. No obviously viable left candidate leaps to mind. At the same meeting, left Labour MP John McDonnell said: "I spent my youth as a trade unionist trying to get a Labour government elected. I am now watching my middle age slip away trying to get it to do anything." In fact, the problem is that the Labour Party - despite the palpable tensions with the unions and the unpopularity of the Iraq war - retains the political iniative. It is doing plenty - that's the problem. Take one of the issues that dominated congress this year and one which has the potential to create a huge furore in wider society - pensions. September 13 saw two composite motions passed on this issue and plenty of angry platform rhetoric. The leaders of big unions like the T&G and Unison threatened strike action if the government cannot be turned. Dave Prentis warned that 13 different unions representing more than three million public sector workers are ready to reisist any attacks on their pension rights. The problem is politics, of course. The trade union bureacracy simply has no coherent political alternatives to the pro-market policies of Labour and has been historically joined at the hip to that treacherous party. So brave talk from the likes of Prentis of industrial action "on a scale unseen in Britain since the general strike in the 1920s" could well remain just that - talk. Government minister Alan Johnson (a former trade union bureaucrat himself, of course), stated during his visit to congress on September 13 that the trade unions and the governent have to "face the facts together". "The facts" being the supposedly unbuckable nature of the market and the ticking "demographic timebomb" that we are told makes even our current miserly standards of pension provision unsustainable. The government has been successful in locking the trade union movement into discussions on its agenda on this question. And, as Johnson ominously notes, "I am confident that our negotiations will succeed." The trade union bureaucracy's lack of a political alternative was illustrated by its choice of guest to address delegates on this issue on the same day that Johnson paid them a visit - Adair Turner, chair of the government's pensions commission. As Janine Booth notes on her useful TUC blog, "I cannot confirm rumours that the National Union of Turkeys have invited Bernard Matthews to address their annual congress" (http://www.workersliberty.org/blog/45). So industrial conflict with the government on this issue remains a possibility - particularly if there is rank and file pressure in the unions. But what the rank and file need above all are independent politics, not simply a perspective that makes them the best foot soldiers for the tame initiatives of the apparatus. It will be this, not mergers of the type proposed by the GMB, TGWU and Amicus, that will truly shape our unions as the fighting working class bodies we need. As Bob Crow - unfortunately no longer on the TUC general council - correctly notes, "What I don't understand is a merger for the sake of a merger. A lot of mergers take place where the first question asked by the union officers is, 'Am I still going to get the same size car and what are my expenses going to be?'" The more militant noises coming from the top of the unions are encouraging; but we need to subordinate those leaders to a politically conscious rank and file if there is going to be more than just noise at the end of the day. Related article Vague resolutions and dirty looks Lee Rock attended the TUC as a PCSU delegate. He was less than impressed