Build on TUC anti-cuts vote

Jim Gilbert recognises a task for the whole movement

As readers will know, the Trades Union Congress, meeting in Manchester, has decided to back coordinated action between different unions in opposing coalition government cuts. Soon after the resolution - a composite in the name of all the major unions - was passed on September 13, Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable took to the airwaves to declare that the government would not be moved by “threats” - perhaps overlooking the fact that it is thousands of public sector workers who are being threatened by his own government’s plans to decimate public services. Saving him from flying shoes, an unwise invitation to Cable to speak at the TUC had already been withdrawn before delegates met.

The TUC decision to coordinate union campaigns and industrial action is to be welcomed. How, and in what spirit, that motion is implemented will be crucial, of course. Soon after it was passed, TUC and some individual union chiefs rather hastily tried to reassure the powers that be (ie, the state) that they do not intend to break the law - the anti-union laws prohibit ‘secondary’ solidarity action, so only separate, legal actions could legitimately be coordinated - timed to take place simultaneously, for example. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber hoped no-one thought there would be another winter of discontent: “I’ve certainly not called for civil disobedience. I don’t find the idea attractive and I think it is counterproductive.” Nevertheless, there is a will to fight. Brian Strutton, national secretary of the GMB, issued this warning: “We are largely prepared for national industrial action next month if this government won’t listen.”

Implementing this decision by the trade union leadership will be a task for the whole movement. It will be up to union militants to flesh out and take forward a campaign that now has official backing. But, crucially, what aims will such action have? Will they simply be defensive or can they be coordinated politically?

Passed almost unanimously, the resolution declares: “Congress resolves that all TUC affiliates will urgently work together to build a broad solidarity alliance of unions and communities under threat and organise a national demonstration, lobby of parliament and national days of protest against the government austerity measures.” To help do this, the resolution calls on the general council to “lead a coordinated campaign across the labour movement with other working class organisations and local communities for progressive means of ensuring the recovery and improving the public finances”.

The motion also agreed to “consider” calling a convention of unions and public service users, and to support the European Trade Union Confederation day of action against austerity measures across the continent on September 29. But beyond September 29, which in Britain is unlikely to see more than the odd rally, there are no plans for further coordination. The motion states: “Congress sends solidarity to our comrades in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and elsewhere who are fighting the cuts and agrees there is an urgent need to establish a similarly wide-ranging united front of resistance against the attacks being carried out in the UK.” Clearly a coordinated, joint struggle with workers in these and other countries across Europe is needed, and as soon as possible. But, of course, this also raises the question of international political coordination.

Only a few months ago four of those contending to be leader of the Labour Party were quite happy to endorse the ‘fact’ that cuts were needed - just not as speedily as the Tories have wanted to implement them. But the TUC did not, of course, call for support for the only anti-cuts candidate, Diane Abbott - after all, the leaderships of most affiliates are committed to Ed Miliband or one of the other cuts merchants.

Speaking at the TUC on the evening following the passing of the anti-cuts resolution, front runner David Miliband could not bring himself even to promise attendance at the TUC October 20 pre-spending review rally or its national demonstration next March - he had to be a “credible” leader, he said. While his brother, Ed, made noises against the Tory cuts, he stated his opposition to “civil disobedience” - ie, any strike action that fell foul of the anti-union laws. Abbott, for her part, having labelled all the others “princes of New Labour”, said the party should “fight these cuts side by side with the trade unions”. Former health secretary Andy Burnham unsurprisingly railed against the coalition’s health white paper, but did not wish to be too closely identified with the unions - Labour must be both “pro-business and pro-trade unionist”, he said.

Nevertheless, the TUC resolution, as well as breaking with the bourgeois ‘slash and burn’ consensus, had the merit of forcing all five candidates to pose more to the left. While the TUC chiefs are hardly promising mass rebellion, their anti-cuts resolution provides a locus to rally around, enabling the left once more to point to the failure of capitalism as a system and the need for socialism.