Side with working class or, in the name of god, go
The TUC congress represented a positive step towards united working class resistance against coalition attacks, writes Peter Manson
This week’s three-day Trade Union Congress, which ended on September 14, marked a distinct step towards united, practical resistance to the government assault on public services, pensions and union rights.
With union delegates voting overwhelmingly for coordinated industrial action, Labour leader Ed Miliband disgracefully spoke against striking and repeatedly urged negotiations. Posing as the workers’ friend, in effect he did the work of the Tories. Frankly, he looks like a loser. Affiliated unions and Labour Party members alike should tell this Judas in no uncertain terms: either openly and unambiguously side with the cause of the working class or, in the name of god, go!
The congress got off to an excellent start with the unanimously agreed composite on trade union rights. This called on the TUC to “develop an industrial strategy of resistance, so that workers are not left to fight alone against draconian laws and exploitative bosses. The TUC should respond to any further attempts to shackle working people’s rights with a coordinated campaign and supporting action.”
Of course, this motion did not specify what form the “industrial strategy of resistance” should take - no doubt this vagueness contributed to the unanimity. But Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and his GMB counterpart, Paul Kenny, were pretty clear in their calls for what McCluskey called “mass civil disobedience”. Kenny said: “If going to prison is the price to pay for standing up to bad laws, then so be it.”
It was significant that the composite was moved and seconded by two of the big three unions, Unite and GMB, which did not take part in the coordinated strikes against cuts on June 30.
The third June 30 absentee and main public sector union, Unison, moved the composite motions on both the coalition attack on public sector pensions and its swingeing cuts package. The overwhelmingly agreed pensions motion demanded that the general council “ensure” that “the TUC continues to coordinate opposition to the government’s proposals, including support for further coordinated negotiations and for further industrial action as necessary, coordinated as far as possible among the public sector unions”.
The left-led Public and Commercial Services union had put in a motion which read: “Congress expresses its concern at the pathetic response of the Labour leadership and instructs the TUC general council to press for support for future action in defence of the agreement signed with the last Labour government.” After the word “pathetic” was changed to a more diplomatic “unsatisfactory”, this was included in the agreed text. But the composite left untouched the PCS-drafted instruction to the general council to “give full support to industrial action against pensions cuts, including action planned for this autumn, and maximise its coordination”. Also included in the composite were Unite, the NUT, National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Fire Brigades Union, amongst others.
On the general assault on public services, PCS, the Communication Workers Union, University and College Union and NASUWT all put in separate, militantly worded motions proposing united strike action. The resulting composite instructed the general council to “support and coordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action against attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services”. Such coordination should include “either national, sectoral or regional activity, either one-off or discontinuous”.
Also agreed was a motion from the TUC women’s conference calling on the general council to “build support for coordinated industrial action in defence of public service jobs and conditions in line with TUC policy”.
So, at least on paper, there is now a crystal-clear commitment to resist the various attacks from the coalition government through united strikes, and there is no doubt that within a few weeks - probably towards the end of November - there will be another day of action, this time involving up to 2.5 million workers, compared to the 750,000 who struck in June. With the big three all now committed to a strike ballot, more than a dozen unions may be involved.
In this context it is worth mentioning that the Socialist Workers Party has revived the grandstanding slogan, ‘All out, stay out’. The internal Party Notes reports that the SWP has agreed a detailed position on the current situation, which includes this section: “We don’t turn our back on any form of action, but the scale of the attack and the crisis in society mean that sectional or partial strikes are utterly inadequate. Our slogan is ‘All out and stay out’. We want a general strike and then continuous action” (September 12: www.swp.org.uk/party-notes).
Once again it must be emphasised that calls for an indefinite general strike, isolated to Britain, in the absence of an armed working class and without a steeled, mass class party aiming to seize power, are just childish posturing. It is true that current TUC plans are “utterly inadequate” against the background of the coalition government’s austerity drive, but they are real and they do represent a step in the right direction.
First and foremost our movement must be equipped with the necessary politics - but the SWP only looks to building its own confessional sect. Showing what the ‘All out, stay out’ slogan is really about, its central committee has the target of increasing SWP membership by 1,000 this year.
Leaving aside the SWP’s big talk and petty ambitions, the TUC demonstrated that Ed Miliband is no different from the other Labour misleaders who have gone before him. Spluttering and bumbling, the Labour leader repeated his opposition to the planned strikes: “I fully understand why millions of decent public sector workers feel angry. But, while negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that.” Instead of taking the side of those under attack, like Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Attlee, Hugh Gaitskill, Harold Wilson and Neil Kinnock he urged nationalistic class collaboration: “Of course, the right to industrial action will be necessary, as a last resort. But, in truth, strikes are always the consequence of failure. Failure we cannot afford as a nation.” Unions were told to take up their “real role” as “partners in the new economy”. Absurdly, treacherously, he said: “... what we need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over the autumn.”
In the following brief question-and-answer session, Association of Teachers and Lecturers president Mary Bousted, whose union was one of the four that walked out on June 30, told Miliband what he already knew: “Just for information, the government are not prepared to negotiate” - except about “how to implement the changes they have decided” already.
And PCS president Janice Godrich, a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, challenged Miliband to “stand up on the side of hundreds and thousands of workers whose pensions are under attack”. Would he “defend the negotiated settlement” agreed by the unions with the last Labour government? And if so would he “support trade unionists taking industrial action to defend that deal”?
Obviously not: “What I’m going to say is that the best thing that can be done is to avoid industrial action happening by a government willing to properly negotiate,” said Miliband. “That is what needs to happen.”
Comrade Godrich was right to call on him to take sides - although you might think that a SPEW member would consider it misplaced to make a demand for solidarity on the leader of just another “bourgeois party”. And no doubt SPEW will have very much regretted the cheers that greeted Miliband’s renunciation of one of New Labour’s primary aims: “... I value the link between the trade union movement and the Labour Party. It is why I will resist any attempt to break it.” This huge applause - which stood in stark contrast to the jeers in response to Miliband’s statement that the Tories are “cutting too far and too fast” - surely shows how foolish it is to write off Labour as a key site for struggle.
There were, of course, many weaknesses on display at the TUC. For insistence not a few motions were premised on the sectional notion that cuts must be opposed because of their “disproportionate impact” on low-income families, women, black workers, the disabled, LGBT people ... It was an accusation made in motions from Usdaw and other unions, the TUC women’s conference and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conference, and incorporated in subsequent composites.
The logic of this argument is that the cuts would be acceptable if only they were ‘fairer’ and all workers were affected equally: ie, if there were special protection to mitigate the extra impact on the above groups only. Surely we can all put up with a little bit of sacrifice?
Of course, a number of motions did reject the cuts in their entirety and placed the blame on the ruling class, or sections of it - at least in their original form. The FBU motion had read: “The chaos created by the major banks and financial institutions should be ended through full public ownership and the creation of a single, publicly owned banking service, democratically and accountably managed.” During compositing, however, the meaning of this demand was completely negated by its incorporation in the motion on an “alternative economic strategy”, calling for “improved access for industry to capital and finance to continue investment in UK manufacturing, including through the creation of a publicly owned banking service, democratically and accountably managed” (my emphasis - note the removal of the word “single”).
What began as a militant, anti-capitalist demand in the interest of our class was thus transformed into a nationalistic call to run British capitalism more efficiently. A pity the FBU still allowed it to go forward.
A similar nationalism was present in the composite deploring the government decision to award ‘preferred bidder’ status for the Thameslink contract to the German company, Siemens, rather than Bombardier in Derby. Not only did the successful motion state that the “British-designed Bombardier train” was “superior to that offered by Siemens”, but it also committed the TUC to a policy whereby, “wherever possible, UK taxpayers’ money is spent supporting the UK economy”.
Mind you, when it comes to British nationalism, there was nothing to top the motion from that most proletarian of TUC affiliates, the Professional Footballers Association, calling for “a united Great Britain football team in the Olympic Games in London in 2012”. Football and the Olympics, it declared, “allows the people of Britain to focus on what unites us and serves as a reminder of the great achievements that have come about when we have pulled together in the national interest.” While there are, of course, “those who are against such a union”, on this “special, once-in-a-generation occasion”, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish should “put aside our differences” and “ensure that we see Great Britain at its best”.
Of course, this was passed - as was every motion put before congress.
In other decisions, the CWU resolution opposing the British National Party and English Defence League was amended in a disastrous way by Unison, so that the resulting composite not only gave support to Unite Against Fascism, Hope Not Hate, and One Society, Many Cultures, but came out in support of “the campaign to ban the EDL/SDL/WDL from holding demonstrations and rallies”.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. The workers’ movement should stand for free speech and assembly - not because we want to defend the ‘rights’ of the BNP or EDL, but because we know that state bans we accept will eventually be directed against the working class.
On a more positive note, international motions were agreed opposing the “war on terror”, calling for the rapid withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan and stating that the attack on Libya was “misjudged” and “military action should be halted immediately”; and that international efforts should be focused on securing a peaceful political settlement to the conflict. Another motion reaffirmed support for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and for disinvestment from, and a boycott of the goods of, “companies who profit from illegal settlements, the occupation and the construction of the wall”.