TUC conference: Hot air and the lesser evil
Peter Manson looks at the noises coming from the trade union leaderships
The big story about this year’s Trades Union Congress centred, of course, around the speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband and his plans to further weaken union influence over the party. That definitely overshadowed talk by the union bureaucracy of coordinated, militant action.
With good reason. It is worth reminding ourselves that a year ago the TUC agreed to look into the “practicalities of a general strike” against austerity - but obviously the general council has not considered such a course very ‘practical’ at all. On the first day of the 2013 congress, however, delegates votes by around eight to one to back a motion which, in the words of the Morning Star, committed the TUC to “retain general strike plans in its industrial arsenal” (September 9).
In proposing the motion, and in opposition to rightwing union leaders who - not unreasonably, you might think - dismissed such talk as a waste of time, RMT general secretary Bob Crow said that plans for a general strike should be “a polished lamp that we use from time to time to give people support”.
The RMT motion actually read: “Congress believes it is incumbent upon us to do all within our power to fight back and believes that the consideration of the practicalities of a general strike should remain.” Not exactly in a hurry then. I am afraid the campaign by the likes of the Socialist Party in England and Wales for the TUC to “name the date” has not borne fruit. The couple of hundred mainly SPEW members who turned up at the September 8 lobby organised by the National Shop Stewards Network went home empty-handed.
However, they will no doubt be buoyed by the passing of a subsequent motion: “Congress agrees to hold what could be the first of a series of mid-week days of action involving communities throughout the country and for the general council to urgently consult affiliates on the timing of such a day of action.” Mind you, a ‘day of action’, even in mid-week, is not the same as a mass strike, especially when it is to involve ill-defined “communities”. There was also unanimous support for a “coordinated programme of civil and industrial action involving trade unions and other campaigns”. Once again we can imagine the “civil” taking precedence over the “industrial” in the mind of the union bureaucrat.
In other words, there was lots of hot air - but don’t expect the mobilisation of the six million workers belonging to TUC-affiliated unions, or even TUC-coordinated strikes, for that matter. The last time that happened was almost two years ago, on November 30 2011, when up to two million public-sector workers came out in defence of their pensions (a couple of weeks later most of the unions involved caved in and all but agreed to government demands).
While another mass demonstration is certainly on the cards, probably early next year, I do not think the coalition will be too worried. True, the government is said to have “contingency plans” in case of a mass strike, but the likelihood of that happening can be judged by the failure of many media outlets to bother even reporting the outcome of such motions.
So there was overwhelming, if not unanimous, support for all manner of resolutions opposing various aspects of the Tory attacks, for the reversal of social security and public service cuts, a clampdown on tax evasion, and “massive investment” in “public infrastructure”. And another, more specific, “day of action” was agreed - this time against the blacklisting of trade unionists. This will involve a lobby of parliament on November 20, when there will be calls for blacklisting to be made a criminal offence.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady made the usual ‘motherhood and apple pie’ calls in her keynote address: she is for full employment, a million new council homes, “fairer pay”, better funding for the NHS - in short, a “popular programme that can inspire voter confidence”.
I am sure Miliband could go along with that. After all, he said in his speech that he would ban zero-hours contracts, promote a “living wage”, build more houses and halt the creation of any more free schools. The less than enthusiastic delegates occasionally applauded politely, but it was more a case of ‘At least Labour is better than the Tories’.
Some of the top bureaucrats were more positive. O’Grady herself put out a statement saying: “Ed Miliband’s warm reception reflected his understanding of the concerns of the modern workplace - the squeeze in living standards and the growth of exploitation through zero-hours contracts. By invoking the spirit of 1945 he showed he understood just how much a determined government can achieve even when the country has come through a difficult time.”
As for that master of two faces, Len McCluskey, he thought that Miliband “looked like a real leader”. It only seems like yesterday when the Unite general secretary was talking about the possibility of ditching Labour after 2015. While Bob Crow bluntly said of the Labour leader, “There’s not a fag end between him, Cameron and Clegg on the big issues”, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, despite some criticisms, thought Miliband “spoke about things that matter to people”. At the same time Prentis is talking about a “coordinated” pay “revolt” next year.
So it is the same old story. Every year the bureaucrats get together to let off steam and put on a show for the benefit of their members (not that many of them are listening). They organise a ‘day of action’ here, a protest there, but at the end of the day they are stuck within the political status quo.
Equally stuck in a rut is the left. For instance, SPEW member Janice Godrich, the president of the PCS union, is quoted on the SPEW website as telling lobbyists: “The NSSN rally has become a regular event at the TUC, setting the tone and a fighting agenda to turn words into action” (www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/17374).
In truth SPEW expects no more than to be able to set out a “fighting agenda”. Despite its optimistic assertion that there is “an ever-growing call for the TUC to name the date for a 24-hour general strike”, do the comrades really think it will happen? And, even if it did, what do they think will come out of it? The fact is, our working class movement is in a pitifully weak state, which is actually symbolised by the continuing decline in union membership - in the last 12 months alone the drop in membership of TUC-affiliated unions has been around 200,000.
As for the Marxist left itself, our influence is minuscule. We continue to flail about, in our own separate, duplicated grouplets, unable to impact on the movement in any real way. The bureaucrats have a free run, while a shrinking, demoralised union membership looks the other way. The union tops do what comes naturally to them, unchallenged - they hold out false hopes in the likes of Miliband as the ‘lesser evil’.
But instead of placing the blame on them, we ought to locate it where it really belongs: on the sectarianism that reduces the Marxist left to a nonentity. Instead of idly calling for Paul Kenny, Prentis, McCluskey et al to abandon Labour once and for all and throw their weight behind (god help us) the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, let us get our priorities right. The answer lies in patient, persistent organisation - in the first place among ourselves.