SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Reality intrudes at last!

ROGER BANNISTER, a national executive committee member of UNISON, Britain’s biggest public sector union, reports (in a personal capacity) on the 2002 Trades Union Congress.

THE TRADES UNION congress has, over recent years, relegated itself to the sidelines of working class political and industrial life, and in so doing largely obliterated itself from the public consciousness. Particularly under the present retiring general secretary John Monks, it has pursued ‘partnership’ with employers, given platforms to Tories and Liberal Democrats, and fostered the illusion that industrial militancy was counterproductive for the working class.

At times this led to ludicrous situations, as when Sir Ken Jackson, the arch right-wing leader of the engineers’ union, the AEU, confidently told congress that strikes were ‘a thing of the past’, only to be greeted by the news that his own members at Fords Dagenham had walked out on unofficial, and therefore illegal, strike action! In general, however, the TUC congress came and went with little reflection of the harsh realities of life for Britain’s workers in the hall or on the agenda.

This September it was different. Ironically this was John Monks’ final congress before he progresses up the ladder of the international trade union bureaucracy, and it was a congress that saw his project in tatters.

Reflecting a fundamental shift at the base of the unions over the past year has been the election of a number of left-wing general secretaries, such as Mark Serwotka in the civil service PCS union, Bob Crow in the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and, most recently, Derek Simpson in the AEU side of the newly-formed AMICUS union. Other left-leaning leaders like Billy Hayes in the Communications Workers Union (CWU), Mick Rix in ASLEF, the train drivers union, and Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have also been elected. Like all individuals, these people have their weaknesses, but they are the product of a growing mood of militancy amongst rank-and-file members, whose patience with New Labour has expired, and who now see industrial militancy as the best way to protect their livelihoods.

Strike action has been taken by local government workers, national rail and London Underground workers, further education lecturers and London teachers, privatised hospital workers and some steel workers, in the recent period. The same processes that have pushed these workers into action have also created a desire to replace those union leaders characterised by a New Labour class collaboration, ‘partnership’ approach, with people seen as fighters.

The impact of these leaders at the TUC congress was like a breath of fresh air. Andy Gilchrist promised strike action from the fire fighters, and was followed by Bob Crow pledging solidarity from London Underground and other rail workers on health and safety grounds, if the fire fighters go on strike. Delegate after delegate spoke against the attacks of the New Labour government on public services, as a mood of confidence developed over the four days of congress. The TUC congress has heard left speeches before, but as lone voices, such as the National Union of Miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill. Regarded as the voice of a bygone age Scargill (who has recently retired) would be applauded, but at the same time criticised by some on the left for a degree of inflexibility, preventing the construction of a broader basis for left policies.

More radical policies

CONGRESS ADOPTED A series of more radical policies than previously on a number of important issues. It called for a minimum wage of £6 per hour by 2004, and firmly opposed the New Labour government’s public private partnership (PPP) policies. A GMB general workers’ union delegate received a rapturous standing ovation when she declared of her employing New Labour council, ‘I wouldn’t PPP on them if they were on fire!’

Of particular note was the shifting attitude to the Euro. Previously the TUC was the most pro-Euro organisation in Britain, but as Derek Simpson challenges the pro-Euro policies of AMICUS, and the referendum draws closer, that position is now weakening. In particular, the TUC general council has decided to hold a special conference in advance of any referendum to determine whether or not to campaign in the referendum and, if so, which way. (It is worth noting here that Mark Serwotka illustrated the ‘law of unequal development’ in the Euro debate. He made a speech largely seen as pro-Euro which, while warning of the danger of a ‘little Englander’ mentality, suggested that the Euro should be accepted if assurances on public spending were obtained from the government.) It will be interesting to see if unions like the GMB, largely pro-Euro, will maintain this position at a special conference held close to the referendum in the face of opposition from rank-and-file members.

These developments have ramifications across all unions. The Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) for example, has just elected Tony Woodley as deputy general secretary. Whilst it would be hard to describe Woodley as a left-winger, he opposed general secretary Bill Morris’s preferred candidate, Peter Booth, and won despite the concerted opposition of the union machinery. He was clearly seen as the anti-establishment candidate and, as a degree of jockeying for position begins to elect a replacement for Morris, Woodley, clearly noting the shift in mood, is making overtures to the left in the union for support.

Another interesting consequence of the new situation was the changed perception amongst many delegates of UNISON’s position within the TUC. UNISON has traditionally been seen as a left union in TUC terms, but this year such a claim could be more clearly measured, particularly in the debates on the Euro, where UNISON supported a composite that was also supported by pro-Euro unions, and on the war with Iraq, where they opposed an anti-war amendment.

Stop the War!

CONGRESS MET AGAINST the background of the Bush/Blair drive for war with Iraq. The hard left unions backed an amendment from TSSA that stated clear opposition to the war with Iraq. Scurrilously described by AMICUS co-general secretary Roger Lyons as like ‘something coming from Baghdad trades council’, it won wide support on a show of hands but was defeated on a card vote. A statement from the general council of the TUC was carried, which although weaker, in that it supports war if explicitly endorsed by the UN, nonetheless puts the TUC at odds with Blair’s policies, particularly in the light of subsequent events following Iraq’s decision to allow the weapons inspectors back in. During this debate, a number of speakers drew attention to the cost of a war and the government’s refusal to adequately fund public services.

The threat of war was obviously a key aspect of Tony Blair’s speech to the congress. Although the media reported the customary standing ovation for the Labour leader, this was by no means an enthusiastic response, and it is doubtful if those standing reached much above the fifty per cent mark. Whilst declaring his door open to any union leader, experience already shows this to be a sham, with little prospect of any influence being exerted. He defended his war plans, whilst reflecting growing anti-war pressure by taking his first step backwards in announcing that there would be a recall of parliament on this issue. Clearly aware of the new mood, he told congress that ideas of militancy and confrontation were "a lot of self-indulgent rhetoric from a few that belong, frankly, in the history books". In reality, these ideas are winning growing support and are here to stay, and the position will be reversed!

Blair was not the only New Labour minister to address congress. Education minister Estelle Morris treated congress to a serving of New Labour hypocrisy by shedding crocodile tears at the relatively low numbers of working-class children that go to university, without reference to the government’s introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of the student maintenance grant!

Reclaim the Labour Party?

THE RANGE OF the issues of contention with the New Labour government that surfaced at the TUC congress gives a glimpse of how the main focus of political opposition in Britain in the future could develop through the trade unions. It is on where to channel this opposition, however, that we would take issue with most of the new left leaders, as none of them favour disaffiliation from the Labour Party and building a new mass workers’ party. Bob Crow and Derek Simpson have both spoken of reclaiming the Labour Party, and this will undoubtedly encourage those lefts still in the Labour Party to remain there. At the same time, they have no programme to achieve this, nor did they attempt to pull activists together at the TUC in any such campaign.

A lunchtime fringe meeting was organised by the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs – under the heading ‘Reclaim the Labour Party’ – but was not attended by any of the new leaders. (Nor was any programme to reclaim the Labour Party outlined at this meeting, which heard one platform speaker talk about ‘the Hatton disaster in Liverpool’ and how witch-hunting Liverpool Walton MP Peter Kilfoyle was ‘getting back to his roots’!) Even if such a campaign were to be organised, there is little chance of unions like the TGWU and GMB supporting the reintroduction of internal democracy in the Labour Party at this stage. GMB general secretary John Edmonds may have announced his intention to ‘bury New Labour not to praise it’, but whether many of the union leaders critical of New Labour want much more than personal influence at the top is doubtful. Labour Party membership is at an all time low, and it would take a great deal to persuade a layer of disillusioned activists to rejoin for such a campaign. It will therefore be interesting to see if these leaders maintain this position, as clashes develop with the government, or move into full opposition to New Labour.

Unless there is the unlikely event of the New Labour government doing a major U-turn on privatisation, pay and pensions, the mood of militancy will continue. Those who formerly dismissed the unions as being permanently in the hands of the bureaucracy have been proved wrong, as workers turn to the unions to fight. The summer of discontent is now turning into an autumn of discontent as fire fighters, local government workers in London, London higher education staff, further education staff and lecturers all prepare to take strike action. The trade unions are not like the Labour Party: whilst their leaders may have undergone a political process in parallel to New Labour, their members have not drifted away as New Labour’s members have, reflecting an understanding of the need for collective organisation in the workplace. Now those members are beginning to assert themselves, to shake their organisations from below, clearing out dead wood, pushing fighting leaders to the fore. The long period of acquiescence of the British working class is coming to an end.


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