SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 95 - October 2005

Left rhetoric at the TUC

THIS YEAR’S British Trades Union Congress (TUC) found itself at a ‘crossroads’, according to PCS civil servants’ union general secretary, Mark Serwotka. That was undoubtedly true, as the TUC faced a raft of serious challenges – from the attack on public-sector pensions to the brutal offensive of employers, like Gate Gourmet at Heathrow airport, and the continuing decline of unionisation in the private sector. However, the TUC had no clear idea of which direction it should go.

To the untrained eye the TUC could have appeared as a continuation of the perceived shift to the left in recent years – since the election of the ‘awkward squad’. But, although left rhetoric was much in evidence, there was insufficient evidence that words would be turned into action. Even TUC general secretary Brendan Barber got in on the act by quoting Karl Marx, although the rhetoric did not appear to fool the government ministers in attendance.

Before the conference, trade union leaders like Tony Woodley of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) made threatening noises in newspaper articles about demanding the return of the right to take secondary action. Further, he said that Gordon Brown was not guaranteed union support should he take over as prime minister. However, these comments appear as little more than a weak negotiating position in advance of Brown being crowned when Tony Blair departs.

Yet, they were enough to get media commentators frothing at the mouth, warning that unions would soon become ‘irrelevant’ if they pursued the road of militancy. The real danger arising from the TUC is that the unions become irrelevant to their members if they threaten militancy and then fail to deliver.

The TGWU is a case in point. After seeing the first walk-out in secondary, solidarity action in 20 years, by baggage handlers in support of the sacked Gate Gourmet workers, the union threw away a golden opportunity to show that united union action could deliver a body blow to the bosses and defend workers’ jobs. Instead, it repudiated the action under the anti-union laws and ordered the staff who had walked out to return to work.

Unless there is a dramatic turn in events, it looks likely that Gate Gourmet will be remembered, like other long-running disputes such as Skychef, for the union leaderships looking increasingly impotent in defending their members.

In another industry where the TGWU and other unions failed to conduct effective struggle, the car industry at MG Rover, Longbridge, 60% of the workforce are still out of work six months after the closure of the factory. Those who have found work have suffered huge cuts in salary by an average of 15%. In some cases, workers have seen their wages drop from £23,000 to £8,000 a year.

In one sense, the TUC showed that there is no mood for a return to the partnership agenda of the right-wing union bosses in the 1990s. Increasingly, even the more right-wing leaders have to reflect the angry mood that has built up on the shopfloor after 25 years of neo-liberal attacks under both Tories and Labour. Patience is wearing thin amongst the members for the union leaders’ hopes that a Labour government would deliver change in favour of working-class people.

The message from government ministers at the TUC - Brown, Alan Johnson and Ian McCartney, as well as Blair at a private dinner - was unremittingly brutal. Johnson, former leader of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), said: "Policy has to be decided on a wider basis than one dispute [Gate Gourmet] - no matter how painful that dispute has been. The movement abandoned its preference for legal immunities for trade unions over basic rights for all workers in the 1980s. For the first 130 years of the TUC there was no collective protection for striking workers at all". He is, in fact, arguing that workers can go without them again. Johnson continued his thinly-veiled support of anti-union laws: "… protection is conditional on all workers having the right to be balloted and on the dispute being between employees and their own employer. This is a central aspect of the balance between rights and responsibilities which has to be preserved".

Trade union leaders have a responsibility to defend their members in the workplace and improve their working lives. Their inability to do that over the last three decades has seen union membership decline - especially in the private sector. The average age of trade unionists is in the mid-40s.

Ironically, it is in areas where workers are most brutally exploited - such as retail and catering - where effective trade unions are most needed but where there is the lowest level of organisation. In response, trade union leaders hope to overcome the perceived ‘weakness’ of the unions through an ‘organising agenda’, which they think has been successful in the USA, and through union mergers to create super-unions which have greater industrial clout through force of numbers.

However, whilst both these measures could result in strengthening unions and making them more effective, if they are done in isolation from conducting effective militant struggle on behalf of working people, then they will be shipwrecked. Working people are very practical and will see the benefits of being union members in concrete not abstract terms.

In Germany, the Verdi union, which was a merger of a number of smaller unions, was created in the same spirit as the proposed merger of the TGWU, Amicus and GMB in Britain. However, as Barber pointed out in his conference speech: "We are still probably losing as many members as we gain, and with growth in public services slowing in the years ahead, that challenge becomes more acute each year". He concluded: "In 2001, Verdi was formed as Germany’s largest union with around three million members. Now four years later their membership numbers have fallen to around 2.5 million". The most significant reason for this fall has been the union’s inability to conduct effective struggle against Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 and the rise in unemployment.

Britain’s trade unions are, as Barber indicated, facing "a critical time". The critical time union leaders face, however, is far less severe, in terms of their immediate conditions of life, than the situation their members face. The TUC showed that, despite the fiery rhetoric, there is still a big dislocation between most union leaders and their members. One in five workers in Britain earns £280 a week or less, many of them having to take two or more jobs just to earn such a sum.

Private-sector workers have seen their pension entitlements slashed - to the point where in 20 years’ time, if current trends continue, only one in ten workers will have an occupational pension.

Desperately, the union leaders hope to convince Brown to adopt a more traditional social democratic agenda – ‘Warwick II’ - and repeal the Tory-inspired, Labour-maintained anti-union laws. Brown spelt it out that they haven’t a hope. His speech at the conference clearly signalled that low pay, job insecurity, minimal pension entitlements and limited union rights will continue to be the order of the day if he becomes prime minister.

Trade union members long ago abandoned hope of receiving anything from this pro-big business Labour government. But, they are impatiently waiting for their union leaders to draw the same conclusion. On some issues, like public-sector pensions, the unions may be forced to conduct militant struggle. If they do not then the haemorrhage of members over recent decades in the private sector will become a tidal flow in the public sector.

Mark Serwotka said in a Guardian article during the TUC conference that the unions had to prepare for a repeat of the effective united action which brought the government back to the negotiating table on public-sector pensions last March. And unions, such as the PCS and RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport), which have done this on a consistent basis, have seen substantial membership increases.

Mark also correctly argued that "industrial unity over pensions should be matched by a political unity aimed at stopping New Labour’s attacks on our members". Such political unity requires that union leaders like Mark Serwotka and Bob Crow (RMT) begin the process of establishing a new mass party of the working class - drawing on the success of the Left Party in the German elections - and adopt a programme based on trade union struggle achieving real gains for working-class people.

Ken Smith


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