Covid testing the TUC

The 2020 TUC congress takes place at perhaps the most critical time facing workers since the second world war, meeting six months after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the UK into lockdown. The recessionary features that were already visible by the start of the year have been transformed into the deepest economic downturn since the 2008 great recession and possibly the 1930s. Workers’ lives and livelihoods are on the line.

The TUC congress has been stripped down because of coronavirus restrictions but union activists and reps will be looking for it to give a lead in the face of this crisis. The slogan for the conference is ‘Jobs, Security, Dignity’. But this totally understates the scale of the emergency and, unfortunately, the vast majority of motions are inadequate in mapping what is necessary to both protect the health of workers and their families and secure an economic future.

The congress should be a ‘council of war’ to draw a balance sheet of how the unions have acted during the pandemic and put forward a programme that can arm union reps and members both industrially and politically for what confronts the working-class. For this, it is necessary to face up to the scale of the crisis and firstly issue a warning to workers about what is at stake and the scale of action that is necessary but then also to send a signal to the Tories and the capitalists that the union movement will fight any attack. The starting point must be not to gloss over or even cover up the brutal class character of the crisis, which risks disarming and disorientating union members.

The onset of the pandemic ‘shocked and awed’ most of the union leaders. Many of them succumbed to the pressure of the Tory government, the media and the capitalist establishment to surrender their independence to organise workers industrially. They were prepared to forget that months earlier, just before Christmas, Boris Johnson’s newly-elected government had included new anti-union legislation in its Queens’ Speech, specifically targeted at the rail and transport unions.

The RMT transport workers’ union is the only union which has a congress motion that demands that these planned Tory laws are scrapped. This is backed by a motion devised by Socialist Party members, on the agenda from the Trades Councils’ Conference, which calls for the TUC to “organise a special conference open to all workplace reps and shop stewards on opposing the anti-union laws… [and] a Saturday London demonstration on the demands: stop the Tory anti-union laws, defend the transport unions, for workers’ unity against the Tories”.

The Keir Starmer leadership of the Labour Party must be added to this establishment pressure. They are not officially in a ‘national unity’ coalition because the capitalists are satisfied that Labour is now a reliable tool for them and is more valuable as a light check on Johnson’s crisis-ridden government and better to be called on to step in if necessary. This was shown by Labour spokespeople supporting the Tories in the attempt to prematurely force teachers and education staff back to work on 1 June. This is akin to the role played by Ed Miliband and the then shadow chancellor Ed Balls as David Cameron and George Osborne rolled out their austerity offensive in 2010. The Labour leadership then had no serious alternative, merely saying that the massive cuts package was ‘too far, too fast’.

However, this attempt to fully open schools early was pushed back with Johnson at least partially defeated by what amounted to an uprising of staff, parents and pupils, which acted as a massive lever on the education unions. The National Education Union (NEU) reported that in one online meeting, up to 20,000 members took part. The NEU, like some other unions, has reported a big net increase in members, as with their backs against the wall workers see the need for organisation. But this movement has also showed that once rank-and-file pressure is released, the union leaders can quickly move back to accommodate management.

The union leaders find themselves squeezed between the opposing forces of the capitalists and the working-class. At first, many of them bowed to the national unity pressure. The TUC and some of the unions called for a ‘national recovery council’ to be established with the employers and the Tory government. Industrial action was suspended or called off altogether. The PCS civil servants’ union leadership ‘parked’ their full pay claim. The union’s motion to the TUC congress on pay, belatedly raising about industrial action ballots, reflects members’ subsequent pressure on the leadership and the demands put forward by Socialist Party members and Broad Left Network supporters at the national executive committee and throughout the union.

At the beginning of the pandemic the impression was given by many union leaders that the unions were ‘in this together’ with the employers and the government and once the crisis was over, would be rewarded with decent pay rises and job guarantees. This created the danger of disarming workers and leaving them leaderless. While some unions have seen an increase in membership, the shopworkers’ union USDAW, under a right-wing general secretary, has been driven into a crisis, going under 400,000 members and losing shop stewards and health and safety reps. It is not automatic that unions will grow in this period. In fact particularly those in the private sector, with thousands of redundancies announced daily, can be in a fight to maintain themselves. The best organising tool for unions is a fighting strategy that acts as a pole of attraction to workers.

But the union leaders are more directly impacted by the mood of members than the TUC and Labour Party leaderships. While there was passivity at leadership level in many unions, on the shop floor workers have been forced into action to protect their safely and now increasingly also their jobs and income. From Royal Mail offices to hospitals to factories, workers have taken unofficial action to force management to provide the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight for workplace safety. The angry mood that exists as the pandemic strips away the cruelty and chaos of capitalism has been further shown by the incredible Black Lives Matter movement, the developing grassroots protests on NHS pay to fight for a 15% rise, and the school students – supported by teachers – forcing the government into an ignominious retreat over the exam results fiasco. These show that in this new period workers will not always wait for the union leaders but take action themselves. It is left to the Royal College of Midwives congress motion to demand that healthworkers get “the substantial early pay rise they deserve”.

Other unions in their motions also raise the late lockdown, insufficient PPE and testing and the lack of protection of care homes and the scandal of privatisation and outsourcing that have undermined and exposed the emergency services. All three rail unions – RMT, the drivers’ union ASLEF, and the Transport Salaried Staff Association – call for the industry to be taken back into public ownership to protect jobs and services in a period of reduced traveller numbers. In addition, the RMT demands that the Blairite Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan should take a lead by ending the privatisation of cleaning on London Underground.

It is the issue of how to protect jobs that is central to congress. The Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) draws comparisons with the post-war Labour government and its policies of nationalisation, council house building, and the establishment of the NHS: “Congress believes that just as there was a demand for change in 1945, this is the moment for the labour movement to assert an ambitious agenda rooted in our values of equality, collectivism and universalism”. They call for the re-nationalisation of Royal Mail, BT and “the establishment of a publicly-owned Post Bank through the Post Office network, reunited with Royal Mail”.

The GMB general workers’ union motion refers to the poll finding that “only 12% of people want life to return to how it was”. It calls for a ‘new economy’ but sees this being achieved through a central role for unions in the TUC’s proposed National Recovery Council. But this blurs the class lines and creates illusions that partnership with the employers and the Tory government that defends workers’ interests is possible and even desirable.

Unfortunately, while the motion from Unite does mention “using public ownership” to create a new economy it also calls on the TUC “to build alliances with industry”. But as both unions are experiencing in British Airways (BA), who are brutally attacking the workforce, the class interests of the employers are diametrically opposed to the interests of the workers, especially so in this period of crisis. Of course, both sides have campaigned for government subsidies and resources such as the furlough scheme but the bosses’ over-riding concern is for their profits. It is necessary for the unions to warn of how the employers will act to protect their interests at the workers’ expense. Unfortunately, a major weakness of the unions’ campaign at BA has been that the demand that the company be renationalised has hardly featured.

Of course, the unions need an industrial strategy and the warning to BA from Unite general secretary Len McCluskey of a strike ballot is essential. But in a fight such as this and many others, when consumer demand is low and the odds seem to favour the employer, the demand for public ownership is vital alongside the need for action. This situation also poses the need for the most militant methods of workers’ action, such as occupations, which also pose nationalisation.

Similarly in relation to the steel industry. In its motion the main steel union Community “firmly believes that with government backing, responsible ownership” is all that is necessary to maintain what is left of this industry. But in 2016, when Port Talbot steelworks was facing closure, even the Tory government along with the Labour-led Welsh government were forced because of the political pressure of the impending EU referendum and Welsh elections to support – albeit ‘temporarily’ and ‘partially’ – the re-nationalisation of the works. This demand came not from the steel unions’ leaders but the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), who organised a protest in the town. The plant has stayed open, although still in the hands of Tata. But once again it is under threat of a major scaling back of operations. Once again a strategy of militant action by steelworkers under the banner of re-nationalisation will be necessary to give confidence to workers and mobilise the community in a fight to effectively save the town.

The scale of the crisis will leave many union leaders feeling that the only option available to defend jobs, pay, pensions and terms and conditions is to enter into partnership. But that strategy is really a continuation of what many of them have carried out, albeit in a more disguised way, for decades. It is a recipe for disaster.

It is not that it is impossible to fight in this period but the movement must be armed with a programme of militant action, tied to a programme of socialist change that more and more must challenge and seek to replace the bosses’ profit system itself. The major lesson of the 1945 Labour government was that even far-going reforms cannot be secured let alone built on unless the majority of the economy is taken out of the hands of the capitalists and used as the basis for a socialist plan. This is still the only way to ensure that workers have a future of well-paid and secure employment and safe and healthy lives and environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the willingness of workers and young people in spite of everything to fight for a better life. Socialists have to maintain the pressure for the unions to have a programme which meets that demand.

Rob Williams