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TUC Conference: A New Beginning?

By John Calderon

 

The TUC conference this year comes after significant political events which have helped shape the context in which the union leaders and delegations have considered their strategies and tactics.

 

1. the rise of the Labour Party into a mass political organisation

2. the failure of the Conservative government to establish itself on a firm footing

 

So what happened?

 

Significantly, there was a far more confident atmosphere amongst delegates and some progress made in providing leadership to the millions of workers in unions and those sympathetic, but scared to join, or unable to join because of their precarious work situations. Conference itself has become more professionally organised, well run and chaired and debates reflect genuine differences of opinion, although most of the hard talk takes place outside the conference hall.

 

 

The first debate I listened to was on workers representation in the board room of private companies. The Tory government had mentioned enabling worker representation, but had since been forced to back track by the employers organisations, leaving it up to companies to decide. The TUC motion seemed to follow the initial government option of a workers' rep on the board. In the conference debate, some union leaders refused to accept this option arguing it would be a fig leaf and impossible to hold a board member to account given the corporate rules companies are subject to.

 

Another debate I followed was on health and safety regulation and the Grenfell tower fire tragedy. Conference appeared united on the need to strengthen effective regulation and ensure fires such as this one never happen again under normal circumstances.

 

The TUC report to conference reported that there has been a sharp fall in union membership, as the public sector is decimated by budget cuts, while more insecure employment grows.

 

At the fringe meeting organised by the Trades Union Co-ordinating Group, the question of pay and privatisation was discussed by leaders from UCU (university lecturers), POA (prison officers), RMT (rail and transport), FBU (fire brigade) and PCS (civil servents). All are smaller, professional or craft based unions, and so easier to mobilise over work place issues; they also have a more combative membership and leadership having suffered under the pay cap imposed by governments since 2010. The larger general unions and the main education unions were absent from this debate, yet here is where the greatest damage to pay and ongoing privatisation is taking place. The contribution from the PCS was of interest as they did not just want to co-ordinate the ballots and industrial action necessary to breach the Tory austerity pay cap, they argued unions needed to be effectively preparing for the ballot. By conducting a consultative ballot (before the substantive ballot on pay), the union leadership would use the information gained to understand where the strongest and the weakest sections were and work with those groups to both mobilise to get the vote out in the strongest sections, but also support and work with the weaker sections to win support for industrial action.

 

However the highlight of the meeting was the participation of the striking MacDonald workers (BFAWU) who explained the 19th Century conditions they work in and their determination to be recognised as a union and improve pay and conditions for all. The difficulty in organising in such an industry with mainly young workers who often move on to other work, or go into further education is well known, so to achieve sections strong enough to take strike action was impressive.

 

 

The conference debate on pay and the public sector  which took place after the fringe meeting was interesting. The demand is for 5% for all public sector workers, not just those in uniforms (police, nurses etc) as this divisive tactic ignores the support work of other staff such as admin staff which contributes to the service provided. Unison, the largest union in this sector, concentrated, as is usual, on campaigning and getting the public onside (although polling is now telling us it already is). Only if campaigning fails, and that could take several months to determine, only then should there be joint ballots for industrial action. The risk with that strategy is that by then the branches will be tired and demotivated and so hard to enthuse to win a 50% ballot in favour. The PCS position as noted above is to prepare for the ballot from day one. The contrast  in approach is one for Unite members to reflect on.

 

I also carried out interviews with delegates. These were generally union officials or national executive members, so not your average worker. However, all said the rejuventated Labour Party was an opportunity to protect what we had, revise employment laws to rebalance workers rights, and especially maintain investment and growth,  defend regulations and health and safety to protect workers and the economy. The RMT official was clear that Labour had to build council housing, tax corporate wealth and nationalise to create new state run industries so not just the railways. Discussing politics with a small group of retired miners  from Yorkshire was also interesting. Their experience of Labour had been one of betrayal as the New Labour leadership had adopted Tory policies; so they strongly supported the socialist policies in the Labour manifesto.

 

 

Re-nationalisation was crucial to reinstate services and utilities to the standards necessary for a modern nation and manufacturing had to be nurtured back to life by state intervention. The miners were particularly aware of the role heavy industry and  advanced technology plays in society. Social problems increased with the loss of manufacturing and mining, and call centres and other cheap service industries are no substitute as wages are low, contracts insecure and the work can be demeaning.

 

Two teaching unions have now merged (NEU), reducing the divide and rule opportunities for the employers. The new union has nearly half a million teachers. The delegate I spoke to considered pay and work loads to be biggest issues confronting them and only a Labour government would tackle these problems. The fragmentation of the state school sector was a concern, (begun under New Labour) so different pay and conditions in the same boroughs, funding issues and policy changes would all need to be addressed.

 

The other topic discussed with delegates was the effect Brexit may have on their members and work.

 

On Brexit, most delegates understood the rank and file had been split over the way to best deal with the referendum. The RMT, which campaigned against the EU and for withdrawal, sees Brexit as an opportunity to re-establish state run or state influenced businesses and services, of which rail and bus services (currently privatized) are their priority. They also see the future for Europe in terms of a federation of states which is based on the labour movement, respectful of terms and conditions and able to support a state run sector of the economy.  Other union delegates also emphasised a workers government based Europe which would guarantee a strong public sector. Delegates from other unions understood also the EU had led to deregulation and loss of rights for workers, while being outside meant an immediate loss of influence in European issues and the risk of damage to the economy, human rights being affected, and migration rights affected for both immigrants into Britain and the 2 million British in Europe.

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