By Sammy Barker
The 2012 Trade Union Congress was notable for three positions which appear to be historic, and one which has great immediate importance.
“Well Brothers. You’ve been thinking about this for144 years. Now… I don’t want to rush you but… Are you really sure?” (1)
Thus, with panache, Frances O’Grady began her speech as the General Secretary Elect, the first woman to lead the TUC. Having secured nominations representing 90% of the affiliated membership, she was elected unopposed.
Her victory represents the culmination of the feminisation of the workforce in the UK, and their progression into a majority of all trade union membership (including non-TUC affiliates).
The long expansion of trade union membership after World War II ended with the return of the Tory government in 1979. Membership reached a post-war high of nearly 13,000,000 members, this number nearly halved by the time of the return of a Labour government in 1997. Membership of unions then stagnated, but stopped declining under the less offensive policy between 1997 and 2010.
The question now is whether Frances O’Grady’s victory represents a new chapter of trade union history which sees the return of membership growth. Young workers, whether employed or not, need to be won to membership and the leadership of the unions. For this to happen, they need to see that unions are powerful organisations to raise living standards for the working class.
Given that the workforce is ever more female, and more ethnically diverse, then Frances O’Grady’s election could be a signpost to that development.
“And Sisters, will you join me in giving notice to anyone who thinks women are the weaker sex – you better think again” (2)
Much of the TUC policy making involves forcing different objectives into a common position. Sometimes the tensions are outright contradictory, and other times chaotic, diffuse or qualified. The priority is unity in the final decision. Hence only one motion was defeated in three and a half days of policy debate – RMT’s proposal for a referendum on the EU with the demand for a UK withdrawal.
But the tension in agreed policies can rarely be fully diffused. And so it was with the issue of banking reform. The General Council published a statement on “Banking Reform” which was endorsed by Congress.
The statement addressed three major issues for public policy – “financial stability and avoiding a repeat of the crash of 2008; excessive remuneration in the sector; and the vital question of how banks can be made to support the real economy”(3)
The statement lays out a number of solutions including: – turning the government ownership of RBS into 100% ownership as a State Investment Bank; increasing lending to small and medium enterprises; taxing banks to promote diversification through a “graduated banking levy”; democratising the governance of banks; heavier taxing of bankers remuneration; and greater regulation of banking.
Congress did not end at simply adopting this. In a move that Seamus Milne tweeted as “historic”, Congress carried the FBU motion which reads, in part; “Congress believes the economic chaos and devastation sparked by the major banks and financial institutions should be ended through full public ownership of the sector and the creation of a publicly owned banking service, democratically and accountably managed.”
Clearly, this is considerably more radical than the General Council statement. The tension in policy was evident in debate when Brendan Barber the outgoing General Secretary, in offering the General Council support for the FBU motion, suggested that nationalising the banks was so prohibitively expensive that it will not be carried out by a Labour government.
Doubtless this debate will run further yet, but however it is understood, it is evident that the trade unions believe that government direction of finance is an essential part of resolving the economic crisis. This is a major development..
For much of its history, the TUC has been generally supported the international policy of British governments. Indeed in the period after World War II, the TUC acted in the international union movement as a storefront for the UK and US imperialism. There have been occasional breaks with this stance, such as opposition to the Suez war in 1956. On that occasion there was anyway a split between the US and British governments. But in recent years, there has been much greater independence in foreign policy debates. For example, in the run-up to the 2003 war against Iraq, the General Council voted twice against the war.
One of the prime indicators of this change has been the issue of Palestine. For many years support for the Palestinians was definitely the province of a minority of trade unions.
This began to noticeably change with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza 2008/9 leading to large demonstrations in Britain. At the 2009 TUC there was a successful fight to get Congress to agree a boycott of settlement goods. This position was reinforced with a further successful motion in 2010 which extended the boycott to companies which profit from the Wall and occupation.
After the attack upon the Mavi Marmara and the Freedom Flotilla in 2011, the TUC called for unions to review bilateral links with Israeli organisations, including Histradrut.
This year’s conference went further again when it carried a motion calling for lifting of the siege of Gaza. The motion directed the TUC to send a delegation to Gaza, in conjunction with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). This motion was carried unanimously by conference, much to the shock of the Trade Union Friends of Israel group who were watching from gallery seats.
The PSC organised a fringe meeting in the lunchtime immediately after the vote was carried. A packed meeting heard contributions from Len McCluskey, General Secretary of UNITE , Chris Tansley President of UNISON, Christine Blower General Secretary of the NUT, Mick Whelan General Secretary ASLEF, and Billy Hayes General Secretary CWU, who moved the successful motion. At the meeting Prof Ilan Pappe said that the “unanimous decision by the TUC on Gaza was an historic decision. …. Israel is really frightened of fact-finding missions …. To go and visit Gaza is not just a procedural idea.”
How deep this blow is to supporters of the Israeli government was made clear by Martin Bright in an article in the Jewish Chronicle titled “Community needs to rethink how to make Israel’s case “. He wrote: “Supporters of Israel are losing the battle of ideas in the UK. This has probably been true for some time if only they would admit it. But after this year’s TUC conference there is no longer any question about it, on the left at least …. When David Taub was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the UK he made it his personal mission to reach out to the trade union movement. But they have no intention of listening .… this motion was passed unanimously. The consensus in large swathes of the left is quite simply this: Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians the oppressed … But who will now take the argument to those on campus, in trade unions and in Westminster who wish Israel harm? This question needs answering before it’s too late.”(4)
Generally, the media coverage of the TUC Congress is notable by its absence. Despite being the largest voluntary organisations in the country, the deliberations of trade unions representing six million workers is treated as insignificant by the media. However, the fact that there was a move to coordinated strike action against austerity did provoke some coverage, albeit of a generally bilious character.
Two major debates outlined the extent of active opposition, and the options for that opposition.
The Prison Officers Association (POA) proposed a motion which supported coordinated action by the unions “including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike”. The other was a composite motion moved by UNISON which promoted a range of initiatives against austerity including the proposal to “coordinate unions which take strike action to challenge austerity policies that are loading the costs of the crisis onto workers in both the public and private sectors, while government cuts taxes for the rich”.
Both motions were carried. There were substantial opposition to the POA motion, whilst the UNISON motion was carried without opposition.
The POA motion was dependent upon the vote of UNISON for its carriage. The tone of the motion is decidedly abstract with the assumption that a general strike has a didactic purpose for the working class. Some of the motion’s supporters seem to believe that the decisive question to answer is whether a general strike would be legal or not. This is peculiar, given that legality would probably be the last consideration should workers actually move to general strike action. It is even odder when it’s taken into account that the POA is barred in law from taking industrial action – although correctly, this hasn’t prevented unofficial action by the union.
In reality, the TUC’s decisions are an expression of a strong likelihood of coordinated strike action against the public sector wage freeze. UNISON is at the heart of that struggle and is presumably reluctant to rule out any possible support. In moving the UNISON led composite, General Secretary Dave Prentis said “We are never stronger than when we coordinate action, when we speak with one voice… if the employers refuse to negotiate, if the attacks continue – we will deliver the coordinated action called for in this composite.” (5)
Given the stance of the government, and its role as “the employers” here, then some coordinated strike action now is inevitable. The timetable for this is likely to be sometime after the major TUC demonstration against austerity on October 20.
Aside from these three potentially historic points, and the tremendously significant UNISON composite, the TUC continued much as it is done in recent years. It’s notable contribution to the equalities agenda was continued in 2012. Motions were carried which, opposed the cuts in the Equality and Human Rights Commission; opposed the watering down of the Equality Act 2010; highlighted the importance of acting upon gender equality and opposed disability hate crimes.
A very good motion from the Black Workers Conference called for renewed action against institutionalised discrimination and for re-establishing the Stephen Lawrence task force. The Professional Footballers Association placed a motion on the continuing fight against racism which was amended by the CWU and UNISON, calling for a national event against racism and fascism alongside campaigns such as One Society Many Cultures, UAF, etc. Emergency motions were carried in support of international students at London Metropolitan University; and in support of South African mine workers and unions.
The fringe meetings were well attended with notable audiences for the events in Latin America with meetings on Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela. Congress carried a motion on Colombia that supported trade unionists in that country and supported the peace process. This followed a moving appeal to conference by Carmen Mayusa from the Anthoc Health Workers Union in Colombia.
Overall it has to be concluded that 2012 appears to be a significant year for the TUC.
1. Frances O’Grady speech – TUC website
3. General Council statement on Banking Reform, – TUC website
4. Jewish Chronicle 13 September
5. As quoted in Morning Star 12 September