Britain’s Trades Union Congress: Left talk but no fight against Labour government

By Chris Marsden
13 September 2008

At the beginning of the week, the reports of what to expect at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) at Brighton were apocalyptic.

Amidst what is almost universally acknowledged as the worst economic situation for decades—and possibly since the 1930s—there was talk in the media of a new “Winter of Discontent”, or the conflict between the trade unions and the Labour government of James Callaghan that ended with the Conservatives coming to power under Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Ballots are planned for protest strikes in November against the government’s below-inflation 2.45 percent wage ceiling by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) civil service union, the National Union of Teachers, the local government union UNISON and the UCU college lecturers union, which involve up to one million workers. In addition, the Prison Officers Association (POA) called for a general strike against the government’s failure to rescind the anti-union laws. It also moved an amendment to add the word “strike” to demands for action against the government-imposed wage cap.

Prior to the congress, the TUC issued a series of reports highlighting the bitterness felt by many of its affiliate’s members, and called for the government to change course. A survey found that 13 percent of respondents—equivalent to three million workers—are not confident they will be in their job in a year’s time. Another found growing disenchantment in the workplace, with 42 percent of workers questioned believing their pay has not kept pace with inflation and 46 percent saying the amount of work asked of them has increased.

Another report, “Do the super rich matter?” pointed to the growth of a fabulously wealthy elite under the Labour Party governments. While one needed at least £50 million to be among the UK’s 200 wealthiest people in 1990, one would now need £400 million to be included. The report urged the government to raise taxes on those earning more than £100,000 a year.

The TUC also criticised the “big six” energy firms for making £1.6 billion last year, while raising prices by 42 percent, and called for a windfall tax on power companies to fund a rebate for poor households.

As the congress events unfolded, the unions’ threats were exposed as largely empty bluster, meant to mollify and deceive their own discontented membership.

Delegates backed the idea of some sort of “coordinated action, a national demonstration and joint days of action” against the government’s pay policy, but voted down the strike call demanded by the POA. Its call for a general strike over the anti-union laws was also rejected, supported only by the RMT transport union.

Writing in the pro-Labour New Statesman, Jeremy Dear, the nominally “left” national secretary of the National Union of Journalists, commented cynically, “So we’re ready to threaten the government with a series of leaflets and angry newspaper articles—but no TUC-led industrial action.”

The TUC, far from seeking a confrontation with the government, is doing everything possible to avoid one. Labour is heading towards electoral disaster, with the Independent newspaper’s “poll of polls” showing its support “flatlining” while the Conservatives are set for “an overall majority of 174 seats”.

Without the support of the trade unions, Labour would be finished. They provide fully £9 out of every £10 received by the party. Yet far from mobilising against Labour, the TUC’s most strenuous efforts were made to oppose any leadership challenge to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. TUC President Dave Prentis said of Brown, “I believe he will continue to be [prime minister] until the next election. Of course we want him to. He is the leader of the Labour Party and he is Prime Minister of this country.”

The most likely leadership challenge to Brown is from the Blairite Foreign Secretary David Miliband. This prompted one of the few genuinely angry reactions from a leading union bureaucrat. Interviewed by the Observer on the eve of the TUC congress, Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of UNITE, “accused Miliband, in a stream of swearwords, of being ‘smug’ and ‘arrogant’,” the paper reports.

“In terms that caused fury on the right of the party, he also said Miliband would take the country back to the ‘failings of Blairism’ and could be a worse choice as Prime Minister than the Tory leader David Cameron.”

Simpson may as well have saved his breath, as Miliband and the rest of Labour’s cabinet took part in a series of high-profile media events to make clear their support for Brown. The foreign secretary said Brown would “prove people wrong” by winning the next general election.

At a private dinner with the TUC leaders Wednesday, Brown was able to give what was reported as “relaxed, 20-minute speech” during which he “cracked jokes” and was “was warmly received”. More than a dozen cabinet members joined him, including Miliband.

Brown did not deign to address the TUC conference, left instead to Chancellor Alistair Darling. Before this appearance, the TUC had officially backed calls for a rather paltry £1 billion windfall tax on the energy companies. To put this tax in perspective, Blair and Brown levied a much larger £4.5 billion surcharge on the privatized utilities in 1997.

Again conflict was predicted as Brown had already rejected the windfall tax in favour of a scheme to provide some aid for loft insulation. Gerry Doherty, general secretary of transport union TSSA, said, “Darling will get a tough time from the public sector unions. There is bound to be some sort of demonstration.”

At the event, only a small number of UCU college lecturers held up banners saying that food, housing and education were “not an additional extra”.

Darling took the occasion to call for pay restraint and to reject calls for a windfall tax on the energy companies. Michael White of the Guardian summed up the response of delegates as, “They didn’t dance in the aisles, but they didn’t riot either”.

To complete this somewhat pathetic picture, Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman’s speech was supposed to be a sop to workers’ anger at growing social inequality, and provide something the trade unions could cite approvingly.

Though she stated that the inequality of opportunity between “the rich and poor” and “the north and the south” must be overcome, she dropped references to “socioeconomic class” in her published speech.

The TUC bureaucrats gathered at Brighton are fully aware that they are sitting on a powderkeg of social and political discontent. The rhetoric of the lefts and the call for protest strikes are an attempt to provide a safety valve through which to release these tensions, but nothing more. That is why, even now, the only discussion of a break with the Labour Party at the congress was confined to a fringe meeting hosted by the Morning Star, the daily paper of the ever-declining Stalinist Communist Party of Britain. PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka vaguely called for a new party and Bob Crow of the RMT argued that there would be a need for a new party at some point, while UNITE General Secretary Derek Simpson reportedly argued for changing the Labour Party from within.

The entire union bureaucracy is opposed to any struggle that might threaten the fundamental interests of the major corporations or the Labour government. They are not the representatives of the working class, but social policemen who owe their privileged status to their intimate relations with big business and the state apparatus at municipal and national levels.

Control of union assets is one source of their privileges, but it does not translate into a desire to defend their members. As a definite social layer, their existence is bound up with maintaining a position as valued “social partners” of industry and government.

It was possible for the unions to secure certain gains and social reforms from the employers as long as economic life was largely organised on the basis of national production. But with the development of globalised production, the defence of jobs and living standards now demands a coordinated international struggle of the working class led on the basis of irreconcilable opposition to the profit system. The union bureaucracy has developed in the opposite direction. It has abandoned the struggle for reforms and integrated itself ever more closely into the apparatus of corporate management and the state.

As a result of their repeated betrayals, the unions have lost over half their membership from their post-war peak in the 1970s. The number of employed union members fell to just 28 percent in 2007. But even this is a distorted figure, since union density in the public sector is 59 percent, compared with just 16.1 percent in the private sector.

The full extent of the political decay of the trade unions found its most finished expression in a call meant to coincide with the congress issued by Rory Murphy, the former head of the Amicus union, now part of UNITE.

Writing for Personnel Today, Murphy recommended the TUC change its “outdated” name to something like the “Organisation for Workers’ Rights or The Centre for Improvement” and then seek a merger with the main employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry.

He urged, “If the TUC is unsure of its role, and can’t change, might the unthinkable need contemplating? If we are truly to make progress as a society, should the TUC consider amalgamating with the CBI to fight for fairness and justice for all workers and employers? Are the aims of both organisations so widely apart that such an idea is a non-starter? After all, what is the real difference in seeking ‘to improve the economic or social conditions of workers’ and helping ‘create and sustain conditions for business to compete and prosper for all’.”

There is no way that the unions, organising millions of workers as they still do, will not experience an eruption of opposition to the government within their ranks. The TUC congress confirms, however, that workers within the unions, as well as those who are un-organised, are faced with mounting a combined offensive against the union bureaucracy that is just as fundamental as that they must wage against the government and the employers. This requires the construction of independent rank-and-file workplace organisations to take the struggle out of the hands of the union leaders, as part of a broad political movement for the construction of a genuinely socialist and internationalist leadership.

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