The TUC held its 147th Congress from September 13-16 in Brighton. Many important issues were discussed: problems facing society, the organised workers’ movement, health and education, the direction of the economy, pensions, culture, and so on.
It seemed clear that a time-lag exists overall between the motions and General Council’s report on the one hand, and the mood of the workers’ movement on the other, particularly in the light of the path opened up with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
However, the motions and the composites were dealing with substantive issues. Many were dealing with actual issues at the work place, including in public services. The organised workers’ movement was searching for the way forward in the present circumstances. This was evident, for example, in the debate over the General Council’s statement on the EU, when delegates expressed scepticism over the Europe of the monopolies and its supposed guaranteeing of workers’ rights, and refused to give carte blanche to a Yes campaign in the projected referendum.
It was when the austerity agenda of the Cameron government was being confronted head-on, and the issue of fighting for the alternative was itself placed on the agenda, as it had been a number of years ago, and was again with Jeremy Corbyn’s stand, that Congress lit up with the fighting spirit and determination of the working class.
This was so, for example, in the debates on campaigning for public services and against the pay cap, and on the Trade Union Bill and building a campaign to stop government attacks.
Let us take the contribution of Unison general secretary Dave Prentis as an example. Speaking in the debate on public services, he said that “this is our time to smash the consensus”, voicing the new language of opposition, the voice of the delegates at Congress.
He said: “I’m representing Unison’s 1.3 million members who are keeping our public services going. One million women leading the way – nurses, dinner ladies, teaching assistants, social workers and so many more.
“Our people didn’t cause the recession, but they are now paying the price, decimated by the Tories’ austerity agenda. Our public services have been cut, closed down and privatised. Thousands are fearful for their jobs, and even more fearful for the essential services they provide. Looking after the sick and the vulnerable, caring for our children, and the elderly.”
Referring to Corbyn’s victory, Dave Prentis said: “But on Saturday our people, for the first time in a decade, heard a message of hope, a clarion call that there is another way. An alternative message that it doesn’t need to be like this. For the first time in a decade there is a new language about opposition, of challenge, of holding this vicious government to account as they slash and burn all we hold dear.”
Explaining that there have been £160bn of cuts across the board and local government and social care are teetering on the brink, Dave Prentis pointed out that the NHS is under siege, and there is in place a pay cap for another four years, on top of the five that it has already been imposed.
Dave Prentis concluded: “This is our time to smash the consensus that austerity is here to stay. It’s our time to create a new path that offers hope and opportunity for those already left behind. To set out an alternative to the cuts agenda, the privatising agenda, and to the pay freeze destroying lives.
“There’s now a clear message that there is another way. A society for fair pay for all, a society that cares, and an NHS Bevan would be proud of.
“Now is our time, with our movement leading the way strong and visible, with demonstrations, protests, lobbies, and co-ordinated action.
“The vicious Trade Union Bill will not stop us organising. It will not stop us striking, standing up for the lives of millions and protecting the vulnerable. We will make our union stronger and united we will build coalitions, and we will resist.
“We will be strong and we will defy, and if that takes us outside of the most draconian legislation in the western world so be it. Our union will remain true to our members.”
This sentiment of the way forward to achieve success, that something is different now, that now is the time of the working class, was echoed by many delegates, including those from PCS, the POA and the GMB.
That may be the lasting legacy of the 2015 TUC Congress – that the working class is on the move, that this is our time!
Campaign against Trade Union Bill Far from Over
Leading figures in the TUC have pointed out that the record books will show that the Conservative government’s first major act in office has been to attack the right to strike. The vote in the House of Commons on the second reading of the Trade Union Bill was conveniently timed with TUC Congress, they point out. However, while the Bill will now receive a third reading in November, the campaign against this bill is far from over. The TUC will continue to oppose it at each stage through Parliament. This is the sentiment of working people as a whole.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) also has concerns. There has been a ban on using agency workers in strike action since the 1970s, but the government is consulting on changing those regulations. The REC are not convinced that putting agencies and temporary workers into the middle of difficult industrial relations situations is a good idea for agencies, workers or their clients. The big recruitment agencies work in countries around the world. Most have signed up to the International Labour Organisation’s convention on private employment agencies. It states that “private employment agencies should not make workers available to a user enterprise to replace workers of that enterprise who are on strike”.
The Trade Union Bill has also been attacked by civil liberties organisations. Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights said the bill represented a “major attack on civil liberties”.
The proposals have also been criticised by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the trade group for the human resources sector, which said the bill was an “outdated response” to today’s challenges.
Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Vera Baird, said that legislation being put forward by the Conservatives is an “attack on civil liberties” and measures in the Trade Union Bill have been branded “ludicrous” and a potential “waste of police time”. Vera Baird has said that she does not want police officers out on the streets of Northumbria arresting someone because unions have not given two weeks’ notice if they intend to use a loudspeaker or carry a banner during a strike.
She said that restricting social media was an attack on free speech, adding: “The world of Twitter, Facebook and blogs is to allow people to express their opinions freely, as long as the comments are not defamatory”.
The TUC says that it will be exploring every avenue to stop the bill.
Birmingham Public Rally against the Trade Union Bill
Two hundred people from across the Midlands attended a public rally against the government’s Trade Union Bill at Carr’s Lane Church in Birmingham on September 21.
The billed speakers included Professor Keith Ewing, President of the Institute of Employment Rights, Candy Udwin, PCS Representative from the National Gallery, Gerard Coyne, Unite Regional Secretary, Ravi Subramanian, UNISON Regional Secretary, and Lee Barron, TUC Midlands Regional Secretary.
Lee Barron said: “The government’s Trade Union Bill is the biggest attack in thirty years. Not just against trade unions, but against our best chance of raising productivity, pay and demand. Because here is a simple truth: you can’t create wealth without the workforce. And you can’t spread that wealth around fairly without trade unions. If an employer believed we couldn’t strike, they wouldn’t bother to bargain. We wouldn’t have safe workplaces, we wouldn’t have paid holidays and we wouldn’t have equal pay. Nobody would deny that strikes can be inconvenient. But when it comes to a threat to the fundamental right to strike, the public are with us. Because that’s exactly what this government is doing. Attacking the very principle of the right to strike.”
(TUC Midlands Region)