After the formalities and back-slapping that mark the start of Congress, the first big debate was on Pensions. As I reported yesterday, we had a long and uncontroversial composite motion on the subject.
Paul Kenny from the GMB moved the composite, and other speakers included Janice Godrich, PCS President, the CWU’s Tony Kearns. One of the best was from Steve Kemp of the National Union of Mineworkers, who stuck the boot into the government, the bosses and pensioner poverty.
We all know and agree that Pensions Are Good and that Attacks On Pensions Are Bad. What we want to know is whether the unions’ leaderships are up for a fight about it. I’d have to say that the messages were mixed. There was a lot of anger and passion in the speeches (by TUC Congress standards, anyway). But it was short – way short – on strategy. Worse, there was a lot of self-congratulation on how well the unions are doing in defending pensions. That will come as news to those workers whose final-salary pension schemes have been closed, or to those new workers who find that their pension rights are worse than their colleagues’.
A speaker from Amicus (Ian Allison?) did say that the trade union movement has to discuss how it can use its political and industrial muscle to win this fight. And the UNISON speaker said that if the government did not see sense, they would be back out on the picket lines. Makes you wonder why they did not go back on the picket lines to follow up the well-supported strike action earlier this year when the government was plainly not seeing since.
Gerry Doherty, General Secretary of the TSSA, rightly argued that longer life expectancy should not have to mean a longer working life. He also explained the crisis in the Railway Pension Scheme. British Rail privatisation fragmented not just the railways themselves, but the RPS too, which as over 100 sections. Since each has its own separate and costly administration, it is not surprising that two-thirds of the sections are in deficit.
He accepted that it was the threat of industrial action that had led to the establishment of the rail pensions commission, and stated clearly that if the commission does not deliver, the TSSA will take strike action. But the TSSA is a union which hardly ever strikes, which recruits on the basis of not striking, and which has lots of managers amongst its membership. So if Doherty is going to deliver on his promise of industrial action, he is going to have to confront and change the union’s habits of a lifetime. Where there is a will, there is a way – and TSSA members will undoubtedly be willing to fight for their pensions given strong enough leadership.
The debate on public services followed a similar pattern. It was a good platform to denounce the government’s appalling attacks on public services and public service workers. PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka revealed that there was disagreement amongst TUC big cheeses about whether to build a public campaign or just stick to the lobbying approach, and that he and the PCS favoured a big public campaign that mobilize masses of people to demonstrate in defence of public services.
It might not surprise you that there are disagreements within the TUC, but it seems to be considered faintly distasteful to admit that people disagree with each other, hence the “crushing unanimity” (as one fellow delegate described it to me) of Congress ‘debates’. Mind you, Mark Serworka’s stance might have been more impressive if PCS had not dropped one of its crucial campaigning proposals in the compositing of this debate.