The motions on the agenda for the TUC, meeting in Liverpool from 14 to 17 September, show that Britain's trade-union establishment is far from facing up to the battles ahead.
Unemployment is heading towards three million. Cuts in public services will soon be sharper than ever before.
Workers at Vestas, Visteon, Prisme, and Thomas Cook have occupied workplaces to try to save jobs. The Vestas workers have called for nationalisation where a workplace is shut by a private owner. Anti-cuts campaigns are emerging around the country.
Yet the agenda contains only one motion directly about jobs, number 3 from Unite. And it concludes with nothing more than two feeble, plaintive calls on the Government, to:
"review its current plans for statutory redundancy pay and to support the proposals contained in the Private Member’s Bill currently being considered in Parliament which would raise the maximum weekly pay to the equivalent of average earnings and maintain such a link in the future... introduce a temporary short-term working compensation scheme to ensure essential skills are not lost to the economy."
TSSA adds a amendment: “Congress congratulates those workers fighting to keep their jobs, including those taking action such as the occupation of workplaces in order to raise awareness and stop closures.” But... congratulations? Is that really what workers pay union dues for, to have our leaders condescendingly "congratulate" us when we take action?
A number of other motions mention jobs in passing, but none is decisively stronger.
In an amendment to motion 19, from the Bakers' Union, the CWU says: "The time and conditions are right to create one million Government-employed 'green jobs', working on renewable energy, sustainable public transport and energy-efficient house building projects, thereby tackling unemployment and taking positive action on climate change for the benefit of all people.”
Note: "Government-employed". That means extensive nationalisation. But then why has CWU general secretary Billy Hayes not added his name to those of the 16 union leaders who signed a letter to the Guardian on 3 August backing the Vestas wind-turbine blade workers? Why has the CWU as a national union - not just the CWU rep at the local delivery office - not actively backed the workers?
There are a lot more motions on public service cuts, not surprisingly since unions' membership is now heavily concentrated in public services.
The one with some active commitment is from the NUT:
"Prior to the general election, Congress agrees that the General Council should organise, or assist in the preparation and co-ordination of, a major publicity campaign, public meetings and a national demonstration, and, as appropriate, calls for industrial action, with the theme of 'no to unemployment, no cuts in pay, pensions or public services'."
There is also an interesting motion from the CWU on working-class political representation.
"Congress recognises the lack of adequate representation at political level for the members of affiliated unions. Congess notes that New Labour, as currently constituted, is now failing to attract the support of our members and that its vote at the 2009 European Election reached an historic low. The present Government’s policy of continuing privatisation, cuts in Government spending and failure to remove the anti-trade union-laws is unlikely to change this in the near future.
"Congress therefore calls on the General Council to convene, at the earliest opportunity, a conference of all affiliated unions to consider how to achieve effective political representation for our members".
If this does not get passed, CWU should push for the unions affiliated to the Labour Party to call such a general conference, so that discussion about unions' relations to the Labour Party can be made accessible to the rank and file and not confined to cabals of top leaders.
The main motions on public services, from Unite and PCS, limit themselves to general opposition to cuts and wistful suggestions that public finances could be redressed some other way.
Unison: "oppose cuts in public services and pensions... seek union engagement in efficiency programmes... promote the involvement of staff and unions in improving services... fair and increased taxation... a payback tax on profits above a certain level on financial institutions that have benefited from public money".
PCS: "protection of public services and an end to privatisation... ending the systematic tax evasion by corporations and individuals and the current tax privileges of the wealthy... opposing wage cuts, and rejecting any public sector pay freeze... demanding government action, including nationalisation, to protect and create jobs".
Of the left unions, RMT seems to have used its motions to the TUC rather in the same fashion that a grouplet like the Spartacists or Workers' Power might use a chance to put motions to a broad conference organised by SWP, SP, or AWL, i.e. to "make propaganda".
However, its chief effort to "make propaganda" looks to have been successful. RMT's motion calling for the TUC to back the Communist Party of Britain's "People's Charter" (RMT general secretary Bob Crow is close to the CPB) has a more-or-less supportive amendment from Unite, and NUT's motion also endorses the People's Charter in passing. The practical thing to be done about the Charter, however, is only to "assist in achieving one million signatures" for it, not industrial action for the Charter's demands.
The Prison Officers' Association, of all people, has a good "propaganda" motion, with active commitment, on anti-union laws.
"Congress calls upon all affiliated trade unions and the General Council to organise a series of street demonstrations throughout the United Kingdom, and selective days on which trade unions will break the anti-trade union laws by taking a general strike. Further, these activities should continue until such time as the Government changes this anti-trade-union and anti-working-class legislation".
Unfortunately, the FBU, another left union, uses its opportunity to put motions to push for boycotting Israel. Difficult for the TUC be militant against British bosses? Well, then, it can at least be militant against Israeli workers, an easier target.
Or, at least, sound militant. The FBU motion has all the Israelophobic downsides of general boycottism, with their inevitable anti-Jewish implications if taken seriously - it calls for the TUC to "review" relations with the Israeli unions because of their failure to oppose Israel's attack on Gaza, though the TUC does not cut links with other union federations over such issues - but proposes no trade-union action, only to "promote a targeted consumer-led boycott... encourage trade unionists to boycott Israeli goods..."
GMB has an amendment to soften the FBU, deleting the hint at cutting links with the Israeli unions and reducing the boycott to one only of goods produced in settlements in the Occupied Territories. (But how do you identify which those are?).
The TUC agenda underlines the need for a rank and file movement, across the unions, to push for solidarity, for a workers' plan adequate to the crisis, for union democracy, for calling the leaders to account, and for replacing them where necessary.
We're not "against the Palestinian workers". In fact, Workers' Liberty has a rather more extensive record of supporting Palestinian workers' struggles than the rest of the British left, for instance in our coverage of Hamas strike-briking and the RMT protests our comrades helped organise in support of Arab-Israeli rail workers discriminated against and sacked earlier this year.
Moreover, we are for the Palestinian people's struggle for national liberation. However:
The problem is that boycotts will, inevitably and for perfectly understandable reasons, alienate the great bulk of the Israeli working class and population, weakening the Israeli internationalists and strengthening the Israeli government and right wing - and thus hurt, not help, the Palestinians. We're not saying that the Palestinians should wait for the majority of Israeli workers to support them until they struggle against the occupation. But the surely you can see how whether a move strengthens or weakens internationalist class consciousness in the Israeli working class is of decisive importance for the future of that struggle.
What other countries do you advocate boycotts against? Turkey, because of its oppression of the Kurds? Russia, because of Chechnya? Iran? (But don't we oppose sanctions against Iran?) Etc etc. I'm not ruling out boycotts in all circumstances, of course, but in most cases socialists are rather more circumspect about calling for such measures, and for good reason.