TUC Congress delegate's diary: Sleep-walking through the crisis

Submitted by Newcastle on 24 September, 2009 - 8:28 Author: by Patrick Murphy, NUT National Executive (pc)

In his opening address on Monday 14 September, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber’s theme was that workers and trade unions had had a “mixed year”. We had lived under a Labour government which “we sometimes applauded and sometimes led us to distraction”.

He made lots of very easy attacks on greedy city traders and socially irresponsible capitalists, apparently oblivious to the fact that for the last 12 years in power New Labour have slavishly created the conditions for these people to thrive.

They have even insisted that only these pirates know how best to run public services such as health and education. Driven to distraction? Better if Brendan were driven to resistance.

The extent to which the trade union bureaucracy is still wedded slavishly to New Labour became more obvious in the first debate, on defending the NHS. Every speaker used the US Republican attacks on the NHS as their backdrop. Speakers from Unison in particular were determined to put the most positive gloss on the government’s record.

Before arguing for any improvements in funding or conditions of service they were sure to stress that the NHS of 2009 was a very different and much-improved institution to that of 1997 with “record levels of investment”, etc.

Next came a debate on racism and the fight against the far right. You need to bear in mind that the word “debate” is used only loosely in the case of the TUC. There are very few votes against anything, motions are composited so that contradictory clauses are contained within the same text, and most speeches just repeat or reinforce points made by previous speakers.

By far the best speech in this session was by Maria Exall of CWU who argued that telling workers to vote for anyone but the BNP was not an effective strategy for fighting fascism and racism. She cited the example of the Tory Mayor Boris Johnson, who is busily dismantling anti-racist and other equality initiatives in London.

The highlight of Monday was on the fringe. I went to a meeting on “Solidarity with Vestas” organised by RMT, CWU and PCS, with Mike Godley from Vestas on the platform as well as Bob Crow. The three unions are working on a trade union campaign to respond to climate change and promote conversion plans, modelled on the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan from the 1970s, and will be inviting all unions to take part.

The lowest point also came on the fringe. A meeting organised by the Institute for Employment Rights on the subject “Politics Has Failed” was billed as an opportunity to debate political representation for unions.

We were subjected to at least nine platform speakers (I lost count), after which a much reduced meeting was told: “We at the IER don’t have debate from the floor at our meetings. If you want to take part in the debate you need to join the IER”.

The speakers arguments varied from Mark Serwotka’s claim that PR would transform the landscape and create the opportunity to rebuild workers political representation to the continuing faith of Len McCluskey (Unite) in the fight to reclaim Labour. Mark is right that PR is the more democratic form of bourgeois rule but wrong, I think, that it contains the answer to the problem of creating a collective workers’ voice in politics. It is at best a second or third order question. McCluskey and his like would carry a lot more weight if there was some evidence that their unions had used their huge influence and power to carry out any fight to reclaim Labour.

When, I wanted to ask, was the last time Unite or Unison had moved a motion on Labour’s NEC or conference floor to repeal the anti-union laws? Maybe that’s why they don’t allow questions and debate from the floor.

Day Two (Tuesday 15 September) started with a debate on education and skills. The contribution to make mouths fall open came from Hank Roberts. Hank is a teacher who belongs to all three teacher unions as an expression of his belief that they should unite to create one union.

Here he was speaking as a ATL delegate, whistle-blower and reinstated school rep after an attempt to victimise him for revealing the obscene bonuses paid to his Headteacher. When he and the other union reps at his school in Brent were reinstated, it was revealed that the Head had been paid a staggering £400,000 in one year and that the senior management team had collected a total of £1m.

The last time Gordon Brown spoke to Congress as prime minister, the response was distinctly frosty. This time, Brown received warm applause for such vapid promises as “a blacklist of unco-operative tax havens” and “an increase in the minimum wage every year”. So “co-operative” tax havens are fine, then? His “well done” to “our armed forces” got big applause. Have our horizons really fallen so low?

Brown got a polite reception bordering on the positive, with a half-hearted attempt to generate a standing ovation which fell flat. When the speech began, the PCS delegation held up signs reading “No Cuts”. But after a Q&A session in which Brown mainly avoided answering simple direct questions (why not give the minimum wage to apprentices, are you still committed to the same spending levels on state pupils as exist in private schools?) Brendan Barber bade him farewell with the following words: “Thank you Gordon. You have a fantastically big job to do and you will need all the support we can give you”.

The President of my Union was sitting with a card with 284 votes on it. Three days into the Congress, it hadn’t yet been used yet. You would be pressed to find a workplace or branch meeting with so little difference or dissent.

Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, livened the congress on Wednesday 16th, perhaps unintentionally.

At the back of the hall, unnoticed by most delegates, was a group of Vestas workers and RMT supporters holding aloft papers reading “Save Vestas”. When Miliband mentioned that he could see them and began to address the Vestas issue, the hall erupted in applause for the workers and it took around three minutes before Miliband was able to resume. Most (but not all) of the hall stood to applaud. The strength of feeling was such that Miliband had to join the applause in an attempt to skilfully manage the situation.

He had no end of “sympathy” for the ‘“tragedy” of the Vestas redundancies ,but made absolutely no commitment to save the jobs. When pressed in a Q&A to nationalise Vestas, he replied that running wind turbine factories was not what governments did best.. “It’s not what we are good at”, he said to the sound of a loud heckle from a Vestas worker: “You’re not good at anything”.

In the afternoon a motion moved by Brian Caton of POA and seconded by Bob Crow called for demonstrations and general strikes as part of a campaign to repeal the anti-union laws.

The PCS, who spoke against, were probably right though that trade union laws are generally broken in specific disputes about issues of immediate concern to members, rather in strikes about the laws per se. In any case, like most unions, they did not believe they could mobilise their members around general strike action against the anti-union laws.

It must be possible to construct a motion which make it more difficult for left unions to dodge the issue and might even be passed. The gist of it would be that in the event of any affiliate being threatened by the anti-union laws in the course of a dispute, the TUC will give its full support up at and including co-ordinated action.

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