The motion that caused the most controversy at this year’s TUC Congress (9-12 September) was from the Prison Officers’ Association, calling on the TUC at “the consideration and practicalities of a general strike”.
It resulted in a lively debate.
Unite, the largest voting bloc at Congress, agreed to support the resolution. Unite’s Steve Turner argued that it would be a “political strike” (rather than an industrial one). Unison also supported the motion. The union was opposed by more historically conservative unions such as the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, civil service managers’ union Prospect, shopworkers’ union USDAW and pilots’ union BALPA.
The passing of the motion represented the pressure that exists for the trade union movement to oppose the Tories. However, the motion seemed to mean different things to different people — for some, it expressed the need to properly build and co-ordinate industrial militancy; for others, it meant a one-day political protest strike.
The motion allowed the leaderships of the big unions to sound left-wing, despite their sell out of the pensions dispute.
The debate provided an important opportunity for trade unionists to discuss the need for coordinated action and the possibilities for organising it.
The TUC General Council also issued a statement of solidarity following the massacre of mine workers at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa. Although there was consensus around condemnation of the killings from a human-rights perspective, there was disagreement about the politics. The statement didn’t support the demands of the workers and their right strike, and outrageously expressed solidarity with the National Union of Mineworkers (the official union from which the Lonmin miners broke, and which was complicit in the state’s actions) and South African union federation COSATU “in their work to resolve the issues facing the mining industry and restore peace with justice in the platinum fields.”
The influence of the Communist Party of Britain (linked to the South African Communist Party, which is part of the government and also complicit in the massacre) in drafting the initial statement is clear. However slight amendments were made, and discussions in the delegations showed that the position of full support for the NUM could only be maintained if people were ignorant of the facts.
In another international debate, a motion from rail workers’ union RMT called for a referendum on EU membership and support for Britain’s withdrawal.
The debate was important because the working class across Europe is being made to pay the price for the crisis of capitalism, and the attitude the trade union movement takes to European unity will shape our ability to build a movement that can stop it. Elaine Jones from Unite argued against withdrawal from the EU. She said: “Our enemies are not the institutions of Europe, but the political representatives of the rich across Europe and in Britain”. She added that we need European-wide working-class answers to austerity and more links between workers. A campaign for withdrawal from Europe now would cut against that, and would only increase nationalism. The approach Syriza has taken in Greece was given as a positive example — a refusal to make any cuts or sacrifices to remain in the Eurozone or the EU, but a firm commitment to European unity.
The RMT motion was overwhelmingly defeated, and the debate was dominated by a discussion of what sort of movement trade unionists need across Europe.