TUC Congress was still in session as Solidarity went to press (15 September), but there were signs of a bit more rancour in what is normally a somnambulant affair.
The Congress began with a very downbeat address by TUC president Leslie Manasseh, deputy general secretary of the right-wing led union Prospect. Delegates were left wondering whether Corbynmania had completely passed the bureaucracy by.
Once the debates began, there were numerous name checks for the new Labour leader. More importantly, a number of unions got up to oppose a Community motion calling for more social partnership, although the motion did carry. Matt Wrack from the FBU quoted the Wobblies that the working class and the employing class have no interests in common.
Much of the discussion revolved around the Trade Union Bill. Despite the rhetoric, most unions and the TUC are planning little of substance to oppose the Bill. After a rally in July organised by the Institute for Employment Rights, no mobilisations were organised over the summer.
Discussion was led off by Len McCluskey for Unite. For all the comparisons with the civil rights movement and talk of defying the law, the resolution had few practical proposals. The TUCG group of left unions have at least called a rally and lobby on 13 October, which should provide another focus for activity. But unions should be planning daily activity to resist the Bill between now and the third reading in November.
An RMT motion calling for “generalised strike action”, which was not part of the main composite, after much wrangling, and passed with General Council reservations. “Generalised strike action” could mean minimal coordination but really meant a full general strike.
There were few other controversial debates scheduled. On the European Union referendum, the GMB had tabled a resolution calling for withdrawal if Cameron gets an opt-out on workers’ rights, while USDAW offered a mostly uncritical pro-EU motion. However these were withdrawn to support a General Council motion, which noted the neoliberal direction of the EU and threatened to reassess the TUC’s decades-long pro-European stance.
Corbyn got a warm reception from the Congress. He promised to fight the anti-union laws and repeal the legislation in favour of positive rights for workers in a future Labour government. He argued that Labour and the unions were organically linked and that workers should have a voice in politics. Corbyn railed against austerity and so-called welfare reform and spoke sincerely about defending migrant rights and the most vulnerable. He promised to democratise the Labour Party and to support workers, such as those at the National Gallery, who are in struggle. It was far better than anything promised by Labour leaders in living memory.
At this year’s congress the tremor of a Corbyn victory registered with, but has not yet shaken, the bureaucratic structures that hold unions back.
Mobilising rank and file workers to fight for immediate issues and for bigger politics remains the central task in the unions.