TUC Congress (online, 12-14 September) did not advocate anything like clear policies to address the multiple emergencies the working class faces — let alone struggles to win them.
The Congress is typically uninspiring and light on engaged, democratic debate. Having it online, for the second year in a row, made things worse. When even the Labour Party is having a real-world conference this month, the TUC decision to stay online was notable. At the same time, despite the whole thing being watchable and documents etc accessible online, there seemed to be little political effort to interest even wider layers of activists in the proceedings.
The most lively debate was on climate change, but not because delegates had the opportunity to vote for substantially different perspectives on this crucial issue. The only climate-focused motion was a composite from GMB and Prospect, supported by Unite, which passed by about three million votes to two million, pretty close by TUC standards. Much of the debate focused on the motion’s support for nuclear energy. As some speakers pointed out, the much wider problem is that it advocated essentially not very much change at all. Obviously unions have various priorities they want to submit motions on, but it is disappointing that no more left-wing alternative was submitted.
Despite meeting in the midst of rows about social care, the Congress advocated no radical vision for transforming the sector — certainly not a free publicly-owned and provided care system. The one striking proposal, from GMB, was the demand for a £15 minimum wage for care workers. It remains to be seen what unions will actually do about this policy, a big leap from current average pay, but care worker activists have told us they see it as a good step.
On many crucial issues — for instance housing — the Congress discussed nothing at all.
There was other good policy passed, on a range of issues — from opposing Network Rail’s job cuts and fighting for a well-funded public rail system to confronting the homophobic agitation of the far right internationally. Importantly, after months of silence from the unions, the Congress passed policy against the Police Bill, including text from the Fire Brigades Union reaffirming the demand to campaign for repeal of all anti-union laws.
However, TUC Congress policies often remain entirely on paper — particularly when uncongenial to the TUC hierarchy. In 2019 the Congress passed policies from the FBU on the anti-union laws and on public ownership of the banks, both of which have been comprehensively ignored. Speaking a few hours after this year’s Police Bill motion was passed, Welsh TUC General Secretary Shavannah Taj gave the impression of not knowing or not wanting to know what delegates had demanded on the anti-union laws. Nor will the motion passing necessarily lead to mobilisation against the Police Bill.
Even moderate policies approved of by the TUC machine often fail to generate much campaigning. If the TUC did campaign, and encourage unions to campaign, even for the kind of modest demands included in its General Council’s statements to the Congress — let alone encourage industrial action for them — the labour movement would be in a better place.
Many speakers this year rightly emphasised the situation of BAME workers and the need for a strongly anti-racist labour movement; one of the General Council’s statements was specifically on this. But in the absence of strong policies, campaigns and struggles, anti-racist intentions lack impact.
Some on the left are making noise about a “New Deal for Workers”. After several years of this idea being promoted by the CWU, including through a motion this year, it remains chronically unclear what the demands actually are (the only union that seems to have tried to flesh it out is the very right-wing USDAW). The 2019 policy on the anti-union laws specified that this demand should be incorporated into any New Deal campaign, but the CWU and others have ignored that. It seems there may be New Deal meetings and protests in the new year. Socialists and rank-and-file trade unionists should obviously build such action and intervene into it with clearer demands.
Reasonably enough, many at the Congress wanted to celebrate trade unions’ recent growth. There was less interrogation of unions’ continued weakness and the huge difficulties we face in generating any large sustained revival.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the Congress did not seriously discuss current or impending workers’ struggles or how to get more off the ground (nothing on the issue of NHS pay for instance). At the more serious end of the discussion, proposing PCS’s motion for a renewed campaign on public sector pensions, its General Secretary Mark Serwotka referred to the 2011 pension dispute — but not to its ignominious abandonment.
There was no celebration, even, of recent successful strikes and struggles. "Strike" and similar words are not in vogue at TUC events.
Some of the trade union movement’s leadership still hopes that the election of a Labour government will save the day, while simultaneously putting few demands and little pressure on the Labour Party. Keir Starmer’s speech to TUC Congress was thin indeed, but TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady’s speech was substantially similar. Tellingly, one of the General Council’s statements, and many speakers, enthusiastically praised the Biden administration. One of Biden’s labour officials, Thea Lee, spoke to the Congress.
New Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham is right to say, as she did at the Congress, that workers should not wait for a Labour government. Unfortunately she combines this with vagueness about industrial strategy and greater vagueness about what the labour movement should demand politically, including of the Labour Party.
Graham’s election is one of various stirrings in the unions which could provide starting points for turning the tide. TUC Congress 2021 reaffirmed, once again, that serious initiatives for that change will need to come from below.