Jeremy Dear, gen sec of the National Union of Journalists, writes in a personal capacity for Socialist Appeal:
TUC Congress will get underway with a bang this year – with one of the early motions calling for “a series of one-day general strikes until such time as the Government removes the restrictive anti-trade union legislation from the statute”. Yes, really.
The motion comes from the Prison Officers’ Association who have become increasingly militant on the issue of trade union rights over the past decade or so since New Labour broke its promise to restore full trade union rights to their members. But they are far from alone. Many unions will join the condemnation of the anti-union laws, designed by Thatcher, not to deliver democratic rights to union members, but to deliver to employers shackles with which to tie unions up in legal knots and injunctions – and the failure of New Labour to reverse such unjust laws.
But whilst there will be many fine words, the motion stands scant chance of being passed. The law and the threat it poses to unions will be invoked to scare delegations in to rejecting the motion instead of opening up a fundamental discussion about how, after the failure to get government support for a Trade Union Freedom Bill and with the threat of a Tory government looming large over Congress, we step and up and reactivate our campaign to unshackle our unions for the battles over pay, job cuts and democratic rights which lie ahead.
That threat will overshadow much of the conference – there will be much analysis of every speech to see whether we veer towards Brown or Miliband or Johnson or Harman or…. The point for most trade unionists is not about the individuals. It’s about the programme and Congress should be the opportunity for the trade union movement to set out its stall.
That means reinforcing calls for the repeal of the anti-trade union legislation, it means actively campaigning in defence of civil liberties, it means real equality not a watered down Equality Bill without proper teeth, it means addressing increasing inequality, fuel poverty, job losses and securing a living wage – not just a minimum wage.
And it means fighting to defend public service workers and public service values.
A number of motions give the TUC the ability to start to set out a clear programme. PCS highlight the £25bn companies and wealthy individuals are avoiding in paying in tax each year – and calls for a campaign to target such abuses and for the funds to be used to support public services and promote greater economic equality. The GMB sets out a strong case for not only raising the state pension but for rescuing occupational pensions from the increasing attacks by profit-hungry companies.
And there are plenty of calls for action. Apart from the POA, the NUT calls for a mid-week day of activities as part of a campaign against privatisation of public services.
But it is in the calls for co-ordinated industrial action across the public services – calls coming from NUT, PCS, POA, UCU and to a lesser extend UNISON – that the TUC is able to demonstrate its core support for public services and put a stop to the Government’s pro-market, privatisation obsession and its attempts to force public sector workers to bear the brunt of the credit crunch and economic downturn.
Such a campaign would win huge public support, give confidence to workers, secure widespread involvement and put the Prime Minister or any Labour leadership candidate in the spotlight over public services. It’s an opportunity the unions can’t afford to miss.