TUC 2016: in the face of more Tory attacks and rising inequality – must do better.

20 September 2016

Sean Vernell, UtR  joint national secretary, attended this year’s TUC conference as a UCU delegate. Below he argues that the TUC must do better if it is to be able to defend workers interests and make itself relevant to young workers. 

Junior doctors say: "Hunt's Plan - Deceive the public; Demoralise NHS staff; Demonise unions; Destroy the NHS"

Junior doctors say: “Hunt’s Plan – Deceive the public; Demoralise NHS staff; Demonise unions; Destroy the NHS”

The annual TUC conference took place against the backdrop of a Tory and employer led offensive on working class people.  Whatever the talk of a new more caring Conservatism we face more privatisation, more austerity, more cuts for the poor and disabled and the racheting up of attacks on migrant workers.


The gap between rich and poor is ever widening. Latest figures reveal a bonus bonanza for the bosses; they have awarded themselves record pay out of £44bn.


With so many of the key activists in the working class movement in the room at the same time it should have been a perfect opportunity to map out a strategy of industrial action and political campaigning.  Unfortunately, once again, the opportunity was missed.


This year’s congress was framed by the fall out of Brexit vote. For the majority of the TUC leadership, whose short, medium and long term strategy to safe-guard workers’ rights has been firmly linked to Britain remaining in the EU, the result of the referendum was a serious blow.


Under Francis O’Grady’s leadership the TUC has adopted a more of a campaigning strategy compared to the passive Blarite leadership of Brendon Barber.  But the TUC stopped woefully short of coming up with the kind of strategy that is needed.


The social partnership model, that has dominated the TUC for the last thirty years, is still at the heart of the TUC strategy today, albeit a slightly more left wing version of it.  Attempts to seek alliances with employers prevents the TUC from fully getting behind those in struggle.


Of course some employers have a less anti-union stance than others.  But even in the case of companies that are prepared to move away from low pay, zero hours models the interests of the employers and their employees will always diverge when their profit margins are hit by workers’ demands or unions challenge their right to manage.



There have been important victories for workers on zero hours contracts most notably the campaign led by UNITE which exposed  JD Sport boss, Mike Ashley and forced him to pledge to scrap zero hours contacts and other 19th century working practices.


Motions on challenging racism and in support of migrant workers were passed in Brighton, which sent a clear message to the employers and the government that the trade union movement is internationalist at heart.  The motions and speakers who came to the rostrum made clear that immigration is not the cause of job losses or low pay in Britain.


This was important as it stopped the drift by some in the labour movement towards opposing free movement of labour that began in the first few days after EU referendum vote.

However in the face of the biggest attack on trade union rights for thirty years, the governments Trade Union bill, there was no strategy of resistance.  The bill went through Parliament without the kind of campaign that could and should have defeated it.


We all need to flag up victories when we achieve them but to try and claim that the campaign against the Trade Union bill has been a success because we managed to protect checkoff and one other limited concession is simply not good enough, the ballot thresholds and other attacks remain.


The concessions made by the government in the run up to EU referendum to keep the TUC on board with the Remain campaign demonstrate what could have been possible if a more determined campaign was conducted.  The TUC put in a lot more work on the EU referendum than it did on defending our most basic right to strike. The TUC should have been a place where we developed a strategy to turn motions and statements about defying the Trade Union Bill into reality.


One of the main slogans at this year’s congress was, ‘A movement with young workers at its centre’. That’s a great slogan but unions like the Baker’s union have had to fight to get a national minimum wage of £10 per hour policy adopted and promoted.  The congress also voted down a motion on climate change on the basis that the motion threaten workers jobs in certain industries, which clearly it didn’t. How will we attract young workers to the unions if we don’t take defending the planet seriously?

climate change protest

Even when motions have been passed like ones calling for coordinated strike action – nothing happens.  Disgracefully the TUC leadership would not agree a speaker from the BMA to address the congress.


If the trade union movement is to become relevant to young workers lives, then they have to be at the heart of their struggles and do everything they can to build solidarity with them.  From the Deliveroo workers to Uber delivery drivers – unorganised workers are getting organised.


This has always happened in every century as capitalism moves from one form of exploitation to another.  Be they the Dockers at the turn of the 19th century or the car workers in the 1950s – workers who were not seen as well organised or militant became organised and lead the movement as their particular industry became more central to the needs of capitalism.


Other groups of workers, who were seen as middle class and conservative, under the impact of the market and competition have been forced to strike to defend their professions.


They have come to the fore to lead the movement. The Junior Doctors, university lectures and teachers all have taken strike action recently using ‘old fashioned’ methods of action; strikes, picket lines, mass demonstrations and lobbies.


And what is more they have the public on their side.


For all of the TUC’s talk of modernising and making itself relevant the organisation is not rising  up to the level of those who are new and fresh to the struggle and using collective methods to pursue their objectives. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn, enormously popular with trade unionists, was not invited to address this year’s congress due to fears of divisions, also reflects an inability to connect with a new generation of activists.


Build the resistance 

There will be a number of rallying points in the coming weeks, which the movement as a whole will need to throw its weight behind. First up is the demonstration outside the Tory party conference, called by the People’s Assembly.  Stand up to Racism is a holding it’s conference on the 8th October which already has 800 registered.  UCU and NUS have called national demonstrations on the 19th November in defence of Education for all.


The Postal Worker union (CWU) passed a motion calling on the TUC to organise a national demonstration for workers’ rights. As Dave Ward, general secretary of the CWU, said in his speech to congress that, ‘If Jeremy Corbyn can get 500,000 people to join the Labour Party, we can get one million people on the streets to defend workers’ rights.’


Unite the Resistance will be holding its conference on 12th November. The need for a network of activists rooted in every workplace that can deliver solidarity for those who are taking action has never been greater.


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