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Workers' anger surfaces at TUC
ON THE first day of the Trades Union Congress conference, the TUC leaders were extremely anxious to get controversial motions out of the way before Labour ministers arrived with the press. So two major issues were debated quite sharply, both in what was said from the rostrum and the reception on the conference floor.
The two debates were on public-sector pay and how to defeat the government's pay policies, and the anti-union laws and how they could be defeated. In the first debate, the right wing in Unison had been forced to come in behind the composite of resolutions from the civil service union PCS, the lecturers' union UCU and the teachers' union NUT.
That composite spelled out to some degree how public-sector united action could defeat the government's pay policy. It included the call by the PCS for united industrial action and for a national demo and day of action to back up that campaign.
The Prison Officers' Association (POA) had put an amendment to the composite which inserted the word "strike" before "action". The amendment was supported, in speeches at least, by Unite, the biggest union in the TUC.
But lo and behold, when it came to the card vote, the amendment was lost by 2.9 million votes to 1.4 million. It was alleged that Unite - with over two million votes - had lost their voting paper!
In the afternoon, the conference heard speeches calling for general strike action to kick out the anti-union laws, something which hasn't been heard for years at the TUC conference.
Brian Caton, POA general secretary, moved that the TUC should organise a series of one-day general strikes until the anti-union laws are off the statute book.
Again, this debate showed the difference between those who are sincere in attempting to bring about the end of the anti-union laws and the cynicism of the TUC right wing.
The speakers from the left were completely sympathetic with the POA's position. After all, the POA had lost the right to strike under the Tories and despite promises, have not got the right to strike under Labour. The POA are extremely frustrated and feel it is a number one issue for them. Not having the right to strike had affected their ability to fight the pay freeze, although they did of course take unofficial action in August 2007.
This issue is crucial for the whole trade union movement. The anti-trade union laws are among the most repressive in the West, and mean that the trade unions are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. Gordon Brown has made it clear that New Labour is completely wedded to these laws. It is only by mass struggle that they will be defeated. The debate between left trade unionists was on how such a mass struggle could be built.
Billy Hayes, of the Communication Workers Union, pointed out in a good speech that postal workers lost one million days in strike action last year, many of them unofficial. Postal workers are making it clear that if the POA goes on strike again, they will not cross their picket lines. But, as Billy pointed out, the present key issue for postal workers is pay and it would be difficult, if not absolutely ruled out, to deliver a one-day strike at this stage against the anti-union laws as a stand-alone issue.
John McInally, of the PCS, lambasted the TUC leadership in a powerful speech for doing nothing on the anti-union laws. He pointed out that PCS members have been on many strikes over the past few years over pay, jobs and privatisation, but a strike against the anti-union laws as a single issue, not linked to other questions, would be very difficult to deliver at this stage.
For the PCS, John said it was a question of tactics, and this has to be linked to a concrete issue such as pay, which the POA's resolution did not do. He called on the POA to withdraw their motion. In the eventual hand vote, only the POA and RMT were seen to vote for it. It was a lesson in tactics for all the left in the trade union movement.
For further news from TUC conference, see next week's issue.
In The Socialist 10 September 2008:
War and occupation
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party campaigns
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party review
International socialist news and analysis