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French Lesson to TUC
AS DELEGATES to the Trades Union Congress prepare to go to this year's conference, a leader of the French fishermen's blockade reportedly said: "If we don't take this action, people will walk over us - but we cannot allow this to happen. The English do not strike any more because they are cowards." What is the truth about British workers' willingness to strike?
Bill Mullins, Socialist Party Industrial Organiser
The British right-wing union leadership try to convince the bosses to do business with them through so-called partnership agreements. At the same time the union leaders are racing each other to use the new trade union recognition laws to get into unorganised workplaces.
There has been some increase in union membership but the overall growth in membership of TUC-affiliated unions is only creeping ahead to around 29% of the total workforce.
The real growth in union membership is not through new laws but when there is action. In one local government branch of public-sector union UNISON, over 500 workers were recruited in the run-up to the first national strike of Scottish council workers since 1988.
Union-organised workplaces have significantly better conditions than unorganised ones. 63% of organised work places get 25 or more days holidays per year compared to only 32% of unorganised ones.
Organised workplaces have half the occupational health problems of the unorganised. Unions also act to bring down pay differences between men and women and black and white workers.
Though actual disputes still remain at a low level compared to previous decades, there has been a doubling of strike ballots from May 1999 to May 2000.
Peugeot workers in Coventry show the increasing number of trade union members who are critical of the 'do nothing' union leaders and are prepared to do something about it. (see below)
This is an indication of how union leaders who have the same outlook and ideology as the Blairites, will increasingly come under pressure from the rank and file.
THE TUC agenda is usually a pale reflection of the temper and mood of the organised working class in Britain.
Most resolutions are drawn up by the union leaders. But they do occaisionally cover some of the key issues facing workers, such as a decent minimum wage.
The TUC are calling for the minimum wage to be uprated to £5 an hour. But they are so frightened of upsetting their relationship with New Labour that they say this should only happen next autumn 'around £4.50 to £5 per hour'. By then inflation will mean £4.50 per hour would not be much more than the present rate of £3.70.
UNISON calls for the minimum wage to be uprated to £5 an hour and an end to the discrimination against young people. But even this is amended by the shop workers' union, USDAW who call for the level to be set at 'between £4.50 to £5 per hour', half male median earnings.
The minimum wage debate is due whilst Gordon Brown is waiting in the wings to speak. No doubt he will argue that a £5 minimum wage will 'damage industry' and admonish the TUC as irresponsible. He will make no mention of the obscene salaries, share options and tax write-offs that the bosses of British industry pay themselves.
Many of the resolutions welcome the new union recognition laws but no union calls directly for the repeal and defiance of the existing anti-union laws brought in by the Tories and enthusiastically adopted by Labour. Employers are busily consulting their lawyers and professional union busters to find loopholes in the recognition laws. These laws also give the perfect excuse to the right-wing union leadership not to do anything 'illegal'.
They have condemned the Left for using the official Certification Officer for challenging the witch-hunts in unions like UNISON and civil service union PCS. A resolution from the Musicians' Union calls for this part of the legislation to be removed but it does not mention what should be done with the rest of the anti-union laws. This is no accident.
The right-wing have ruthlessly used their control of the apparatus and financial resources of the unions to witch-hunt the left. UNISON's leadership have engaged expensive barristers to attack the left in the union.
The same thing has happened in the CPSA, now the PCS. Right-wing mavericks have used the Certification Officer but the majority of appeals have come from the Left, when they have faced discriminatory and arbitrary interpretations of the union rule books by national leaderships.
Whilst the TUC takes place in Glasgow, 80,000 Scottish local government workers are due to take their second wave of strike action over wages.
This is the real movement of the organised working class which will affect the future outlook and activities of the trade union movement as a whole.
In The Socialist 8 September 2000: