“Your policies seem contradictory and they’re confusing people. Can we get a clear answer: are you for or against austerity?” This question put by PCS president Janice Godrich to Labour leader Ed Miliband garnered the biggest applause at the TUC congress so far.
Increasing the confusion, Miliband replied that he was opposed to the coalition’s austerity programme but confirmed that Labour would stick to Tory spending limits in order to appear “credible”.
The congress has been dominated by two questions – one is coordinated action in the autumn and two is the question of the trade unions’ relationship to the Labour Party in the light of events in Falkirk.
The congress began with the NSSN lobby which attracted hundreds of trade union reps from around the country to push the idea of general strike action.
This was reflected in the halls of the congress in the debate around motion 54, put by the transport union RMT, on fighting austerity. This included the idea of coordinated action.
In a rousing speech, RMT general secretary Bob Crow made the case for a general strike as a part of this strategy, asking: “if the FBU are out, if the NUT are out and if the PCS are out, then why can’t we all be out?”
In the debate, the division between left and right was clearly seen. Mary Bousted from the teaching union ATL, for example, called the idea of a general strike ‘daft’.
She said: “There’s more chance of the Con-Dems changing their austerity policies than there is of the TUC organising general strike action.”
Janice Godrich rejected this by saying that general strike action was not daft or deluded but determined.
PCS vice-president John McInally said that there should be no place in the trade union movement for that kind of cynicism.
In his contribution supporting a motion by Unison general secretary David Prentis on anti-austerity campaigning, John raised the need for a coordinated pay claim across the public sector, backed up by coordinated strike action if necessary.
PCS delegate Lee Vernon, in the discussion on organising young workers, received big applause when he said that when unions organise and fight they are more attractive to young members and that the trade unions should work closely with organisations like Youth Fight for Jobs to improve the lives of young workers.
In his speech Ed Miliband made passing reference to the dispute with Unite around the events in Falkirk. But it was those events that dominated discussions on the sidelines of the conference.
The job of one of the suspended Labour Party members, Stevie Deans, is under threat. There has been discussion about possible strike action in defence of his job at the Grangemouth oil refinery.
The Socialist Party leaflet on the trade unions and the Labour Party has had a fantastic reception with many delegates agreeing with our position.
It appears from the fringe meetings that Unite’s position is hardening against Miliband’s attacks on collectivism.
In one fringe meeting, Jennie Formby, Unite’s national political officer, said that collectivism is “non-negotiable”.
The Socialist Party leaflet made clear that if Miliband’s proposals do go through unions should: “break the link with New Labour and form a new worker-based party which would reflect union policies and keep the collective strength of workers’ organisations.”
Action needed now
I attended the National Shop Stewards Network lobby of the TUC conference in Bournemouth. I was determined to make the TUC listen, inspired by activists and general secretaries alike who heeded the call for a general strike, delighted to hear the motion was carried by conference later that afternoon and angered that of the four unions to oppose, my union Usdaw was one of them.
Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said the motion gave the media and government a stick to beat us with and that a general strike would be illegal.
Well, the government and their cronies in the media are beating us with a stick and it’s certainly hurting! If previous working class fighters had considered legality, we wouldn’t have trade unions at all.
If over six million people in Britain took strike action, joined by students, the unemployed and others then the government would have a very hard time declaring it illegal and doing something about it.
If John Hannett spent some time working on a checkout or distribution centre like his members he would know the hardships they face, their willingness to struggle and the need for a mass fightback.