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After TUC congress 2016: Mobilise the anger!
John McInally , Public and Commercial Services union national vice-president (personal capacity)
This year's Trade Union Congress (TUC) came only months after the forced resignation of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron following the Brexit vote - a major blow to the corporate and political elite - the introduction of the most oppressive anti-trade union laws in the industrial world, and the continuation of austerity. It should have been a council of war, setting out a fighting strategy to defeat these attacks on our members, class and communities. What an opportunity it would have been to take the fight to Theresa May's post-Brexit vote, crisis-ridden government.
Instead the scale of the profound crisis of leadership in the trade union movement was revealed more starkly than ever. The tone was set in the president's address when she said:
"In this past year, we held our nerve and we found our fight. Mobilising, organising, influencing - what we do best. Heart Union Week was a clever and quirky way of reminding the world and ourselves what we stand for. Celebrating our work. Showcasing our wins. Congress, we should do it more often."
It is certainly right to celebrate wins and left-led unions like PCS, RMT, the bakers' union and others have, despite the scale of attacks, shown that when workers take action and are fully supported by their union leaders, then concessions and even victories are possible.
But the president's rosy picture is belied by reality. In some areas public sector workers are now in the ninth year of a pay freeze and wages have fallen by over 20% in real terms since the 2008 crash. Some workers are accessing food banks because, as one PCS member said: "There is too much month left at the end of the money".
It is a complete scandal that the TUC and leaders of some major public service unions have failed, yet again, to organise the type of coordinated industrial action - which is congress policy - capable of defeating this attack on workers' living standards.
Once again a motion from PCS was passed calling for coordinated action on pay but the fact that this motion - along with an emergency motion on the junior doctors' dispute - was pushed to the margins of the conference is an indication of the lack of intent to lead on these issues.
The gap between rhetoric and reality was cruelly laid bare when TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady stunned many in the hall with her statement on the Trade Union Act: "We can be proud of our campaign against that nasty, vindictive law. But, congress, we beat them. Not on everything. But in the big battles, we beat them back".
RMT President Sean Hoyle politely but effectively demolished that claim by pointing out that no matter how important concessions had been they were "crumbs" from the bosses' table and the worst aspects of the bill, particularly on ballot thresholds designed to severely limit unions' ability to conduct strike action, were now in law.
The truth is that right-wing union leaders do not really care about ballot thresholds; While such leaders may tolerate isolated local strikes on specific issues they have fiercely resisted generalising and building disputes through coordinated action either within their own unions or with other unions.
The congress president snapped at Sean that the concession on check-off (the payment of union subs through employer payrolls) was very important to unions. The concessions on check-off are important of course but must be seen in context.
PCS has faced and overcome a vicious government attempt to destroy the union through withdrawal of check-off. Incidentally, in contrast to union leaders who attacked PCS in this period, our union offered all unions facing this threat practical help and advice should removal of check-off make it to legislation.
The tremendous campaign run by PCS to defeat that attack gave the government cause for reflection on the issue of check-off but that was not the only factor. The relationship between right-wing union leaders and capitalist politicians is not antagonistic but in many respects symbiotic. Even the most vicious Tory understands it would have been self-defeating to withdraw check-off and weaken unions whose leaders have effectively stopped a mobilisation of the movement against austerity.
This was most clear in the pensions dispute in 2011, which revealed the potential strength of our movement when millions of workers took action, only to be sold out weeks later. This shameful retreat by the 'leaders' of the organised working class gave Cameron and Osborne, who up until then were facing huge opposition, the green light to press ahead and significantly ramp up their austerity programme.
An RMT motion, which the right wing did not have the confidence to openly oppose, calls on the general council to convene an "urgent practical conference, as to how best coordinate our legal and industrial response to the Act in line with policy already set by congress". What an opportunity this would be, but we have to say the current leaderships in much of the movement and the TUC itself will do everything to frustrate this initiative.
It is therefore important to campaign in the branches and workplaces to build support for this conference. Such a conference could not only set out a strategy of opposition to the Act in general but commit unions to concrete action - if one union is singled out then all unions should respond in a coordinated campaign.
What is more, such a conference should plan to take the offensive to the Tories by implementing the policy on coordinated action in the public sector over pay, including the demand by PCS for the TUC to organise a national demonstration to build support for joint action over pay which the TUC is committed to, and generalising the campaign in defence of the NHS and junior doctors.
It was no accident that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was not invited to address congress. Much is at stake in the battle against the Blairite MPs, who as PCS President Janice Godrich pointed out at the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) rally, owe their very careers to ties to the corporate and political establishment.
PCS, although not affiliated to the Labour Party, has been unequivocal in supporting Jeremy and John McDonnell who have stood on our picket lines and given unstinting support to our members over the years and who have consistently argued for an alternative to austerity.
During the TUC, PCS hosted a #JC4PM rally which attracted well over 1,000 local people and congress delegates, at which Janice Godrich called for reselection of Labour MPs.
The battle in the Labour Party is a reflection of the opposing class interests in wider society and its outcome is of huge concern to those on the right of the trade union movement who have rejected the necessity for a fightback on the industrial and political fronts. They are terrified of the Corbyn phenomena for many reasons but none more so than because of the contrast with their worship of the status quo and their 'there is no alternative' mind-set.
The sharpest contrast was that between the lacklustre self-congratulatory and complacent tone of the congress, and the NSSN rally. No junior doctors were invited to speak at the congress, but two junior doctors spoke articulately at the NSSN rally about their determination in defending the NHS and calling for solidarity from the rest of the movement, including a national demonstration to defend the NHS.
It would be a fatal error by the bosses and Tories to think that the seeming calm that has characterised the leadership of the trade union movement, with the obvious honourable exceptions, is reflective of the real mood of the rank-and-file activists and members.
There is deep discontent and anger in workplaces up and down the country. The capitalist system cannot deliver for the millions, only for the millionaires and billionaires. It is being increasingly exposed in all its brutality. In addition, the Tory government, post-Brexit vote, is in crisis.
The task of the left is to build the widest possible anti-austerity alliance throughout the trade union movement and within our communities and to link the fightback on the industrial and political fronts in order to build a genuine socialist alternative.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 19 September 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.