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TGWU conference: Delegates fight to defend democracy
THE PROPOSED merger of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) with two other unions - Amicus and the GMB - was the predominant issue at the TGWU conference in Blackpool last week.
A statement by the executive pointed out the benefits of such a merger into a union of about 2.5 million workers, in terms of greater cohesion in industry and less duplication by unions. General secretary Tony Woodley, in moving the statement, argued it should and, as far as he was concerned, will be a fighting and democratic union in the best traditions of the TGWU. He warned, however, that a merger on its own would not add a single trade unionist to the union and that only struggle by union members would.
Yet, despite the sentiments expressed by Tony Woodley, delegates came in to the debate to argue against the statement as being too vague and, in particular, it did not specify that any proposals would come back to a special recall conference before going to a ballot of members.
In one of the most passionate debates, an overwhelming number of speakers made it clear that trusting the union's leaders is one thing but putting the details to scrutiny by union activists was better. There was also a fear amongst some delegates that the issue was being rushed towards a January 2007 deadline by union officials. There was suspicion about the lack of lay-member democracy in the GMB union.
Pulled a rabbit out of the hat
Replying to the debate, Tony Woodley, clearly feeling the pressure of the members, acknowledged their anxieties and was conscious that the leadership was likely to lose the vote, pulled a rabbit out of the hat to say that the executive was now prepared to agree to a recall conference.
This was enough to win over sufficient delegates to give the executive a comfortable majority. But a sizeable number of delegates still voted against the EC statement realising that passing resolutions and amendments which were more specific about the terms of the merger would better safeguard the democratic debate within the union.
The debates on public-sector and occupational pensions generally saw a clear commitment by the union to take action to defend members' interests. And the union also agreed action over the single status agreement in local government to demand more funding from the government.
On pensions, delegates and the union's leaders made it clear that there has to be no backtracking over maintaining the current retirement age and entitlement. One delegate, Ken Tuckwell, warned not to trust the Labour government and said: "The Warwick agreement should be renamed the Harpic agreement as all the promises from Labour will go down the pan."
Socialist Party member Kevin Parslow, and delegate from 1/1228 branch, pointed out that it was the threat of united strike action that had forced the government to back down in March of this year and added that there must be no increase in the retirement age and there had to be retention of the 85-year rule. Also, Kevin said, all members who were involved in privatised companies or outsourced work and still paying into the pension scheme should also be balloted.
Tony Woodley made a number of significant speeches during the week in some of the key debates. In one he said the union would have to look at 'innovative ways of delivering secondary action in support of striking workers. Replying to the debate on private-sector pensions he talked of the need for a one-day general strike of all public-sector workers joined by a private-sector uprising.
On the war in Iraq, there were two resolutions: one uncontroversial and supporting the Stop the War Coalition, the other moved by Margaret Manning and seconded by Socialist Party member Teresa Mackay, which called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and support for Iraqi trade unionists.
Woodley, in his reply to the debate, claimed the union should support the UN's call for withdrawal by the end of the year and reject the latter resolution. However, conference carried both resolutions!
Unfortunately, any chance to reply to the speeches of Gordon Brown and Ian McCartney earlier in the week was lost as the Labour Party discussion fell off the agenda. However, Socialist Party members managed to sell over 75 copies of the socialist during the week and raised over £350 for the party's fighting fund.
In The Socialist 21 July 2005: