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From The Socialist newspaper, 25 August 2005

TUC must turn defiant words into effective deeds

THE FINAL agenda for the TUC Congress reveals a number of cracks which could lead to sharper divisions on key issues, like the anti-union laws, than experienced in previous years.

Ken Smith

An emergency resolution from the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) raises the issue of how the anti-union laws have been used by slave-driving companies like Gate Gourmet to carry through mass sackings and intimidation of its workforce.

It is likely the TGWU, along with others, will call for the repeal of the anti-union laws. But if their approach, as shown in other resolutions, carries over into this debate, they will not call for the programme of mass defiance that is necessary to make these laws ineffective.

The TGWU has, regrettably, already missed one golden opportunity on this when over a thousand baggage handlers and other British Airways staff defied the laws in August to defend their brothers and sisters in Gate Gourmet. Had the union officials not ordered a return to work then, continuing defiance of the anti-union laws through secondary, solidarity action would have shown in practise how the anti-union laws could be made irrelevant.

In words, the major unions have more decisively rejected the TUC's 'partnership' approach of the 1990s. However, under a third-term Labour government the so-called awkward squad of trade union leaders are going to be more frequently tested on their deeds rather than their words at a TUC congress.

Resolutions on trade union rights, pensions and the battle against privatisation have a more combatitive feel than previous years. But, the main deficiency in most of them is that, whilst having a sharper, more critical tone against the bosses and Labour government, there is no clear guide to action.

On trade union rights, the TGWU calls for the TUC to campaign for change in the balance of the law in the workplace to make it easier for unions to conduct action, "including solidarity action without the threat of legal proceedings by employers".

At the TGWU conference, general secretary Tony Woodley argued his union would look for "inventive" ways around the laws on taking secondary solidarity action.

Unfortunately, the union's TUC resolution does not go as far as this and stops short of calling for action. As the experience of the Gate Gourmet struggle till now appears to show, 'inventiveness' only stretches so far in the minds of some trade union officials.

Likewise, the RMT railworkers' union calls for a 'trade union freedom' bill with repeal of the anti-union laws being its main focus. The RMT also calls for the TUC to commit itself to a major march and rally in 2006 around this theme, calling for a campaign to improve the employment rights of temporary and contract workers.

This undoubtedly reflects a growing frustration amongst some unions' leaderships at being hampered by the anti-union laws.

But, there is no recognition that rights at work are not just a matter of legal reforms. Indeed, such reform can only be a by-product of the unions' struggle in defence of their members against the bosses and government. Instead, the resolutions are a statement of intent of union leaders hoping to extract more concessions from Labour in a Warwick Two style agreement.

Public-sector pensions

THE DIFFERENCE between a fighting approach on an issue and others was shown in the initial resolutions from UNISON and PCS on public-sector pensions. The initial resolution from UNISON, unfortunately, revealed a passivity and naiveté that could have seen their members shafted by the Labour government - who are coming back with a vengeance in trying to cut pension rights after the temporary climb down forced upon them by the threat of united union action in March this year.

UNISON had failed to strike any warning about the likelihood of the government coming back with further attacks and talked solely of "further industrial action if necessary".

By contrast, PCS warns: "the government will continue to argue for the pension age to increase" and proposes that unions "fully consult with each other before reaching agreement in order to counter any 'divide and rule' tactics from the government". The union also argues for "maximum pressure should further united industrial action prove necessary".

To achieve all this it calls for more specific co-ordination and for the TUC to organise a "national pensions demonstration before the end of the year".

Fortunately, the composite on public-sector pensions, being moved by UNISON and seconded by PCS, retains the harder elements of the PCS resolution and commits the TUC to assist in maintaining unity of action against detrimental pension proposals and to organise a national pensions demo.

This national demonstration is a vital necessity, given the ongoing attacks and crisis in private-sector pensions, as highlighted in the composite on this issue from GMB and BACM unions.

Another motion from PCS on the proposed civil service job cuts calls for the TUC and affiliated unions to give full support for "further national action against the cuts" should it become necessary.

Most other public-service unions, facing similar threats to their sector like UNISON with privatisation in health and local government, the CWU postal workers on postal privatisation and the NUT on education, put forward very limited proposals which are weaker than their own union conference's position. Again they avoid any talk of action to defend vital public services.

If the proposed merger of TGWU, Amicus and GMB into one mega-union goes ahead, it will constitute about half of the membership of the TUC. In that context, the future effectiveness of the TUC will be judged on whether or not it can become a body that translates words of defiance against the bosses and their system into deeds that win advances for the working class it is supposed to represent.

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