by Gregor Gall
This was by far the highest profile Congress of the TUC in many years, most of that being to do with the pre-general election period of more frenzied official politics. The Congress began with Brendan Barber suggesting that big public service cuts by any future government could not only create a ‘double dip’ recession but also bring about social disorder. But by Tuesday most of the affiliated unions had rolled over when Brown told them Labour’s cuts wouldn’t be as big, quick or bad as those of the Tories.
Then there was a bit of attention over a motion which had the temerity to suggest that the mandatory wearing of high heeled shoes by women was not good for their health. But the biggest bang was over a motion on Israel/Palestine from the FBU. And on the last day the motion on the People’s Charter was passed.
So in the biggest and deepest recession for many decades, the TUC was not the annual parliament or council of war of the union movement which adopted a bold strategy to deal with the continuing attacks on its members’ living standards (other than over the People’s Charter). No surprise there but that does not mean it is unreasonable to suggest that it should have been.
It is an advance that the People’s Charter was passed, especially when Labour organised its rejection at both the STUC and Wales TUC congress earlier this year. But charging the TUC with a major role in organising its campaigning and gaining 1m signatures for the Charter in the run up to the general election does not inspire much confidence.
More than anything else this year’s TUC shows two things. First, that economically (or industrially) the union movement has not been up to the task of resisting capital’s terms for dealing with the consequences of this global recession. I say ‘resisting’ rather than mount effective resistance because I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.
Second, and on the political front, the union movement is in the main obsequious (not awkward) in the face what ‘their’ party is doing to them and their members. The number of times that union leaders have warned Brown and Labour that disaster lies ahead if they do not change course has been so many that each has a declining impact.
It doesn’t seem to be that such union leaders are stupid enough to think a warning shot alone will do the trick. It’s more that they think there is nothing else they can do because they lack muscle (or are unwilling to use what which they do have for fear of handing the Tories an own goal). And because of the weakness, division and lack of credibility of the left, the unions are in the main left with Labour. No matter the correctness of the left, it is still not a serious force or contender.
This really is then rock and a hard place. Only if Britain had a Die Linke (notwithstanding its problems) would this situation be different. The RMT inspired initiative for an electoral slate for the forthcoming election is too little too late to be any parallel.
So – and without any sign of an immediate and large upturn in industrial struggle – it looks like the union movement is in for another long period of defensive struggles. Let’s hope at least we see some struggle. Only then can we look to begin to see any ‘green shoots’ for turning back the tide of employer dominance and neo-liberalism.
Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire.