Britain - TUC leaders show determination... not to rock the boat

Oct/Dec 2010

After two years of systematic attacks against workers' jobs, wages and conditions across the economy and following the Con-Dems' announcement of massive cuts in public expenditure, some may have expected this year's TUC conference in Manchester to come up with some sort of response to the urgent problems facing the working class as a result of the bosses' and government's offensive.

But none of this happened. Despite the general secretaries' bold speeches about "protest", "civil disobedience" and even "co-ordinated strikes", and despite the media's vociferous warnings against the "threat" of another "winter of discontent", the TUC mountain only managed to lay a mouse.

There was no question of the programme of action that would be needed to bolster workers' confidence in their collective strength, with the objective of stopping the capitalist's attacks. Nor was there even any question of proposing initiatives which would provide workers with an opportunity to voice their anger against these attacks, before they actually take place.

Instead, the only perspective the TUC leaders have to offer workers in the immediate future, is a polite lobby of Con-Dem MPs (as if "shaming" politicians had ever been a way of stopping them in their tracks!) while any form of collective action on a significant scale, if it ever happens, is postponed until next March - after Cameron's cuts will already have been implemented!

In other words, the Con-Dems and their masters in the City can now be sure that they have nothing to fear from the union machineries: their leaders have made it clear that they will do nothing to upset any austerity plan over the coming six months and that if anything does upset it, it will be against their will.

In fact, the only thing the TUC conference has produced is a strategy which is primarily designed to facilitate Labour's return to power... in 5 years' time - in order to implement the same anti-working class policies that Blair and Brown started and which Cameron is now pursuing, but with the TUC leaders' benediction!

The TUC's revealing silence

A revealing feature of this conference was the utter silence of union leaders when it came to several vital issues.

Private sector workers and the attacks they face were largely ignored. Never mind the fact that these workers represent a majority of the working class (including the overwhelming majority of workers in production industries), as well as a large chunk of the union membership (including a majority of the membership of the largest of the mega-unions, Unite).

Also ignored, was the real extent of joblessness and the interest (and duty) that the employed working class has in helping the jobless to organise, in order to fight for their right to a decent living, whether they are in or out of a job.

Some references were made to the estimated 700,000 job cuts in the private sector that will come as a result of the Con-Dems' expenditure cuts. But these references were, more often than not, aimed at exposing the Con-Dems' "recklessness" and shedding tears over the "savaging of the British economy" that will result from Cameron's austerity - i.e. on the uncertain future faced by the galaxy of companies which make a comfortable living out of juicy state contracts. As if the interests of the working class had anything to do with the interests of these capitalist parasites!

But what about these 700,000 workers themselves, whose jobs are likely to come under threat? There was nothing for them in this conference, except, maybe, a pledge made in some of its resolutions to "support" whatever action might be taken against the job cuts due to the Con-Dems' policies, when they start to bite - which, presumably, includes the resulting job cuts in the private sector. In other words, the TUC had nothing to propose to these 700,000 threatened workers except that they should sit tight until they find themselves with their backs to the wall and the axe on their necks. Then and only then, if they choose to fight back, will they be able to count on the (moral) support of the TUC. Never mind the fact that having one's back to the wall is the worst possible position from which to fight! In any case, the idea that the collective strength of private sector contract workers, working for the state, could help to pre-empt the cuts was carefully swept under the table!

As to the remaining private sector workers, the TUC apparently felt that they did not even deserve a mention, except a passing reference in the General Council's policy document. But what did this document have to say about the shedding of jobs in the private sector?

Unemployment, it reads, "never reached the peak hit in previous recessions. Action taken by the previous Government helped. Crucially, employers and unions worked to avoid job losses and keep skilled workforces together through the downturn."

In fact, just as this document was being endorsed by delegates in Manchester, the joint efforts by "employers and unions to avoid job losses" were graphically illustrated by a deal in which Unite and the GMB signed up to 500 job cuts among British Airways customer services workers at Heathrow! Of course, the TUC was not likely to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of private sector job cuts have been underwritten by union leaders, through similar deals - and forced down the throats of the membership, on the grounds that agreeing to these job cuts was the only alternative to much worse redundancies or even outright closure!

If "employers and unions worked" at something over the past two years of crisis, it was primarily at maintaining company profits, at the expense of workers' jobs, wages and conditions! In fact, it was thanks to this cosy "partnership" which is so dear to the hearts of the union leaders that the bosses were able to start making workers pay for their crisis a long time ago.

No wonder the TUC leaders were determined to leave the situation of private sector workers out of their conference agenda. It would not have taken much - just one delegate straying away from the official "partnership" line - to expose their failure to stand up for their members' interests!

Likewise for the jobless. Unemployment "never reached the peak hit in previous recessions", says the TUC document? But what about the fact that part-time employment has soared dramatically, reaching 27.2% of all employed workers? Have these millions of part-timers, many of whom are on pay rates close to the minimum wage, really chosen to live on a starvation income? Or have they been forced into this situation by the brutal rise in unemployment and Labour's punitive policies against the jobless? Isn't the rise in part-time work actually a measure of the real rise in unemployment, just as, by the way, the rise in casual employment is - over which the TUC conference did not have a word to say either!

And how about all those among the so-called "economically inactive", who do not appear in the jobless count, not because they are not unemployed, but because they would gain nothing but harassment from registering with the dole office?

Again, to these millions of unemployed or under-employed workers, registered, or not, in the official statistics, the TUC conference had nothing to propose or say - neither about the basic solidarity that the trade-unions should have for the unemployed, nor about the support that they should provide to the jobless who want to defend themselves against Cameron's attacks.

As to the way in which, according to the TUC leaders, "action taken by the previous government helped" to keep unemployment down, do they really expect workers to have forgotten the tens of thousands of jobs cut by Labour in the civil service, Royal Mail, Network Rail and government-owned banks, among many other state-controlled organisations, over their last two years in office?

Just as union leaders were determined to shield their cosy partnerships with private bosses from any challenge, they were determined to whitewash Labour of any responsibility in the mess in which the working class is today! For them, Labour's anti-working class policies and Darling's "deficit reduction" budget were alright. Their only problem today is to see these same policies being implemented and built upon by the Con-Dems!

"All together"? If only!

Short of paying attention to private sector workers or the jobless, the TUC conference devoted most of its time to the Con-Dem's planned cuts and their impact - on the economy, public services and public jobs, in that order.

But how do union leaders plan to oppose these cuts? The TUC leaders used their conference to launch a campaign entitled "All together for public services." In and of itself, the choice of words is not innocuous. At a time when the Con-Dems' plans may result in 1.3m job cuts, according to the leaked estimates produced by their own economists, the TUC does not even want to call a spade a spade and its campaign, a campaign against job cuts.

As if workers should have to make any apology for putting up a fight in order to keep their jobs! Why indeed, when the only reason their jobs are under threat is not because they are not useful to society, but because parasitic capitalists - who are of no use to society but only a cause of constant waste and chaos - have been allowed by politicians to help themselves to public funds in order to cover their losses! And now that these capitalists are back in business, making billions out of speculation thanks to this public largesse, workers in the public and private sectors should foot the bill of their bailout by losing their jobs? How can a fight back against the present attacks be effective if it does not even dare to clearly spell out these issues?

Admittedly, the TUC's justification for this sleight of hand is in keeping with long-standing practices by the union machineries.

So, for instance, the London Underground workers who are currently staging a campaign of monthly 24-hour stoppages over jobs and wages, have to be seen fighting ostensibly for passengers' safety - at least this is what they are told by their RMT union, and its leader Bob Crow, whom the media delights in describing as a "left-wing firebrand". That safety in the Underground can only be undermined by labour shortages and inadequate wages is obvious, but why should the strikers not be upfront about their actual demands? Why shouldn't they address themselves to other workers, in particular those travelling by Tube, who are themselves at the receiving end of all sorts of cuts, to win their support and convince them that it is in their interests, in the interests of their own jobs, that the fight back in the Underground should be won - because, at the end of the day, the fight back against the job and wage slashers will only be effective when it brings together all sections of workers.

Of course, for such an argument to be convincing, it would need to be backed up by a fighting determination and a willingness to reach out beyond sectional boundaries, which even the likes of Bob Crow never had, not to mention the rest of the TUC leaders. Their fear of rocking the boat of big business and their rivalries, with each union machinery jealously protecting its own turf against the others, have always been far more prominent in their preoccupations than the interests of their members.

Not surprisingly, it was the same Bob Crow who was heard at the TUC conference calling for a campaign of "civil disobedience" and insisting on the need to "win the hearts and mind of the public" to the TUC campaign for public services. Once again this is not mere rhetoric. It is designed to stress that the weapons for this campaign may not be those of the class struggle and that the campaign has to involve two sections of the population - public sector workers and the "public".

But what is this mysterious entity that union leaders call "the public"? Isn't it formed, primarily, by the overwhelming working class majority of the population? Do the words "working class" burn the lips of union leaders so much that they won't use them?

Yes, the "all together" of the TUC campaign should really mean the entire working class joining ranks in action. But then, why limit the scope of its objectives to defending public services, when so many workers are under attack in the private sector and when the jobless and other claimants are in the firing line of this government? Wouldn't it be far easier to "win the hearts and mind of the public" if the unions and their 6.5 million members spoke with one voice about their determination to stand up to any form of attack against the working class - and more generally against the attempts by the capitalist class and its state to make the working class pay for the bosses' crisis?

Who says there's any urgency?

So what sort of campaign are the TUC leaders proposing to build? The General Council's policy document starts by answering as follows: "We recognise that most are likely to be brought into the campaign through their own experience of the cuts, either in their community or the sector in which they work, study, or volunteer."

The TUC's strategy starts, therefore, from the premise that as long as workers do not feel the pain caused by the cuts - whether in their own jobs or in the services they use - there is no point in expecting them to join any fight back. By implication, this means that there is no point either in even trying to take pre-emptive action to stop the cuts. Not only is this a recipe for disaster by effectively allowing the job and service slashers a free ride, but it reflects the union leaders' utter contempt for working class people, whom they apparently consider to be too dumb to understand the need to stop the attacks before they are implemented!

True, the TUC document does say that "the TUC stands ready to support and co-ordinate union action where members decide that industrial action is necessary to defend services and those who deliver them", but only to immediately apologise in advance for the resulting "difficult and damaging disputes" - which hardly displays a willingness to encourage or even really support, let alone co-ordinate, any form of industrial action.

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, the union which will be most affected by public sector job cuts, showed a bit more enthusiasm than the TUC General Council, when the said: "When the call is there, we will move to co-ordinate industrial action to defend all we hold dear, all that past generations have fought for." Fine - except that one can only question the political will behind these words.

Because in fact, Prentis and Unison have an abysmal record in terms of co-ordinating industrial action, as was shown by the countless disputes, including many strikes, which took place over the past period against attempts by local councils to cut the wages of some of their workers, under the pretext of what is called the "equal status" policy ("equalising" wages for workers doing the same tasks, except that councils often aligned wages to the lowest level!). Beyond specific local features, these attacks were all made under the cover of the same policy and could have been resolved by a joint fight for an equalisation to the highest level. Instead, however, Unison and the other unions involved, chose to leave the workers in each council to fight in isolation - a fight that some won, but many lost.

Besides, one can only question what Prentis means by "when the call is there." Three big councils at least - Birmingham, Sheffield and Brighton - are already using the government's planned cuts, even before they are actually known, as a justification to blackmail tens of thousands of workers to accept cuts in wages and conditions or lose their jobs. Doesn't this mean that "the call is there"? But, so far, Prentis has given no indication whatsoever that his union plans to organise workers to stand up to these attacks, let alone to "co-ordinate industrial action."

Just as for Unison, it is hard to imagine a union like the CWU organising any sort of fight back against the additional job cuts which will inevitably take place at Royal Mail in the run-up to privatisation - if the Cond-Dems' plans materialise. Indeed, the CWU leaders have not just been underwriting Royal Mail's job-cutting, carried out under the cover of "modernisation", but they have actually been helping management to implement these cuts! How can they be trusted to oppose Cameron's plans?

Mass protest - the TUC leaders' nightmare

Going back to the TUC leaders, they obviously do not consider that industrial action of any kind has any real role to play in their campaign. The TUC policy document spells out its nature, objectives and methods as follows: "The priority for union campaigning is ... to build the broadest possible alliance that can put the greatest possible pressure on coalition MPs both in their constituencies and at the national level to win the argument for change. Crucial to this will be involving community groups and other representatives of service users and those directly hit by the cuts. This will require a careful combination of local work, community organisation, political engagement and national mobilisation."

So, after all, what the TUC is really talking about is no more than putting pressure on Con-Dem MPs so that they end up fearing for their seats. As if, with five years to go before the next general election, they had any reason to worry for their seats in the short or medium term! By the time they begin worrying about that, the cuts will have been implemented long ago, regardless of the "pressure" put on them by the TUC campaign.

However, in keeping with this logic, all that the TUC Policy Document has to propose until the end of this year, is a series of lobbies - of the coalition's party conferences, of coalition MPs' surgeries and of coalition MPs at Westminster, on the 19 October, the day before the publication of the Spending Review. In passing, the choice of that last date is not a coincidence - it is a Tuesday, meaning that, since there has been no indication that any union plans to call for stoppages on that day, only activists are expected to come to the rally called by the TUC at Westminster. If there are workers who understand the need to stop the cuts in their tracks - and they definitely exist, despite the TUC leaders' cynical assumptions - they will have to take time off individually in order to use this opportunity to make their voices heard! Hardly a way of encouraging them to join the campaign, or get their workmates to join it!

Ironically, though, the TUC leaders manage to back up their lobbying campaign by recalling the example of the fight against the poll tax: "History shows that governments can change direction... Conservative governments abandoned the poll tax in the 1990s... The poll tax was defeated, when government MPs realised that their seats were in danger. The campaign against the cuts must deliver the same message to every vulnerable coalition MP."

This analogy is nonsense: the poll tax could be repealed by one single law, but how will hundreds of thousands of job cuts in the public and private sectors, be reversed once they have taken place? The TUC document does not say, of course!

Moreover, it amounts to a ludicrous rewriting of history. Above everything else, the struggle against Thatcher's poll tax threw large number of workers, youth and pensioners into the streets - a whole section of the working class, in fact, which went on to invade council chambers up and down the country and stage large, angry, protests in the main towns, with a huge and determined London demonstration which scared the establishment. This struggle took place against the backdrop of a situation in which Thatcher's regime was already weakened, both by the wear and tear of its 11 years in office and by on-going rivalries within the Tory party. Tory MPs may have become worried about their seats, but this was because the next General Election was only two years away. On the other hand, the decisive factor in getting the Tories to repeal the poll tax probably came from the City, where their big business sponsors were getting agitated about the possibility that working class anger might start endangering their offices, factories... and profits.

In passing, this mobilisation was an opportunity that union leaders chose not to seize at the time. Yet, had they tried to tap the deep anger against Thatcher which existed in the working class at that point, by proposing a policy designed to regain some of the ground lost during the previous decade, they might have been able to impose the repeal of the anti-strike laws as well. But maybe they did not really want that, after all. In any case, they were certainly terrified by the mobilisation in the streets, judging from their efforts to distance themselves from any form of "street violence" during the protest.

So, it should come as no surprise that, behind all these references to the struggle against the poll tax, the TUC leaders consider that there is no need to offer workers a chance to voice their opposition to the bosses and its government before... March 2011, in the form of a national demonstration! If this national protest does take place, which remains to be seen, that will certainly be an opportunity that everyone opposing the capitalists' offensive should use. But for this opposition to be effective, other opportunities will have to be created before that, with or without the TUC leaders' endorsement.

That the TUC leaders are just as wary of street protests as they were at the time of the poll tax, is illustrated by this passage from their policy document: "The TUC and unions... recognise that this will require embracing new forms of campaigning... In particular we look to support new online campaigning tools that can help connect local campaigners up and down the country, allow cuts victims to tell their stories, build local campaigns and bypass the media." Sure, if only workers could be atomised into a collection of individuals stuck behind their computer screens at home - instead of taking action collectively on the ground, with the potential risk that they might want to make their own decisions about what to do next - what a brave new world this would be for the TUC leaders!

Partnership remains the name of their game

That the TUC campaign is not likely to really oppose the Con-Dems' austerity plans is fairly obvious. But nor is it intended to. On the other hand it can serve two purposes which are definitely on their agenda - getting a degree of recognition from the Con-Dem government and boosting Labour's prospects in the 2015 election.

In an interview given by TUC leader Brendan Barber at the launch of the TUC policy document, he stated: "I am hopeful that he [Cameron] will meet us before the spending round". This offer was reinforced by the TUC document stating that "unions do not oppose negotiated change or genuine efficiency savings... There should be a continuous process of improvement across the public sector - including a search for economies and better efficiency" - i.e. jobs and services cuts, in plain English.

Nor, in fact, are the TUC leaders opposed to "deficit reduction". Their rhetoric may be critical of the speed at which the Con-Dems plan to carry out this reduction, the fact that the worst-affected will be the poorest, etc... But after all, they did not object to Labour's last budget which was planning the very same kinds of cuts, affecting the same sections of the population, but spread out over a longer time-frame. And this is what the TUC is arguing for, under the name of an "alternative economic policy" - not to get the capitalists to pay for their crisis, but to get the working class to pay for it, only more slowly!

The TUC's "response" to the attacks on jobs faced by public sector workers is, therefore, that they should be "negotiated" first with union leaders, preferably directly with the government or, at least, with public sector employers! Of course, this is only an extension to the public sector of the policies followed by union leaders in the private sector, where they have already signed up to so many job cuts. John Monks, a former TUC general secretary who now runs the EU trade-union office in Brussels, probably encapsulated the real aspirations of union leaders, when he said from the conference platform: "Influence in the boardroom will be better than influence on the picket line as a guide to trade union strategy in the future." And in the case of the public sector, this "boardroom" is made of ministers and their main officials.

Whether the Cameron-Clegg tandem will be willing to grab the hand held out to them by the TUC leaders, and in what form, remains to be seen. The say they are willing, judging from an interview broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, in which he said: "I want there to be a genuine partnership with trade unions... We're not going back to the days where there is a complete standoff between the trade unions and government... I hope that the trade union leaders at the TUC this week... will engage with us to form a real partnership to ensure that we do protect the frontline services and that we do what is necessary to get the public finances back on an even keel, and that we can work together to protect jobs to the greatest extent possible."

Does this mean that the Con-Dems might be prepared to make concessions to the union machineries (not to the working class, of course!), in particular, with some form of joint forum or negotiating body, allowing union leaders to claim that they have some influence on government policies? Only the future will tell. Of course, if the TUC campaign gained momentum while remaining within the boundaries that they have chosen, and even more so, if it flowed over these boundaries, then there might be an advantage for the Con-Dems to make such concessions, in order to ensure that the union leaders have a bigger stake not to rock their boat.

In the longer term, however, it is the union leaders' partnership with Labour which remains the TUC's priority. Their planned lobby, in October, "of Coalition MPs, concentrating on those with small majorities or who stood on a platform of resisting cuts until the recovery was secured" is clearly aimed at getting these MPs to jump the gun and switch to Labour (which has happened before) or else stage a rebellion against Nick Clegg's leadership and vote against the government - which might deprive Cameron of a majority and pave the way for an early return of Labour to office.

In fact the TUC leaders' language is remarkably identical to that used by Ed Milliband - whether it be about strikes, the need for the working class to make up for the deficit, or his focus on the "middle classes". And this is not because the new Labour leader bears any resemblance to the "Red Ed" or the "trade-union puppet" of the Tory and tabloid press, but because the union leaders share with Milliband the same sense of responsibility towards the capitalist system.

Needless to say, the working class can expect nothing at all from the union leaders' partnership, neither with the Con-Dems nor with Labour. Nor can it expect anything to come out of the lobbying campaign proposed by the TUC leaders. In the face of the current wave of attacks launched by the bosses and their government, it can only defend its interests by stopping the job slashers in their tracks, before they have time to hit. And it will only be successful in doing so, if it creates and uses every opportunity to build up its confidence and collective strength. The capitalists, with their crisis and their present offensive, have created a situation in which all working class people, employed or not, regardless of their status or skills, find themselves, targeted in the same way by this offensive. The working class can take advantage of this, by breaking all the divisions and sectional barriers which weaken its fighting capacity. The capitalist class is waging a class war against the working class. The only effective response for the working class is to embark, collectively, on a class war against the bosses and their politicians, using the methods of the class struggle.