Britain - TUC conference 2000: the union leaders' blockade against the class struggle

Sep-Oct 2000

While this year's TUC conference was sitting in Glasgow, an open challenge to Blair's policies in government was being made outside oil depots around the country.

Unfortunately, this challenge did not come from the working class, - and certainly not from the TUC leadership. Those who initiated it were members of breakaway groups of farmers and truckers who had decided to take direct action (and had taken it before against supermarkets) because they felt that their official bodies like the National Farmers' Union and the Road Transport organisations were toothless. Some were owners of small or medium-sized businesses, although many were self-employed, with their own special preoccupations, primarily focused on their individual interests and those of their trade groups. And the committees behind the protest were only aiming at gaining concessions for their own members, not a general reduction of the price of petrol and fuel for all.

These were the limitations of this protest. But at the same time it expressed the anger of millions of workers who have been short- changed by every one of Labour's budgets through steep increases in indirect taxes and duties, such as the duty on petrol, which hit those on low incomes much harder than the better-off. After all, as a result of Labour's policy, Britain now has the highest petrol and diesel taxes in Europe (76% of the pump price for unleaded).

Media opinion polls indicated that 60% to 75% of the population supported the protest. And this included large numbers of workers despite all the difficulties they faced when the pumps started to dry up. Many of those staging the blockades may have little sympathy with workers' demands or interests, but it was the case that they had the support of a majority of working class people, which made their protest a real challenge to Blair's policies, and indeed the first one since Labour came to office.

The TUC's lifeline to Blair

But far from trying to express workers' support for the protest and their anger at being on the receiving end of Brown's tax racket, the TUC leaders immediately came to Blair's rescue, throwing him a lifeline, by pretending to draft in the unions and their members behind him - against the protesters.

A joint TUC/Government statement was hastily prepared and TUC General Secretary John Monks, on behalf of the General Council, addressed the conference and the media in order "to express the full support of Britain's trade unions for the Government's efforts to ensure the immediate and full resumption of oil deliveries". In fact his speech was somewhat hysterical, but is worth quoting at some length as it shows how far he was prepared to go: "..what we have seen this week in this country has gone well beyond democratic protest.(..) This is no legitimate protest against an employer. It is an attack on a democratic government - a clear and crude attempt to bully the government into a change of course. Across the country today these protests are threatening vital public services... And what about the factories that are laying off thousands, public transport grinding to halt, the life of the nation being strangled... Let us ask who owns the lorries that have been used to disrupt supplies... Let me remind you of another occasion that trucks and lorries were used by the self-employed and the far right to attack democracy. And that was 1973 in Chile - and it started a chain of events which brought down the Allende government. That is why we call on Britain's trade unionists to work normally and take no part in this bosses' blockade.(..) let me tell you one thing today. You will not, and should not, shift this government - any government - with bully boy blockades and civic disruption. Make your case peacefully by all means. This is the great strength of any democratic society, But these blockades are not blockades on fuel. They are a blockade of our democratic system."

As far as Bill Morris of the T&G, was concerned, "This campaign has crossed the line from democracy into anarchy. If they are breaking the law, the protesters should be arrested." Labour ministers and their supporters in the media joined Monks in invoking the historical events in Chile to back their condemnation of the protest and they joined many others in discovering a conspiracy of the oil companies and their truck drivers who were apparently secretly united in order to prevent fuel from reaching the pump.

However, for all this hysteria against the oil protest in the name of "democracy", the union leaders found nothing to say against the fact that Blair had brought into the dispute that extremely "democratic" body, the Privy Council. This was in order to obtain the the queen's rubber stamp for the use of emergency powers - so that the army could be called on to move petrol supplies and to do whatever else might be needed to break this blockade. Nor did the union leaders find anything to say against Blair's accusations that the protesters were forcing the NHS onto "red alert". When in truth, the NHS is never far from "red alert" even without a fuel crisis, given its on-going huge resource deficit.

As to the union bureaucrats who, like the GMB leader John Edmonds, stood up to expose vociferously the attitude of the police who "drank tea" with the oil pickets instead of bashing their heads in, as they did to striking miners in 1984-85: have they already forgotten their own disgraceful condemnation of the miners' alleged "violence" at the time?

Yes, in Glasgow the TUC conference gave an appalling demonstration of hypocrisy, cowardice and slavishness towards a government which for over three years has helped companies and shareholders to turn the screw on the working class.

The working class and the oil dispute

And yet the working class should have been at the forefront of the fight against Labour's taxation of the poor as well as against the oil companies, which have been making a killing out of high oil prices over the past year.

Trade and Industry minister, Stephen Byers, complained that if petrol taxes were cut by 2p a litre, this would lose the Treasury £1bn a year. He then asked where people would be prepared to agree to cuts in government spending, due to this loss of tax revenue.

Yet the answer is obvious. Cut defence spending, for a start, including Blair's pet project for multi-billion pound nuclear missiles! Withdraw British troops from the countries where they only create more problems for the populations - like Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone! End all subsidies to profitable companies - direct handouts as well as indirect ones through schemes like PFI! Increase taxes on all financial profits; restore the top marginal tax rate to what it was twenty years ago, so that the rich pay their share rather than increasing taxes for the poor. Just a few measures like these would already pay for a significant cut in petrol and fuel taxes. But what about the oil giants who pile up such enormous superprofits on the backs of working people and old-age pensioners who are even more dependent on petrol and fuel? Shouldn't these companies, in particular, be made to pay - and a huge amount at that?

Of course, the small businessmen, truck owners and farmers who staged the blockades, with their own peculiar social prejudices and their preoccupations which focus on their private holdings are unable to propose, let alone fight for such solutions. But the working class could!

And yes, it would be quite another thing if at last the working people of this country, the jobless, the youth, came out to wage such a fight - in the name of the interests of society as a whole - against the capitalist vultures who plunder it and their Labour trustees in government. Not only would they have a lot more clout, because after all it is the working class which produces everything in this society, but they would have behind them the support of millions of people, including those who cannot join the fight but are suffering as a result of a constantly rising cost of living.

The fact that the working class did not take the initiative in this oil tax protest and instead left it in the hands of others with different social interests, cannot justify the TUC leaders' claim that it was somehow wrong and contrary to workers' interests. But it undoubtedly reflects the fact that the working class has been weakened by the toothlessness of its organisations, their complicity with the bosses and the Labour government, and the refusal of the union leaders to try and build up any fight back in order to defend even the most basic interests of their members. It was this which was illustrated once again by the TUC's 100% backing of the government against the oil protest and by Monks' condemnation in principle of any action that might allow workers to make real use of their collective strength.

Indeed, to call the TUC "the workers' parliament" as the Chair of this years' conference, Rita Donaghy did, is a cynical joke. The TUC's first responsibility is to the government and the capitalist interests it protects. And this can only mean turning its back on the interests of the working class it claims to represent.

When is a job cut "fair"?

The past year has seen massive redundancies and threats of even more job losses, in textiles, steel, shipbuilding and the car industry. Cuts in conditions under the guise of flexibility are being implemented everywhere. On these issues union machineries have adopted a line designed to protect the government, and as a result, the bosses, from even the slightest ripple of class struggle, at the expense of workers' interests.

So, over the past few months, automotive union negotiators have been making frantic efforts to stave off any idea of a fight back among workers in the car industry who have been targeted by the car giants' cuts in jobs and conditions.

When BMW threatened to close the Longbridge factory there was never any question of industrial action. No, all efforts went into the search for an alternative buyer for the factory. Tony Woodley, the T&G "star" full-time negotiator for the car industry, rushed backwards and forwards as an intermediary between groups of "good" venture capitalists and BMW in order to keep out the "bad" venture capitalist group, Alchemy. His "victory" - or so he called it - was the deal eventually agreed with the Phoenix consortium. But what does Woodley's victory mean for workers? Rover has now been sliced up into independent units each going its own way (Longbridge under Phoenix, Cowley under BMW, Land Rover under Ford) and the potential industrial muscle that Rover workers previously had, has thereby been significantly reduced. In exchange, there may be a few thousand redundancies less in the short term (although even this is not guaranteed). But in the long term, the only guarantee workers have is the further loss of conditions - that is more "flexibility" all round

When Ford announced it was to end Fiesta production at the Dagenham plant, Bill Morris expressed his amazement that Ford had not given the T&G (which has the largest membership at Dagenham) the chance to offer Ford some kind of concession in return for retaining these jobs. The T&G officials' "fight" against this threatened closure has so far consisted in agreeing the initial immediate cut of 1,350 jobs and then begging Ford rather to cut jobs elsewhere in Europe. Officials complained that the job cuts in Dagenham were "unfair" because it is too easy to cut jobs in Britain. As if depriving workers of their jobs could be "fair" under any circumstances! But then what prevented the T&G from presenting workers with a plan for action aimed at making these job cuts too expensive for Ford?

Woodley was also involved in the embarrassing (for him) fiasco at Peugeot Ryton. In this case, he was so desperate to get a "yes" vote in favour of a company plan which amounted to a pay cut for some workers and a return to Friday night working for others, that he organised three successive ballots over the summer, in an attempt to wear the workforce down until they finally agreed.

As for acquiescing to worse conditions, the AEU is hard to beat. Today they are negotiating with Nissan (with whom the AEU has a single union deal) the implementation of 24-hour working on car assembly lines, in return for a hypothetical new model, and even then, only provided Blair is prepared to fork out £50m for it. Such a regime on assembly would be a "first" in the car industry here, having always been out of the question due to the intensive nature of assembly line work and the literally killing consequence of speed-ups, which are just a question of turning a switch on the line.

All this is perfectly in tune with the joint policy outlined by Monks and Chancellor Gordon Brown (whose turn it was to address TUC conference this year). That is, the call for a "productivity drive" to close the 30% gap between Britain and its competitors. Never mind the fact that this means workers have to work themselves to death in under-invested, ageing factories, to bolster the pickings of shareholders and fat cats whose salaries are increasing faster than ever before!

This triumvirate of government, bosses and unions, made in the bosses' heaven, is going to work for "prosperity", according to Brown. As he explained: "Just as prosperity for all is undermined by the wrong kind of government, so too, in the past the wrong kind of management and the wrong kind of unionism have failed us just as surely as the wrong kind of government." The TUC leadership knows all about the "wrong" kind of unionism that Brown refers to. In fact they are expert at hunting it down.

Their most daring demand

It is true that this year the TUC has gone so far as to ask for an increase in the pitiful level of the minimum wage. But that is hardly asking very much. The TUC has now endorsed as its policy a £5 per hour minimum and the elimination of discriminatory rates for younger workers. However, 16 and 17 year-olds should only get "a percentage of the rate, not the full rate", on the grounds that they might be "encouraged" to take low-paid, dead-end jobs, rather than training!

When the minimum wage was introduced, it was estimated by the government's Low Pay Commission that two million people would benefit from it. In fact only one million did, according to the TUC. John Monks argues that fewer people "benefited" because wages have been rising, which justifies, in his view, an increase in this minimum. However these figures do not tally with figures used by the bosses' organisation, the CBI. According to the CBI, 1.7m workers currently receive the minimum wage and 2.5m would benefit if this was increased to £5. It would be closer to the truth if Monks admitted that while the minimum wage increased the wages of only a relatively small number of workers, it de facto reduced the wages of others, providing the bosses with a benchmark rate for new entrants and casual workers in particular, lower than what they might have dared to pay otherwise. Even with a £5 minimum wage, the growing army of casual workers now entering core manufacturing industries like the car industry in increasing numbers (like the 500 "temps" announced this year by Ford at the Halewood- Jaguar factory) are faced with a downward, not upward pressure, on their wages! And at £5/hr, a worker would still get less than £200 per week before tax - way below what is regarded as a decent wage by today's standards.

The TUC in fact made "today's standards" as far as boardroom pay a focus of the conference. Their report on the "director worker pay gap" showed that directors of the FT "all share index" companies had increased their salaries (this excludes share options etc) to the point where their salaries are 20.7 times higher than the salaries of their average employee: £410,000 compared to £17,332-£20,485 in 1999. This represents a 72% increase over the last five years, against a mere 18% increase over five years for their employees.

This is scandalous, says the TUC. But why was it not a scandal when the government announced that the increase in the minimum wage, going to the desperately poor "employees", right at the other end of the scale, was to be only 10p on the hourly rate of £3.60? In fact, when Brown announced the 10p increase, to come into effect this October, Monks described it as "a step in the right direction". With such steps it would take 13 years before the TUC's £5 target was reached! Yet there is no question whatsoever of the TUC going beyond its usual lobbying of the government in order to get an increase in the minimum wage, let alone an increase to £5/hr.

They want to have their cake and eat it

As for the other crumbs that the TUC congratulated itself on "winning", there is the 4-month old Labour Relations Bill (published as a White Paper under the name "Fairness at Work") which provides the right to union recognition in all workplaces with 50 or more workers. This is provided, of course, that the candidate unions can obtain a majority vote and dodge all the loopholes built into this new law which allow the bosses to contest this "right".

However Bill Morris did say, in his opening address that "We are naturally disappointed that the government(..) insisted on the so-called 40% threshold for recognition ballots". This refers to the requirement that at least 40% of the workforce vote in favour of union recognition. On this occasion, Morris has good reason to be "disappointed", since such a requirement applied to the election of Westminster's MPs would mean the majority of them would have to go back to work!

Naturally, Morris is concerned that firms with 20 or less employees should also be included in the recognition terms. But then seeing membership numbers (and with them, the inward flow of union dues) growing is a prime concern of all union leaders. It is a bit like the bosses with profits. What lies behind them and what you do with them doesn't really matter, as long as you keep increasing them.

The problem for the TUC is that even though membership of trade unions has increased for the first time in two decades - by 100,000 last year to bring the total to a claimed 6.8m - this increase is largely due to an expansion of its traditional trade union base. That is, there are new members in the public sector, among teachers, and in manufacturing. But in the traditionally anti-union sector - like the Murdoch newspapers - and moreover, in the so-called "new economy" sector like Vodaphone, Orange and Microsoft, some call centres, etc., unions are generally still excluded. The union "Unifi" (formed by a merger of the bank workers' unions) has lost 30,000 members since bank branches have closed and gained only 10,000 from the Call Centres which have taken over the banking jobs.

Of course, to break down the resistance of these anti-union firms would require the militant intervention of the workforces. But this is exactly what the union bureaucrats would like to avoid.

This should have been harder to swallow

As for new crumbs that the government has decided can be safely thrown at the TUC and their affiliate union machineries, the latest offering is seats on the government's proposed Learning and Skills Council (LSC) which is due to begin operation in April 2001. This body, which is an expansion of the Tory-created Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and the current Further Education Funding Council, will take over absolute control of all post-16 education and training outside of university entrance education and university education itself - that is the education and training of an estimated 6m people, with an initial budget of £6bn.

Why set up a new body? Because the government's own researchers have conclusively shown that employers do not train workers, despite the fact that Blair and Brown's New Deal actually hinges itself on this fantasy! 44% of employer-funded training lasts less than a week. And although most employers rely on "on-the-job training", between 1996-1999, the increase in the number of employees engaged in such training was only 1.1%. So the government is going to make taxpayers - i.e. mainly the working class - pay for their own training (to the tune of this initial £6bn) in order to benefit the employers, by taking over this function via one of the biggest quangos ever seen so far, but still giving the employers control over it!

Trade union officials will be invited to apply for appointments to this council and the 47 Local LSCs which will be set up - a lot of potential seats for the boys and girls since, this time, the trade union representation will be greater than it was on the TECs. Union officials will have to apply "as individuals", though, not as representatives of their unions, let alone their members! Obviously this government prefers to retain full control over the appointment system, thereby showing it does not want to give away too much to the union leaders, despite their having been so careful not to rock Blair's boat over the past three years.

And why should Labour bother to be more respectful of the unions' right to choose their own representatives when, swallowing their humiliation, union leaders give Blair a big thank- you through their senior education officer, Ben Clough, who "welcomes the new system and the fact that trade unions will be very much involved in the decision making". Seemingly this is a big enough crumb to get the aspiring bureaucrats' mouths watering.

Renaissance or regression?

This year's TUC conference was the fourth since Labour came to power. TUC leader, John Monks, proclaimed a coming renaissance of the trade unions. Of course, new recognition legislation could bring in new members, but the potential for further derecognitions is also opened up by this same legislation.

What is more, the ground that had been pulled from under the feet of the trade unions during the 18 years of Tory rule has not even been reclaimed, let alone regained. Legislation on workers' rights has arrived in the form of European directives, late, and amended by Blair's government to remove the tiny teeth it contained, in order to appease British bosses. The minimum wage which is the TUC's one and only boast actually pulls wages down rather than improving them. This is a balance sheet in the red.

The union machineries' dependence on the goodwill of government ensures that they will remain tied to the Labour Party's strings (even if the so-called "trade-union link" was to be formally broken), as was so well demonstrated by their reactionary outburst over the fuel protests and blockades.

Yet in the workplaces where union members are confronted with crumbling union structures, or ones which cave in straight away in the face of every new cut in conditions, what difference does it make that the bosses "recognise the union" or even "respect" existing legislation? What protection does this provide against "legal" job cuts and "legal" speed-ups? Workers under attack in the real world can only rely on their own capacity to resist and organise, and more importantly, on their capacity to bypass the obstacles placed by union officials in front of any counterattack they may try to wage.

This is precisely why there will be no "renaissance" of the trade union movement until there is a renaissance of the class struggle, powerful enough to allow the working class to do away with these bureaucrats and their machineries.

18 September 2000