|Some 500 people gathered in St Peters Square in Manchester on the Sunday before the Trades Union Congress kicked off.
Eve of Trades Union Congress
In response to a call from the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) to bring the anti-cuts campaign to the TUC, trade-union activists arrived from all over Britain. They were there to demand that the TUC get off its knees and get serious about coordinating resistance to the cuts.
In his keynote speech, the RMT’s Bob Crow stood in unequivocal condemnation of Labour’s role in government, pointing to their failure in the course of 13 years to repeal the union-bashing laws put on the statute book by Thatcher.
After the rally, the activists headed off for the Mechanics’ Institute, the original birthplace of the TUC a century and a half ago, and filled the large hall there to overflowing. Unions represented included the CWU, RMT, Unison and Unite.
One speaker predicted that the discussions happening in that room between those engaged in active resistance to the cuts would likely have more connection with the real struggle than most of what would get said in the official TUC conference hall.
Another ventured the opinion that those union leaders who downplayed the importance of coordinated national industrial action to oppose the cuts, on the plea that we should combine measured local action with a ‘political’ campaign aimed at restoring Labour’s ailing fortunes, were simply “demobilising active resistance”, demoralising workers and improving the prospects of the BNP and the English Defence League.
The mood of many was summed up by RMT London Region organiser Steve Hedley, who asked with contempt why no Labour leaders had shown up on picket lines or offered any leadership in the campaign to resist the cuts.
Having usefully pointed out how much money could be saved by such measures as scrapping Trident and shaking down wealthy tax evaders, he then came to the crunch question. If they assure us that their system is truly incapable of doing such commonsense things, he asked, then why not accept their assurance, get rid of this capitalist system and put a socialist one in its place? Why not get rid of a capitalist system which worldwide condemns fifteen million children to death each year for want of proper nourishment, and even in this country condemns thousands of cash-strapped pensioners to death by hypothermia every winter?
These sentiments were received with great enthusiasm, and set the tone for many other militant contributions. Speaker after speaker called for unity between workers in the public and private sectors, pouring scorn on the media lies about public-service workers living high on the hog at everyone else’s expense.
A London bus driver drew attention to the experience in Greece, where the attacks on the public sector are now supplemented by a fresh assault on the private sector that had nothing to do with reducing government debt.
A Bectu member highlighted the significance of the strike preparations being made at the BBC to resist the effective demolition of the current final salary pension arrangements, pointing out that this attack, if allowed to succeed, would prove the prelude to a general attack across the public sector.
The same comrade met with loud applause when she called for workers to defy the anti-union laws en masse, since that is what will be required to make our actions to defend pay, pensions and public services effective.
The general view that came across was that if the TUC failed to give the serious leadership that was required, then it would be up to activists like those gathered at that meeting to take the struggle forwards.
More than one reference was made to the successful resistance to Thatcher’s Poll Tax. One speaker from the PCS contrasted Thatcher’s relative caution in her attacks upon the working class, picking off one section at a time, with the “risk shock and awe” tactics of the present government, which hoped to “stun people into submission”.
Provided we did not leave any one section to fight alone, then the sweeping and “high risk” character of the attacks could be turned to our advantage, he suggested.
TUC attempts to stifle resistance
On one level, the consensus at Congress itself did not seem so completely at odds with the views earlier expressed over in the Mechanics’ Institute. After all, just about everyone accepted that the crisis was caused by capitalism, or at any rate ‘the bankers’, and that it was unfair to expect workers to foot the bill. Even Mervyn King from the Bank of England accepted that it was not the fault of the workers.
There was even no problem getting everyone to sign up to a generalised motion pledging support for a coordinated campaign against the cuts.
But the fault line yawned wide when it came to the question of how to fight back. Despite the chilly reception accorded to Harriet Harman, many speakers clung to the official Barber line, insisting that essentially the challenge must be ‘political’ (ie, not industrial) and must be led by the Labour party!
As usual, the labour aristocracy, commanding the salient heights of organised labour, is doing its best to paper over the class-struggle cracks, and this time it was with Composite Motion 6. The working class, frustrated by the way every legal form of industrial action is hemmed in by anti-union laws and every ballot decision is challenged by nit-picking company lawyers, is more and more inclined to agree with Bob Crow when he calls upon the TUC and the general public to break the law and challenge the state.
Alarmed by these signs that the sleeping giant of organised labour might start to stir, Barber reached for composite fudge number 6. What do we need? A mass campaign to defy the anti-union laws. What do we get? A humble petition to MPs, asking them to support a parliamentary bill asking the courts to be a bit less pedantic and heavy-handed in the way they interpret and enforce those same laws. Spot the difference?
As the hammer blows of the crisis rain down, more and more people will spot the difference and hearken to the advice of such as Bob Crow to start breaking unjust laws and practising civil disobedience. As he put it, “It’s no good walking down to Tolpuddle and then next week debating whether to engage in civil disobedience to oppose the cuts. If it’s good enough for the Tolpuddle Martyrs 160 years ago it should be good enough for us today.”
Breaking the link more urgent than ever
Yet Unite’s Derek Simpson took the opportunity of a fringe meeting hosted by Morning Star to berate “revolutionaries” and “radicals” for having shown insufficient enthusiasm for Labour before the election. It was left to Mark Serwotka from the PCS to challenge this nonsense, deriding Simpson’s attempt to blame those fed up with Labour for the Tory/LibDem cuts.
Both Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka explained quite clearly that the Labour party had done nothing for their members. Mark Serwotka pointed out that working-class people had abandoned Labour in their droves, so in fact it was Simpson and his party who were the real sectarians, since those who had left it were now seeking to engage with the vast majority of British workers.
In order for our unions to put up any kind of a fight in defence of pay, pensions and services, workers are going to have to transform their structure, leadership and politics radically. Either pressure from below will see new, militant leaderships emerge, or the current leaders will find their members willing and able to take the employers head-on, resorting to mass unofficial (Labour language: ‘illegal’) industrial action.
A vital part of this campaign to transform our unions is the campaign to break the link with the imperialist Labour party, whose suffocating control of most career trade unionists is responsible for their complete inability to act in their members’ best interests. Instead, they act as one more layer of policemen for the ruling class – controlling, diverting and dampening down the growing anger and militancy of workers on the shop floor.
Most of all, workers in Britain need to realise that while we continue to confine our struggle merely to obtaining the best possible conditions for wage slaves under capitalism, we will never achieve job, housing, health, education or pension security. Now is the time for working people to be exposed to ideas of another possible system, a socialist society where the wealth created by the working people is used to enrich their lives and not the lives of a tiny minority of bourgeois parasites.
All the concessions won when the welfare state was set up 60 years ago are being taken away; only massive, coordinated and extremely militant fight can contain the process and seek to regain what has been lost, while as soon as this fight is relaxed in any way, or tactical errors are made, the parasite class will snatch these benefits away again, at all times using all the forces of the state and of the propaganda media to weaken the workers’ resistance.
We need to build a large, disciplined and militant communist party which can provide selfless (as opposed to careerist) leadership and link up the struggle of the working class to resist the capitalists’ encroachments on its standard of living to the struggle to overthrow capitalism altogether.
Palestine position strengthened
A notable achievement of this year’s TUC was on the international front. In the struggle to free itself from the chauvinist sectarianism imposed upon it by social democracy, organised labour took a step forward in Manchester, passing a unanimous motion supporting Palestine, slating Histadrut and committing the TUC to work closely with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
These developments are an indication in part of the continuing impact of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the attack upon which the motion condemned (see the article on Palestine elsewhere in this issue).