Lewis Akers

Lewis Akers

A fight for the soul of the trade union movement

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Lewis Akers, a delegate to the 154th annual TUC Congress, reports on a controversial TUC annual congress, which saw delegates vote to back the arms industry and debates over how to respond to the cost of living crisis.

The TUC’s annual Congress occurred this year in Brighton. Delayed from September due to the death of the Queen, the change of dates impacted the atmosphere. Experienced delegates told me that there were fewer stalls and delegates than usual. This affected the congress floor, which was much more reserved than expected with the industrial upturn trade unions are experiencing now. 

Outside the Brighton Centre, where the Congress was being held, there were two groups with something significant to say: Stop the War Coalition and CND. They were campaigning against Composite Motion 2 – a controversial motion which sought to commit the TUC campaign for increased arms spending (see below). However, most of the Congress saw motions nodded through with unanimous support – covering topics as diverse as the BBC and automation.

The various motions on the floor simultaneously outlined both the strengths and weaknesses on the side of the trade union movement. Restrictive trade union legislation, climate transition, and attacks on Royal Mail staff and civil servants outlined some challenges. However, there was a sense of confidence that challenges could be faced head-on – even if some of the confidence seemed to hinge on a Labour government rescuing us. 

General Secretary’s Address: We will see you in court!

Frances O’Grady, the outgoing General Secretary of the TUC, used her speech to talk about the failed economics of the Truss government, branding the Tories as toxic. She correctly highlighted that “we’re in the longest squeeze on real wages since Napoleonic times”and that living standards have dropped and continue to drop significantly. She argued that this demonstrated need for a general election. The call for a general election was one of the main demands during the conference from various unions – being code for ‘we need a Labour Government.’

She also covered the role of the trade union movement over the last few years in defending jobs and waging strikes stating that “we’ve seen the difference our movement makes right around the world.” One element she covered was the furlough scheme which she credited the TUC with delivering – alongside other speakers throughout the congress. As I pointed out in 2020, the TUC’s involvement in the furlough was nothing more than left cover. With or without the TUC, the furlough scheme was necessary to rescue capitalism from itself and “postpone reckoning with the crisis.”

The most striking piece of O’Grady’s address was her challenge to the Tories over the right to strike. She stated that the attacks on the right to strike breach international law and trade deals. The TUC having taken legal counsel, she said, “so, read my lips, we will see you in court!” Clearly, this strategy is flawed: the courts and law have been used repeatedly in attacks on workers. From the criminalisation of miners in 1984 to the high court injunction to stop posties striking in 2019, we have clear proof that the law is not on our side. As Mick Lynch correctly pointed out in a later debate, ‘Don’t trust the courts – they are not your friends.’ This is not to say that trade unionists should not use all tools available to them but, as the black writer Audre Lorde said, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Any legal action needs to be backed up with collective action on the streets and picket lines for it to be effective. Our emancipation will not be won by any institutions other than our own.

The limits of Labourism

One of the main calls throughout the congress was the need for a general election – a demand that will have echoes with millions of workers, given the present government.  Both Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer spoke during the congress. During a fringe meeting, Angela Rayner told of how she was made in the trade union movement and that a Labour government would ‘deliver for working people’ by bringing forward an employment bill to give workers more rights and repeal the Trade Union Act.

Starmer repeated much of what was said in Rayner’s speech on the congress floor on Thursday morning. If you hadn’t known better, you might have been deceived into thinking he was a socialist. He spoke of the need to “respect working people who create the wealth that drives our country” and argued that growth needs to benefit working people. But any illusions in this were quickly shattered when he said that it was not his role to get involved in or support industrial disputes – workers should support him but not vice versa.

He also highlighted his pro-business credentials and desire to partner with businesses “to drive Britain forward.” In a debate on the floor, Sharon Graham asked, ‘which side are you on?’ to Labour, and it seems Starmer has provided an answer – they are pro-business. Anyone with a basic understanding of class will understand that the working class and big business have antagonistic interests.

This is not to say that Labours’ New Deal for Working People doesn’t contain some good ideas, buts it is likely that is all they will remain. Despite the assurances of Starmer and Rayner, the Labour Party’s lack of support for striking workers and the banning of ministers from picket lines, alongside their ‘pro-business’ credentials, highlights that we will have to fight to see these commitments delivered. 

Although it’s beyond the scope of this article, a more rigorous analysis of the relationship between Labourism and trade unionism is necessary for the coming period. The resignation of Truss on the last day of the conference significantly increases the likelihood of a Labour government. It may be sooner or later, but when it comes, we must be equipped with the arguments for independent class organisation.

‘Jobs for Bombs’

Most of the congress saw motions nodded through with unanimous support. However, Composite Two was another story. This motion was a composite of two motions – motion four about defending manufacturing jobs and motion five about economic recovery. It’s hard to see any other reason for the motions being put together other than the hope of making motion 4’s call for increased arms spending and commitment to the continued building of nuclear submarines more palatable.

The GMB moved the motion, and several jingoistic justifications were given, such as the war in Ukraine, the increase of dictators in the world and the need to have the skills to protect our national security. The seconder, from the POA, claimed that it’s OK to be ‘anti-war, but not anti-worker’ – implying that disagreement based on anti-war sentiments were anti-working class. But as a speaker from the PCS highlighted, war is fundamentally anti-worker, because ‘the working class always lose in war.’ This is because, as an FBU speaker quoted, weapons always have a worker on either side.

The largest purchaser of UK weapons is currently Saudi Arabia. Meaning weapons made in the UK are found in the hands of those slaughtering civilians in Yemen. The FBU speaker highlighted, ‘bombs for jobs’ clearly impacts those fighting for survival. This pro-war motion is also in complete contradiction to the TUC General Councils Report, which says, “we join the global union movement in promoting the cause of peace and advocating negotiated solutions to conflict through diplomacy.” However, even if the social arguments do not convince you, from an economic point of view, increasing defence spending is ludicrous. The UK already spends astronomical amounts on defence spending, and the Tories are committed to increasing it by up to 50%. As Stop The War Coalition highlight, any increase in defence spending will be paid for by “with cuts to pensions and welfare.”

Coordinated Action: ‘Agency and power back into the hands of workers’

Mark Sewortka, the PCS General Secretary, and other speakers from unions and the TUC, called for the trade union movement to increase coordinated action. The speakers seemed to have different ideas of what this meant in practice – from improved communication between unions to strike action on the same day.

Increasing coordinated action is crucial for the trade union movement to stand any chance of seeing off the attacks on the rights of working people. There seems to be no disagreement within the movement, even from moderates, that this action is necessary. But the critical issue is that this shouldn’t be left up to the bureaucracy to fulfil. In their analysis of the 1926 General Strike, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, highlight the pitfalls of relying on the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy may speak the words of coordinated action and initiate it, but it can only be sustained by rank-and-file activists. 

The types of coordinated action that are sustainable need to be built from the ground up by workers and trade union members – often outside the remits of trade union officialdom. Because it is only through class struggle rather than sectional action that class consciousness can be developed and society transformed. As the FBU’s Riccardo La Torre pointed out at a TUC fringe meeting, it is only through struggle that workers recognise themselves in the struggle of others. This is not a short-term plan but something which will need to be built in the long term on the foundations laid by the current mobilisation of workers. In the long run this will place agency and power back into the hands of workers – not the courts or the Labour Party.

This article was first published at Counterfire

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