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Delegates cheer call for action on anti-trade union laws
The final Biennial Delegate Conference of the TGWU, taking place this year as a section of Unite, had the theme of a 'fight-back union'. Sadly, when it came to concrete questions on the industrial and political fronts, this slogan was shown to be merely a verbal one. Proposals to put words into actions were defeated, but not without strong support.
The key resolution of the week was on the anti-trade union laws. A resolution from 4/1 branch, called for: "A conference of rank-and-file trade union representatives such as shop stewards to discuss a strategy to resist the anti-trade union legislation and give full support to any TGWU member or fellow trade union threatened with legal action for resisting the legislation, for example, by refusing to issue 'repudiation letters' if their members take so-called 'unofficial' industrial action".
This resolution was moved and seconded by Socialist Party members Rob Williams and myself.
Rob received a standing ovation and huge cheers for a highly-charged speech. But the General Executive Council (GEC) had decided to oppose the motion. Some members of the Broad Left spoke against it, saying we have to think with "our heads not our hearts" and other emotive but empty phrases.
Following the GEC's reply, general secretary Tony Woodley spoke for 20 minutes when he explained the reasons not to vote for it. He said the assets of the union would be put at risk, including the staff, the organising structure and all the work of the union.
Rob replied by explaining that the union's key assets were its members. They should be mobilised to fight off the attacks if the law was used against the union.
Despite all the pressure put on delegates, the resolution was only defeated by a two-to-one margin, showing that a section of delegates were prepared to vote for and organise a fight against the anti-union laws.
Throughout the week, we heard how the change in the Labour Party leadership was a chance for the trade unions to get their policies implemented by the 'new' New Labour government. Gordon Brown was 'our' leader; it was 'our' government.
The GEC's statement congratulated Brown on his appointment! He even turned up at the union's social to make a ten-minute speech before being whisked away, probably for private chats with union leaders.
But a number of delegates, including Socialist Party member Jim Horton, objected to this tone. He pointed out that Brown had been the architect of New Labour's economic policies under Blair and not much would change now with Sir Digby Jones and others in the government.
Jim called for the TGWU to disaffiliate from New Labour and help found a new party, as the unions did in the early part of the 20th century. Again, with the supporters of left Labour MP John McDonnell angry that the TGWU, a 'left-led' union, had supported Brown, not him, for the Labour leadership, the GEC statement was only carried by two to one.
Socialist Party members made important contributions in other debates; Rob called for the nationalisation of the car industry to prevent redundancies. A resolution defending democratic rights in Sri Lanka was carried with the support of the GEC.
Perhaps with Brown only just in office, some delegates were prepared to give New Labour one last chance. This option will not be available in 2009, when the first full conference of Unite takes place. Then Socialist Party members and others will be even more determined to take Unite along the path towards being a genuinely 'fighting back' union.
In The Socialist 12 July 2007:
National Shop Stewards Network
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Tales from the council chambers
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party events
Socialist Party review
International socialist news and analysis