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Posted on 21 May 2020 at 17:26 GMT

Covid crisis boosts union membership but TUC leaders want to cosy up to the bosses!

photo Sheffield SP

photo Sheffield SP   (Click to enlarge)

Roger Bannister, Socialist Party national committee

On 22 May, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady, accompanied by the Blairite Labour Shadow Chancellor Annelise Dodds, launched a report, 'A Better Recovery', which calls for a National Recovery Council comprised of unions, the government, and employers at national, regional and sectoral levels.

This is a proposed extension of the 'national consensus' that the TUC and a number of trade union leaders have gone along with during the pandemic.

The Tory government has been forced to look to the TUC leadership for help to 'keep working class people on board' during the crisis, and has been anxious to publicise this.

At the same time, faced with the threat of redundancy, problems relating to the government's furlough scheme and, above all, problems relating to workplace health and safety, thousands of workers have turned to the trade unions for advice, assistance and general support.

The National Education Union reports that its membership grew by 7,500 over one weekend as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

The TUC's online joining page has seen union membership enquiries rise by 300%. Unions like GMB, Unison and Unite are also witnessing rapid membership rises in the current period.

An army of shop stewards and branch activists at grass-roots level have been tenaciously fighting against obdurate employers who would put their workers' lives at risk for the sake of profit, or for budget balancing.

Where the Tories have been forced to retreat nationally it has been in reponse to workers' pressure.

However, while the crisis has sharpened the conflict between workers and bosses in workplaces across the country, the TUC leadership has unfortunately moved in the opposite direction.

Many of the proposals in the TUC's report will be welcomed by workers; a ban on zero-hour contracts and bogus self-employment, and automatic membership of occupational pension schemes, for example.

But other proposals are vague and nave, such as adopting new business models to deliver a workplace voice in corporate governance, and government support for businesses taking the form of equity stakes conditional on fair pay and employment plans.

Proposals such as these, woolly and imprecise, are deliberately formulated in order to establish an alliance between the trade unions and the employers, as more radical demands would result in the employers rejecting such an alliance.

O'Grady has likened the post-coronavirus period to 1945, at the end of the Second World War, when, in her dubious interpretation of history, the nation pulled together to rebuild Britain. In this way she is seeking to reestablish the TUC as a 'credible' force in the nation.

What O'Grady appears to forget is that the credibility of the TUC ultimately rests with the millions of ordinary workers, and their preparedness to fight to defend their jobs and pay, not with a system of joint committees with the bosses.

The post-war economic upswing and the strengthening of the trade union movement laid the basis for the bosses and national governments to make some concessions to workers in the form of the welfare state and higher wages. But we are facing a totally different international economic and geopolitical situation today. A severe economic crisis and a failing capitalist system will mean an increase in industrial and class conflict.

The Tories may be nodding in the direction of the trade unions today, when they are in a mess, but for years they have waged outright war on trade union rights, particularly by restrictive laws which are like a minefield to any union contemplating industrial action.

The TUC proposals come just at the time that a leaked Treasury document was discussing how to make workers pay for the crisis.

The increased membership of the trade unions makes workers and the TUC potentially more powerful. Instead of looking to joint work with capitalists, the TUC should draw up a list of demands on jobs, wages, conditions of service, scrapping the anti-union laws, and restoring public sector funding, and should coordinate strike action across the trade union movement in support of these demands.

Ultimately, the interests of workers lie in the establishment of a socialist economy, where the major industries, financial institutions etc, are publicly owned and democratically controlled.

No amount of employer/employee committees will ever agree to such a fundamental transformation of society.

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
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