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2008 Trades Union Congress: Pressure from below begins to show
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber declared at the TUC conference last week that "nationalisation is unpopular". This is at a time when even the Bush government has been forced to carry out one of the biggest nationalisations in history.
Capitalist representatives around the globe, normally hostile to nationalisation, were breathing a sigh of relief at that emergency action in the USA but to argue that nationalisation is unpopular among working class people is particularly wrong. Workers expect governments to act, in a period of economic crisis, to save their jobs and living standards and if that means nationalisation, then so be it.
Barber was replying on behalf of the TUC general council to a motion from Unite, after it was amended by rail workers' union, RMT, to call for the utility and energy companies, amongst others, to be brought back into public ownership.
Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said that his union was in favour of the RMT amendment and that "he would back any energy worker" who refused to cut off the elderly and others because they couldn't afford high fuel bills.
We hope that Woodley backs up his words with action (many Unite members carry out this sort of work for British Gas and other energy companies).
But after the Gate Gourmet dispute at British Airways, when he first backed sympathy strike action in Heathrow and then repudiated it, Woodley will have to be reminded of this promise and pressurised to keep his word.
In the same speech, Woodley was right when he said that what is good enough for the banks (Northern Rock in this case) is good enough for the energy and utility companies. The motion was overwhelmingly carried despite the general council's opposition.
Janice Godrich, president of the PCS and a member of International Socialists in Scotland (sister organisation of the Socialist Party), moved a resolution on tax evasion by the super rich and big companies.
The TUC has revealed that £25 billion has gone missing as a result of evasion. Janice said that at a time when PCS members in revenue and customs are losing their jobs, the super rich - with the backing of the government - are getting away with murder.
She called it "the economics of the mad house" and called for the closing of the tax gap and for investment in public services with the money clawed back, instead of job and pay cuts.
The invited Labour Party speakers were weak. Chancellor Alistair Darling made a speech which can be summarised as: yes there is an economic crisis but you will only make it worse by demanding pay rises. This went down like a lead balloon.
In a 'question and answer' session he was put on the spot by Janice Godrich, who asked how he could justify paying zero percent pay increases to her members in the Department for Work and Pensions (including herself), by including in the department's wage bill the cost of incremental payments, and then saying that wages were going up by 2% (an effective wage cut anyway).
This put Darling off his stride and he was forced to say that he would look at this again - probably the most public set of pay negotiations for many years!
Another Labour guest speaker, Diane Hayter, tried to justify Labour government policies by referring to "the weeding out of Militant" to make the party "electable". By this time most of the delegates weren't listening to this sort of garbage, especially as it was clear to all that Labour is facing oblivion at the polls due to its pro-capitalist polices at a time of developing recession.
The TUC this year marked a step change. It is dawning on many that the union link to the Labour Party is becoming a huge albatross around the unions' neck. In the week before the congress, it was revealed that of the £102 million raised by the Labour Party since 2001, £72 million came from the unions.
Last year, one union, Unite, was responsible for 40% of Labour's funding. This is partly due to the 'peerages for donations' scandal cutting off much of the funding from big business and the super rich.
In a fringe meeting organised by the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), Janice, an invited speaker along with left Labour MP John MacDonnell, demanded that the unions break from Labour, and said that a new party is needed. John described the LRC as having a dual policy of trying to reform the Labour Party at the same time as preparing an alternative means of getting political representation for working people, which puzzled most of those listening.
Nevertheless, the fact that the LRC had invited Janice, someone who didn't agree with their position, indicates how things are beginning to change. Some union leaders who backed a reformed Labour Party are now beginning to have second thoughts.
Unfortunately most of them do not yet see that their role could be key to bringing about a new party and they shouldn't just wait for events.
The TUC, as reported in last week's paper, has been committed to organising action around the public-sector pay campaign. This was one of the most important decisions at the conference, despite the right wing opposition to it.
PCS has called for a national demonstration and united industrial action against Gordon Brown's pay freeze. The NUT has committed itself to a new strike ballot in October, the PCS ballot is around the same time.
It is possible that at least those two unions will be taking some form of joint national strike action in November.
Massive pressure should be put on the Unison leadership in particular to join in the action.
In the next few weeks, the TUC public-sector forum is due to meet to discuss how to put into practice the decision adopted at the conference, including organising a national pay demo.
Socialist Party trade unionists are calling for the demo to be part of the build-up to the expected strikes in November. We could indeed be in for a winter of mass action.
In The Socialist 17 September 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party campaigns
Labour Party conference protest
Privatisation and closure
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review