TUC plaque TUC plaque. Photo: KJP1 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, license linked below article

The TUC’s decision to postpone conference reveals how disconnected its officials’ agenda is from workers’ reality, argues Richard Allday

In normal circumstances, Counterfire would be commenting this week on the motions discussed at the TUC, their merits and flaws, opportunities seized (or, more often, missed) and any implications for our class going forward. Undoubtedly, one major focus would have been on a discussion the TUC had already flagged up as critical: that of trades unions coordinating action.

The TUC, and press pundits, had made a meal of this idea, presenting it as a radical departure from trades unionism as we have known it for the last four decades. In fact, the reality was always likely to be way less radical than that. By the time the various unions had been consulted, the motions composited, the need to operate within the law been emphasised, etc. etc., the likely outcome would have been some worthy words, various bureaucrats pontificating on ‘the need for unity’, a couple of pounds of pious waffle, a sprinkling of hypocrisy, and the matter would be parked under ‘Business as usual’.

However, the times are apparently not normal, and the TUC has cancelled its conference: at such short notice that delegates were actually in Brighton before they heard of its cancellation!

Bureaucratic cretinism

Regardless of the merits of the decision – and we will discuss those presently – the simple fact of the cancellation at such short notice tells us an awful lot about the TUC. The decision was based on little democratic consultation and reached over the heads of the delegates themselves. The chair of the national executive of one of the largest affiliated unions (Tony Woodhouse of Unite) only found out when he tried to book into his accommodation.

It reveals the complete contempt shown for the lay members who allegedly make the decisions at TUC conference. They have booked time off work (in some cases, where they face hostile employers, they have actually had to book annual leave) only to find out, at the last minute, that the event is cancelled. It might be alright for the full-time paid staff of the unions – the General Secretaries and fulltime officials who ensure they attend this annual jolly – for them, it is just the inconvenience of re-arranging their diaries. For the lay members, it is a question of going back to their employers and seeking another week off.

It reveals the utter irrelevance of the TUC to the real world in which trade-union members live. The monarch may have died, but the world still turns. Bills still need to be paid. Inflation continues to bite. Fuel poverty hasn’t disappeared. But in the parallel universe occupied by the TUC, none of this impinges on its desire to be seen as ‘respectable’ by the established order.

There can be few clearer examples of the different worlds inhabited by trade-union members, and those paid allegedly to promote our interests. It says something about the behaviour we expect from the bureaucracy that Sharon Graham, General Secretary of Unite, can be seen as radical simply for stating that Unite sees no reason to ignore the democratic decisions taken by its members and will support those members taking industrial action, if that is their decision.

Disconnected deference

That disconnect is one of the driving forces that led to Graham’s election, and she is acutely aware of it. It is the same impulse of discontent as resulted in the vote for Brexit, and it is the same discontent that led to the increase in the Labour vote under Corbyn on the rise, and its collapse as the parliamentary party increasingly dissociated itself from any politics of dissent.

Thus, we end up with Starmer, a Labour leader whose suit has got more get-up-and-go than the man wearing it. This is the fundamental problem now facing the labour movement in Britain: as the real world becomes bleaker, and the fundamental contradictions are exposed in an economy driven by profit, those who claim to be the leadership of the working classes have to decide, whose side are they on?

If you think that the capitalism is the only practicable economic system, you are driven inexorably to the conclusion that ‘we’ have to make sacrifices to ensure the employers’ profits remain sacrosanct, because without profits, the system collapses. It also follows that the current social order is immutable, that employers are more important than employees, and that it is natural therefore for you to spend more time talking to the employer than to the members.

If, on the other hand, you think that the central purpose of a society should be to ensure that the satisfaction of human needs take precedence over the demands of the profit system, then you have a responsibility to challenge the nonsense that ‘we’re all in this together’. Unfortunately, the TUC’s cancellation of Conference (now rescheduled for 18-20 October) means yet a further delay in developing any sort of strategy to protect the vulnerable.   

The TUC’s (and the Labour leadership’s) craven abdication of responsibility is exposed the more clearly by the employing class’s response: Liverpool dockers announced over the weekend that they would not be picketing the port on Monday (the first day of their strike). They felt that, as the port would be shut (the royal funeral being announced as a Bank Holiday), so they would suspend the picket and mass rally planned. At which point the port employers decided that respect for the dead only goes so far, and they would be resuming operations at the port from 19.00hrs, on Monday.

The dockers not unnaturally feel the employer is taking the piss, so have reinstated the picket. And their union, Unite, is supporting their decision. They clearly have a better sense of priorities than the TUC.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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