YET ANOTHER APPALLING TUC ANNUAL GATHERING
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Yet another appalling TUC annual gathering
Government legislation and union membership levels
The question of a national minimum wage
Yet another appalling TUC annual gathering
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In England the coming of autumn means the conference season has begun. The major political parties of the bosses take off to sea-side towns, followed by hordes of media commentators and camera crews, to debate all the problems of exploiting the masses of workers, and how to keep the ramshackle capitalist economy in one piece. The TUC (Trades Union Congress), never wishes to be left out of these jamborees and junketting events, so they take their part in the scurrying towards the sea, this time to Blackpool. The 1998 year's theme/slogan being «Organising Fairness».
There is nothing remarkable, nor shocking, about the TUC functioning as part of the political establishment of the ruling class. The TUC hitched its wagon to the employers over a century ago; and Marx condemned them, saying in his report of the Hague Congress of the First International, that «it is an honour not to be called an English trade union leader». Marx and Engels, with succeeding generations of marxists, have condemned this whole bunch as having deserted the working class and having gone over lock, stock and barrel to the employing class.
Over the last few years the media commentators have recorded a number of 'significant' firsts, such as when the TUC was addressed by a Tory Government minister and by head of the CBI. This year's first was an address from Eddie George, the Governor of the Bank of England. He was there to rebuff any criticism of the Bank's anti-inflation strategy, of keeping interest rates up. Trade Union leaders had been critical of all this, for keeping up the value of the pound sterling, endangering the profitability of industry, and so on. Mr George would have none of such talk - the struggle against inflation would still be the concern of the Bank of England. Mr George was listened to with much respect; after all the trade union leaders don't want to criticise establishment figures too much, or it would delay their own personal moves into the lofty reaches of the bosses hierarchy.
Mr George, would not have felt too out of place when attending the TUC, as he had his delegation from the Bank of England gathered around him. Amongst such representatives of the Board of the Bank of England was one of its newly recruited lay Directors - Bill Morris, aka, leader of the T&GWU (Transport & General Workers Union). Bill Morris was elevated to the haughty chambers of the Board of the Bank of England within weeks of convincing the Liverpool Dockers to abandon their protests, accept that they have been dismissed, and that only some would get their jobs back. Over two years of protests and picketting had led nowhere, but Bill Morris, the union chief, had been seen alright at the end of the day.
On the first day, the president of the TUC, John Edmonds, described the Directors of companies who awarded themselves large salary increases and bonuses as «greedy bastards». Edmonds called for the Government to take action on Directors who had pay increases of £ 50,000 or more per year. This was coupled with a demand for such people to pay more in tax. Spokespersons for the Government distanced themselves from such talk. Former TUC leaders and representatives from the Institute of Directors thought such comments were rather intemperate. Obviously this was all just a bit of hot air, politicking to appear radical, and obviously not to be taken too seriously.
John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, front man and acceptable face of old labour, refused to get involved in criticism of Directors pay. He was blunt with the TUC: they should stop carping about the economic dangers facing the country, and avoid talk about being hours away from economic melt-down.
Prescott went on to set the scene for Eddie George later in the week - the fight against inflation had the priority. Factory closures had little to do with the strength of the pound sterling:
«Don't tell me the collapse of the microchip prices from £30 to £1.30 and the troubles in the Japanese and Asian economies have nothing to do with it».
This disagreement between the Labour Government and the TUC reflect a division within the ranks of the bourgeoisie, between industrial and financial capital. The Labour Party, who sought for a long time to prise the industrial bosses away from the Tories, now represents finance capital as New labour.
Government legislation and union membership levels
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In the trade union movement, there has been much talk about easing the Tories «anti-union» legislation; but not much action! In reality the Tory laws are anti-strike measures, designed to curb the ability of rank-and-file workers in taking action outside of the control of the union leaders. By and large the bosses have never had much problem with the existing types of unions, an integral part of the system of class exploitation, tied by agreements and deals to the employers. It was the unofficial actions, characterised by determined defiance in the face of both the bosses and unions, which led to the Tory Governments introducing these laws.
During 1965-8 a Royal Commission under Lord Donovan studied the «industrial problems» of the country, and published the Donovan Report. In this report, it was clear that the trades unions, and shop stewards are a respected and integral part of industrial relations. About unofficial strikes it had this to say:
«We now turn to the aspect of strikes which seems to be more serious than the occasional official strike - the rapidly growing number of unofficial and unconstitutional strikes in this country (outside coalmining), We have kept constantly in mind that measures aimed, at reducing the number of unofficial strikes which merely lead trade unions to make strikes official would not improve industrial relations».
That is why the Tory laws sought to tie the workers down to procedures, ballots, notices of strike action, etc, which would ensure that unions officials could «discipline» unofficial actions. There had been a time when workers would just walk out of their place of work, hold a meeting, vote to stay out, and get away before the union off ices knew what was happening. The Tory laws have vastly increased the union bureaucracies ability to head off such situations.
The Government now has plans for a new «Fairness at Work» procedure, which would give unions the automatic right to represent the workforce if 40% of the employees vote for union recognition. Bill Morris, General Secretary of the T&GWU (and Director of the Bank of England) was not at all happy about this new proposed «White Paper». The need to get 40% of employees to vote for union membership was too high, with the provision that firms with 20 or less employees would be excluded was unfair, said Morris. Others thought that the Government's plans were rather pathetic. Arthur Scargill wanted to see all the Tory laws repealed, and won some sympathy, but few votes. It is obvious that the TUC equally does not want to see the emergence of unofficial movements as a consequence of the of the «Anti-union laws».
The delegates were informed that Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had let it be known that union rights which may come about through European legislation, would be resisted. «Back door» means of winning rights would not be tolerated. Obviously every effort would be made to keep the workers in line.
The issue of a poor wage rate for the young was also raised. Appalling standards of pay were reported. The solution: the recruitment of Billy Bragg the singer to go on a national tour to «heighten awareness of the issue»! Any notion of mass recruitment, organisation and struggles to raise the standards of pay of the young just did not bear thinking about! Even under the proposed national minimum wage, those 18 to 21 years of age will be paid substantially less than older workers.
A further decline of union membership was recorded. The total union membership last year was 6.8 million, as against 6.9 million for the previous year, showing a decline to 30% from 31% of the workforce. A recruitment drive is being prepared by an «organising academy» to decide how to recruit more «professional» people to the unions.
The TUC readily recognises that there are millions of workers who are not members who could easily join, and a figure of 3 million was mentioned. There are also large numbers of workers on short-term contracts, who are often not in places of employment long enough to be able to join, and who probably think that joining a union may decrease their chances of staying on. The real question remained unasked - why should more workers join when the unions are often (rightly) seen as in the pockets of the bosses. Those who do join are often there for the fringe benefits, and maybe a bit of. protection for being unjustly victimised (which they could probably get for free elsewhere).
The question of a national minimum wage
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Later on the TUC went on to discuss the national Minimum wage, which is due to be implemented next year. At one stage £4 per hour was proposed, but now the Government, after consulting «industry», is talking about £3.60 per hour.
Leaders of the T&GWU and UNISON (public service union) rushed forward to say that such a figure would not be enough for people to live on. The UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe even went on to challenge the Prime Minister and his wife to live on such an income for a while. It was clear that there was plenty of indignation in the hall about low wages, but there was no question about class struggle breaking out to ensure that wages were increased. The dreaded unofficial actions must not be allowed to take place! The workers must be kept in line!
The spokesperson for the Institute of Directors was promptly interviewed by the media. She stated that the TUC had in the past been supportive of the needs of industry by calling for Government intervention, but now pursuing a line that would be detrimental to industry (i. e., profitability).
But it isn't a minimum wage that will relieve the problems that face the workers: the bosses will still find backdoor ways of keeping down wages, and increasing the rate of exploitation to compensate. For instance, they can employ younger workers, go for more short term contracts, and use job creation schemes, where the Government pays the benefit levels, and the employer then «tops it up» to the level of the «minimum wage».
At the same time as the issue of the minimum wage was being debated, reports were being published about the crisis in the health service. Wages are so low that hospitals are not able to recruit sufficiently qualified staff. There are crises within the education sector, threats to close down «failing» schools, and sack 'bad' teachers. The reports detailed a long list of problems facing sector after sector, reflecting in reality a crisis ridden society, affected by a crisis ridden economy, just part of a crisis ridden world.
To answer the ever so mild criticisms made against the Government, Peter Mandelson, its (former) Spin Doctor-General, was there to give the TUC a warning that it must come even further into line. Modernisation was the key theme of his speech. The TUC was told that if it wanted to influence the Government it would have to embrace all aspects of its policies. Flexibility and adaptability was needed! They must lead in looking at what the bosses need to implement, rather than following behind and picking up the pieces.
«Congress, the choice is yours. Opposition or legitimate influence».
All the trade union leaders. interviewed were impressed and not unsympathetic. After all, they know which side their bread is buttered. It is easy to talk, make a few speeches which sound is if they care about the fate of the workers, but in the end they know that cushy jobs on Government bodies beckon, and for those with the most distinguished service to the ruling class, knighthoods and a place in the House of Lords.
The events at Blackpool have not been a surprise, being par for the course. The TUC continues to be a bastion of the ruling class: it was more than a hundred years ago, and it is now - thus it was, thus it shall be. The bitter hatred of Marx and Engels, and even earlier socialists, to that special type of rogue, the bourgeoisified trade union leader, is once again shows to be justified.
Whatever will arise to displace this band of rogues, one thing is clear, it will not appear in any shape or form like the existing TUC or its affiliated trade unions. That is one reason why we do not call for its «reform», even if that were possible. The existing unions are in reality merely a mirror image of the way the bosses organise, with its divisions by industry, trade, etc.
What is needed is an alternative that reflects. the organising needs of the masses of workers, both where they work and where they live, uniting the young and old with those in work, drawing in the displaced, the unemployed, the homeless, and so on. It is a different approach, reflecting different class needs, and class aspirations. Such class needs are a million light years removed from what was going on at the TUC in Blackpool. Those class needs are truly human, and can only be achieved by communism; a society yet to be born.
Source: «Communist Left», No. 12/13, Summer 1999
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