A round-up of the latest news from the UK labour movement
HOW NOT TO STOP THE ROT
The TUC is consulting over replacing annual TUC Congresses with biennial Congresses (i.e. every two years).
Their consultative document also floats the idea of replacing the annual equality conferences (women, black workers, LGBT, and disability), the annual conference of Trades Union Councils, and the annual Young Members Conference with biennial conferences.
In its own way, and in its own language, the TUC’s document says a lot about the current state of the union movement. It says that the TUC Congress is supposed to be the “most visible sign” of trade union democracy and accountability. It debates motions put forward by its affiliates. It elects the membership of the TUC General Council and supervises its work. But, as the document goes on to admit, this is just empty verbiage.
It is “rare,” says the document, “for there to be a sharp change of policy over a 12 month period.” Changes in TUC policy “take place over a longer period”. Even an issue as important as the war in Iraq was “not debated by Congress until several months” after it had become a major political issue.
Electing the General Council is now “somewhat less important” due to the introduction of automatic seats for larger unions in the early 1980s. Less than half of the membership of the General Council is subject to annual re-election. And even in those sections where elections do take place, “changes in membership are usually limited to two or three each year, and these are mainly as a result of retirement.”
Delegate participation is embarrassingly low: “It is rare for more than one out of four delegates to take part in the Congress proceeding... most delegates’ participation consists of listening to debates and participating in delegation meetings, fringe meetings and social occasions.”
Putting it in its crudest terms: TUC congresses are little more than a talking (and drinking) shop.
But what of the significance of the TUC as an event which generates publicity for the trade union movement? These days “there is no live coverage on terrestrial television” and it is “rare for debates” to be reported in the printed media.
And yet Congresses are, by anyone’s standards, expensive to stage. Total expenditure by the TUC on a Congress “is £400,000, with £300,000 being recouped from the exhibition and related commercial activities.” (That so much income is generated by ‘commercial’ activities around the Congress itself says something about the nature of the event.)
The statutory conferences cost a further £175,000 per year. And then there is the cost to the affiliated unions of “sending and supporting their delegations” to the Congress and the statutory conferences, plus also the amount of TUC staff time expended on organising and running the events.
Such expenditure is taking place at a financially critical moment for the TUC. Union membership is falling again, and affiliation fees to the TUC are consequently falling as well. The closure of the TUC’s National Education Centre last year failed to plug the gap between income and expenditure. As a consequence:
“Without substantial reductions in expenditure involving reductions in staffing levels, the Administration Fund will face increasing deficits rising from £275k next year to £375k in 2007, and £500k in 2008.”
There are two possible answers to this situation.
One is the “solution” floated by the document: biennial Congresses, with a three-day conference at Congress House in the intervening year, and some kind of “mix” of “big” statutory conferences alternating with smaller statutory conferences.
Such a “solution” would be consistent with current practices throughout the trade union movement: the “rush for mergers”, despite the fact that bigger unions result in lower density of membership in the workplace, and in union structures more distant from the membership; and an endless process of branch mergers, resulting in branch meetings which are less accessible to members (because they cover a larger area) and less well attended (because they lack any clear identity or function).
Biennial TUC Congresses and statutory conferences, union mergers, and branch mergers all fail, to one degree or another, to address how to reinvigorate all levels of the trade union movement, and how to transform the trade unions, at all levels, into organisations which fight to protect and advance their members’ interests.
In its own way, the TUC consultation document identifies some real problems. Sadly, but inevitably, the solution it implicitly advocates is one of retreat.
TUC Congresses are dreary events. The solution is to make them better, not fewer.
COVENTRY SINGLE STATUS RALLY
UNISON members in Coventry are fighting pay cuts of up to £6,000 per year as part of the local implementation of “single status“.
Single Status is a 1997 agreement between local government employers and trade unions, which followed successful tribunal cases on equal pay. Local authorities undertook to equalise wages and conditions. However as the government has refused to give local authorities any financial support for the agreement, local authorities have ended up robbing one group of workers to pay another.
Coventry UNISON have already taken three days of branch wide strike action. Now they are working to rule and building up a strike fund to keep them going during planned selective
On 23 July they have called a national rally. Coventry wants to exchange experiences on fighting over Single Status with other branches. The Coventry dispute has national significance and the branch wants to organise a national petition calling for a full funding for Single Status.
Equal pay for women, fair pay for everyone.
Rally: Saturday 23 July 2005, 10am-4pm, Warwick Road, United Reformed Church, Coventry.
As we go to press, staff on Wessex Trains are preparing for strike action against compulsory redundancies.
Three years ago, the company reclassified some supervisory and clerical grades as “managers” — and then had the cheek to say that RMT could no longer represent them as they had a single-union deal for managers with the no-strike union TSSA!
This year, Wessex announced 14 redundancies amongst these grades. Their “consultation” consisted of phoning the TSSA full-timer, who dutifully agreed the list of names. However one of the 14 — RMT member Suzanne Hughes — does not want to go.
When RMT pointed out that there is a “no compulsory redundancies” agreement, the company claimed that it did not apply because Suzanne is a “manager”. But she is no more a manager than thousands of rail workers who have some kind of supervisory responsibility.
Drivers’ rep Alex Gordon told us “Wessex Trains Staff fear that once the tourist season ends, there will be mass redundanices amongst stations, revenue and other staff."
This dispute is about defending agreements and stopping compulsory redundancies. That’s why workers are united in a dispute to make Wessex find a job for Suzanne.
As we go to press, cleaners in the Houses of Parliament are holding their first ever strike. While MPs are paid a basic annual salary of over £55,000, the cleaners earn just £4.85 per hour and receive just 12 days holiday plus statutory days, statutory sick pay only and no company pension.
The 140 members of the T&G — who voted 100% in favour of strike action — are campaigning for £6.70 per hour; 20 days (plus eight public days) holiday; sick pay; company pension; and dignity and respect.
At last year’s Labour Party Conference, Tony Blair said “the nation should stop ignoring the […] office cleaners who do the early morning shift, clearing away the mess before the office is filled.” Another empty promise from New Labour?
Bus workers in east London have just secured a “Fare Share” agreement. All employees including non-T&G members will pay towards the cost of services they receive from the union in protecting and improving their terms and conditions.
Now all workers at East Thames Buses pay money to the TGWU, non-members paying £1.75 a week — the payment being part of a wage rise won by the union.
The argument is that the scheme strengthens collective worker organisation. The deal was accepted by a majority in a ballot of the entire workforce. The union argues that when workers see what the union can do for them, they end up joining.
This experience should be discussed in the labour movement.