This weekend (12-14 September) the Congress of the TUC, representing 48 trade unions with the best part of six million members, meets online.
The TUC General Council’s two statements to the Congress run to over 3,600 words. They diagnose some of UK society’s immediate problems, at least, and advocate a number of good and important things.
But they also confirm how far the top leadership of some of our unions – and even more so the TUC bureaucracy – are from a serious class-struggle, let alone socialist, approach, capable of rallying trade unionists to meaningfully address the multiple emergencies the working class in the UK faces:
• No call for public ownership and free public provision of social care and support services, without which calls for really radical changes to these services are little more than a pious wish.
• Despite the last real-world TUC Congress, in 2019, reaffirming the 2012 policy for public ownership and democratic control of the big banks and financial institutions, this policy is once again ignored. Without it, policies to tackle the climate crisis and reverse the growth of poverty and inequality will be stunted and toothless.
• More generally: there is a section on public ownership but it is generic in the extreme, mentioning no specific industries or services (in addition to making apologetic qualifications). Many of the documents’ calls for increased public spending could imply public ownership, or they could imply funnelling extra tens of billions of public money to private employers.
• No clear call, beyond one passing reference, to taxing and otherwise taking wealth from the rich to diminish inequality and restore and improve social provision and living standards. The word "rich" is not used, nor is there any other form of reference to the spiralling wealth of the super-rich and the startling growth of inequality - and the need to fight back.
• In the absence of clear policies on public ownership, democratic control of the financial system and taxing the rich, the climate policies sketched out are also deeply inadequate.
• The same goes for the anti-racist programme the second document, on the work of the TUC’s Anti-Racism Taskforce, outlines.
• Astonishingly, the documents say nothing about migrants’ rights and the right-wing assault on and agitation against them. They say nothing about the car-crash of Brexit, and virtually nothing about international links and solidarity more broadly.
• Nothing about housing, or about the destruction of local government. It's hard to imagine how a 3,600 word document on issues facing workers could fail to even refer to housing. Of course the top TUC officers and staff are all highly paid and very likely all home-owners, and so don't feel the urgency. This lack of class feeling is reflected in the wider contents and tone of the documents too.
• There is no assessment of what the Labour Party is doing, or calls or pressure on it to do anything (instead the General Council twice praises the Biden administration!) If the TUC exerted any pressure at all on Labour to carry out even the extremely modest policies it advocates in these documents, we would be in a better situation.
• Crucially: there is no assessment of the labour movement’s weakness and the difficult situation we find ourselves in, or even nods to how to regroup and take things forward, beyond a vague promise to “step up and deliver a step-change in organising”. Instead we get an exaggerated celebration of the Tories’ concessions during the pandemic (unsurprisingly given how the TUC fell over itself to praise them at the time) and the welcome but in fact very limited gains unions have made (and in fact only in the public sector).
• The documents repeatedly centres the call for an expansion of collective bargaining between unions and employers. But the reality is that collective bargaining is in decline and under attack from the bosses. The only way to turn things around, on this and many other fronts, is some seriously aggressive working-class struggle. How far the TUC General Council is from wanting that is shown not just by what policies it does and doesn't advocate, but by its repeated pleas here and generally for employer-union collaboration. One side attacks, the other begs to be friends... Even if you don't accept the idea of an irreconcilable conflict of interests between the employing class and the working class, as socialists do, this is foolish. There will be no significant "collective transfer of power and wealth to working people" without major struggle. The documents, while over-optimistically talking up the recent achievements of the unions, say virtually nothing about actual workers’ struggles. No current or potential struggles are mentioned; the words “strike”, “struggle” and “dispute” are not used. There is little evidence the TUC intends to run serious political campaigns even for the demands it does set out, let alone encourage industrial action.
• No changes to the legal situation of trade unions can provide a panacea for the labour movement’s difficulties – not least but not only because this begs the question of how to win these changes / win a government that will implement them. But the obvious demand is for repeal of the anti-union / anti-strike laws: a policy demanded clearly by the 2019 TUC Congress, but again ignored here. Nor is there even any reference to the Tories’ continuing assaults on our rights to strike and protest.
There are some stirrings in the trade union movement which could provide starting points for turning the tide. The General Council statements reaffirm that the TUC as such is unlikely to be in the lead of any revival. Nevertheless trade unionists should demand better from it.
For the motions to TUC Congress 2021, see here.