TUC avoids encouraging us
WE seem to be seeing off the celebrity ice bucket craze, touch wood, but an older tradition persists, of pouring cold water on anyone who shows enthusiasm for getting involved and changing things.
Some 15,000 people turned out in Trafalgar Square on September 7 for a demonstration in defence of the National Health Service that began with a group of women in the North East of England deciding to march to London following the route of the pre-war unemployed Hunger Marches. About 5,000 joined them on the final leg of their march into central London.
Next month the TUC is holding its own demonstration on October 18, which should hopefully attract much larger support, particularly with big unions and their resources to back it. In the week leading up to it important groups of public sector workers particularly are due to take industrial action. But many trade unionists are critical of the way the TUC seems to have retreated from calls for confrontation with the government to almost ritual annual parades.
They also question the decision taken some time back by top officials that the sole theme of the October 18 demo should be "Britain Needs A Pay Rise". Some Brits, the rich and the overpaid bankers, don't need anything of the sort, they are wealthier than ever; whereas the workers who produce the wealth and provide essential services, some of them having to claim benefits even though working, don't think they are going to win a decent rise merely by walking through town asking for it.
That's not why they joined a trade union.
As the TUC leaflet for October 18 states, real wages of full-time workers in the South East of England were £2,500 a year lower in 2013 than in 2010; and in London £3,151 a year lower. But many have also lost jobs and homes, they are being driven from the capital by soaring rents and benefit capping, they are being deprived of health services, and disabled people are facing the inquisition to try and keep their benefits.
It is necessary to defend all parts of our life, and trade unions must reach out to the unemployed and unorganised, those forced to take casual work and zero hours contacts, those struggling to get and keep a roof over their heads, the young, the old, and the disabled, some of whose own battles with callous authority have been an example in courage and audacity.
Unite community branches are one way of broadening out, and giving more people the chance to get involved, another are good old-fashioned trades councils, linking members of different unions to pursue trade unionism in the community. In the west London borough of Ealing both Unite Community and the trades council have been active against NHS cuts, and supported protests against the closure of A&E departments at the Hammersmith and Central Middlesex hospitals.
In preparation for the TUC's October 18 demonstration, Ealing trades council has called a public meeting at the town hall on September 29, with speakers including John McDonnell MP, and Linda Kaucher, a campaigner against the TTIP agreements. Ealing submitted the motion adopted by this year's conference of trades union councils concerning the dangers of TTIP for the NHS.
(see also: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ournhs/john-hilary/on-ttip-and-nhs-they-are-trying-to-bamboozle-us)
Trades union councils, trades councils to use their original and easier name, have been around since the 19th century. Though beginning with modest aims like maintaining area wage rates, their bringing together workers from different trades and workplaces also brought a broader, class outlook. It was in 1868, a year after the Second Reform Act first extended the franchise to working men, that the Manchester and Salford Trades Council called a conference at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester which became the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Though rapidly outgrown by their offspring, the trades councils did not shrivel or become obsolete. In the 1926 General Strike, the General Council of the TUC confronted the government. But it was the trades councils in the localities, often with constituency Labour Parties and co-ops, which became Councils of Action, conducting the struggle, sending out despatch riders, maintaining pickets and strike newspapers, and sometimes coming near to taking on the functions of government.
When it is necessary to obtain written permits from the workers' council to take a lorry across Sheffield, or when a 'workers' defence corps' is entrusted with keeping order, we have the beginnings of what historians call dual power.
While remaining essentially rank-and-file, grass roots bodies, trades councils have not confined themselves to the parochial. Two members of the London Trades Council, George Odgar and George Howells, helped Marx start the First International, though it was Manchester and Salford Trades Council and Birmingham Trades Council which affiliated.
In 1939 it was Stepney trades council (now in Tower Hamlets) which arranged the first exhibition in Britain of Picasso's Guernica, opened by Clem Attlee, as part of its efforts to raise aid for Republican Spain.
In June 1962, Tom Durkin, secretary of Willesden Trades Council (later merged with Wembley to form Brent TUC) arranged for a young South African militant about to return home to address a trades council public meeting in the Anson Hall. It was Nelson Mandela's first big meeting here , his last before returning to capture.
Best known for its support to the Grunwick strikers, Brent trades council is much reduced in strength nowadays, as is its industrial base, but remains aware of its international responsibility, in one of the most diverse areas of Britain. Together with Asian groups we protested Brent North Labour MP Barry Gardiner's invitation of right-wing Indian politician Narendra Modi, (the visit was cancelled). Discovering we had an embassy, that of Cambodia, in our borough, we have also joined War on Want and others campaigning over the treatment of Cambodian textile workers. The adage "Think globally, act locally" might have been invented for trades councils.
Yet trades councils remain the Cindarellas of the trade union movement, short of funds and access to resources, and treated with disdain and suspicion by some full-time union officials, who do not encourage their branches to affiliate. Their attitude permeates down by stealthy whispers and asides, rather than open argument. Campaigning against cuts in west London, a colleague asked one public service branch secretary whether they'd considered affiliating. "Oh no," replied the brother, who'd evidently been briefed. "We don't want anything to do with trades councils, they are all run by Trots!"
Each year the trades councils conference is entitled to submit one motion to the TUC, and to send one fraternal, or sororal, delegate. But the delegate is not allowed to speak or vote on this or anything else, being only there in a honorary capacity. If there at all. A couple of years ago the honour fell on me to atend the TUC in Brighton. When the chair, Paul Kenny, of the GMB, welcomed the fraternal delegate Bro.Pottins, there was slight applause, but Bro.Pottins was nowhere to be seen, having been relegated to the outer darkness of a distant balcony because I'd only been given a visitor's credential. This might have been simply an administrative mistake, but it was not remedied through the week.
I hear this year's fraternal delegate, Bridgwater postman Dave Chapple of the CWU, was slightly more fortunate, only managing a seat in the hall because a member of the RMT delegation had not shown up.
It was the late Bob Crow of the RMT union who moved the resolution last year on behalf of the trades union councils, calling for us to be given bigger material support for campaigning, unions to encourage their branches' affiliations, and our proper representation in the TUC. This was passed, although TUC officials had "reservations" about the last bit, and one year later it appeared nothing had been done. So this year's trades union councils conference in Cardiff, after hearing from the TUC's Paul Nowak without quite grasping what his "reservations" were, adopted a motion essentially reiterating the call for unions' support and for the right of our delegate to participate properly, and be able to move our own motion at Congress.
Once again, after the tragic loss of Bob Crow, it fell to the RMT to move this at the TUC, and it was seconded by Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union and supported by my own union, Unite. Only a couple of smaller unions' delegates spoke against, and they appear to have been misinformed that trades council delegates are not answerable to anyone (we most certainly are) and under the misapprehension that they might somehow be overwhelmed by what is, after all, but one trades council delegate.
I'm sorry to hear that the ship's officers union Nautilus and the Society of Physiotherapists were worried this way, because from what I've seen of their campaigning I think we'd be glad to welcome any members they could send to our trades councils, and they might be pleasantly surprised by how much they have in common with us.
When it came to a vote it looked as though our motion might be carried, I'm told, but then TUC President Muhammad Taj decided to have a card vote, which means that unions are awarded votes according to their paid membership. This time the motion was defeated. It appears that one or two big unions whose delegations had remained shy during the debate, and even abstained on the show of hands, decided to make sure it was defeated.
Unlike the smaller unions whom they had hidden behind, these bigger organisations know the score. They can hardly fear being pushed around or elbowed aside by the puny weight of a trades councils' delegate. Their leaders know, and maybe resent, the fact that trades council activists aren't in it for their careers or privileges.
With many of their members finding themselves in the frontline of local government and NHS cuts these unions ought to be welcoming and reinforcing the trades councils in every area as allies in the fight, able to unite public service workers with those who depend upon their services.
Unless of course they are not too sure they want any fight, and would sooner see their members isolated and demoralised, than encourage unity with other workers in the trades councils, whose enthusiasm and outlook might prove infectious.