“Britain needs a pay rise!” That was the main running theme through this year’s annual congress of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of England and Wales, which covers 6.2 million workers in 58 unions in England and Wales, held in Liverpool from September 7 to 10.
Its key demand ― for a ￡1-an-hour wage rise across the entire public sector ― was the main factor behind the successful July 10 public sector general strike.
Unions with public sector coverage, led by Unite, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Public and Commercial Services union, UNISON and the GMB (“Britain’s General Union”), are the main drivers of the campaign. Despite rising costs of living and public pay freezes, their members have seen their buying power eroded by ￡2000 since 2010. They were only offered a 1% pay rise this year.
In her speech to congress, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady highlighted Britain’s growing income inequality and the upcoming strike action and a national demonstration for a pay rise, set for October 18.
She said: “Economic growth is back, yet there is no sign of it in the people’s pay packets. In fact, the income gap has gotten worse. The chief executives of the biggest companies now earn 175 times the wages of an average worker ...
“We want to send a message to the British politicians across the board that Britain needs a pay rise.”
Delegates from UNISON and GMB spoke of the economic hardships endured by the members of their unions.
One said: “Zero-hour contracts, low pay, rising debt, job insecurity and rising living costs are driving our workers back into the dark days before the welfare state, relying upon food banks and charities just to get by.”
Highlighting the severe cut in real wages experienced by public sector workers, TUC assistant general secretary Paul Novak added: “What we will see on October 18 is hundreds of thousands of public sector workers taking industrial action on pay.
“On that demonstration, we will not only see trade unionists, but also men and women, black and white, young and old, people coming from right across the country together under that banner.”
Novak expressed concern over the rise of new political forces on the British far-right, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the need for trade union action against increasing racial discrimination in the workplace.
Peter Pinkney, president of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), described the ongoing campaign for the renationalisation of British Rail: “The RMT, along with our sister trade union TSSA [Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association], have always wanted the renationalisation of railways. Seventy-four per cent of the British public is also in favour of that.
“The companies have continued to run down services and the conditions of the trains are despicable, while the company heads are making billions of profits each year out of that, including the billions of dollars in public subsidies.”
Pinkney said the RMT proposed letting the current private franchise contracts run out, then put railways back in public hands. He said the Green Party congress had adopted railway renationalisation as policy and that “in the lead up to the 2015 general election campaign, we are envisaging more public demonstrations and applying more political pressure on the parties, especially the Labour Party.”
For the NUT, represented by president Max Hyde, the vital issue was the privatisation of public education and the emergence of privately-funded “free schools”.
Such schools are not required to abide by the national teaching standards and have been damaging to the public schools in their respective local areas.
Hyde said: “Free schools are particularly difficult to deal with, as they can emerge anywhere and can be practically run by anyone. Apart from the question of accountability, there is also the question of political correctness ― it is not unheard of to have creationism being taught at one of these free schools.”
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, reported on one of the rare victories for union action in Britain over the past year ― the elimination of the bedroom tax in Scotland.
He said: “In Scotland, the Bedroom Tax does not exist. This is largely thanks to the efforts of our Unite community members organising campaigns and actions throughout Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, Perth and other cities.
“The popular preasure has forced the Scottish national government to completely scrap any benefit cuts associated with the legislation.”
The spectre of anti-union laws raised by the Conservative-Liberal democrat government was addressed by Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA).
Gillan said: “Britain has some of the most restricted trade union laws in Europe, if not the world, which was started in the Thatcher era. The POA had its trade union rights taken away from it in 1994, which effectively made it illegal and a criminal act for prison officers to take any form of industrial action.”
Yet that ban had been made ineffective, Gilard said. “In the past, we have ignored the legislation, and taken industrial action in 2007 and 2012 in order to defend our terms and conditions and pensions.
“This is what we have been saying to the rest of the trade union movement ― trade unionism was born out of the people resisting and I say we need to resist now, and that means the trade union movement will have to come together in order to resist. And if that means having a general strike, then so be it.”
The congress was due to hear from Rene Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five prisoners who had been unjustly jailed in the US for fighting US-sponsored terrorists. However, the British government denied Gonzalez a visa.
Instead, a pre-recorded video message was played, in which Gonzalez thanked the continuous work of the TUC and individual trade unions for fighting for the cause of the Cuban Five.
Other motions adopted covered support for Palestine after the brutal military assault on Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force, support for a ceasefire in Ukraine and opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The TTIP was of particular concern. Many unions put forward motions vowing to act to stop this law, which would give multinational corporations the ability to acquire ownership of Britain’s public services.