British union movement debate campaign plans, Brexit

September 16, 2017
Jeremy Corbyn with TUC President Mary Bousted (left) and General Secretary Frances O'Grady (right

Britain’s main trade union confederation, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), held its 149th annual conference in Brighton on September 10-13. The gathering brought together hundreds of leaders, organisers, delegates and activists from more than 50 TUC-affiliated trade unions.

The conference discussed and adopted motions of support and campaign plans to oppose the austerity measures of the Conservative-Democratic Unionist Party government of Prime Minister Theresa May.

On the issue of wage protection and wage rises, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady spoke of the need to scrap the seven-year-long pay cap on public sector wages, saying that “giving public servants the pay rise they deserve … would add under 2% on government spending and would boost spending in Britain’s towns and regions that need it most”.

She called on unions to support the October 17 public sector workers rally in London and talked about the need to strengthen the trade union movement in the lead up to the 150th anniversary of TUC’s foundation.

Fighting insecurity

Her comments were echoed by Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union general secretary Ronnie Draper, who emphasised the urgency of bringing to power a Labour government that would legislate for a £10 an hour minimum wage (about $16.75).

Neil Derrick, a regional secretary of the GMB general workers union, spoke of the alarming rise in job insecurity across Britain’s workforce. He said: “Seven in 10 workers on insecure contracts experiencing mental health issues, while young workers are three times more likely to be on zero-hour contracts than their older colleagues”. He called for a ban on anti-zero-hour contracts, citing the success of the zero-hour contract campaign in New Zealand.

The conference also discussed the dire situation in the public housing sector. Conroy Lawrence, a delegate with the public service union UNISON, described the public housing situation as akin to “social cleansing”. He pointed out that under the Thatcher-era “right-to-buy” housing policy, the vast majority of public housing units and estates were bought up by private landlords and hedge funds registered in tax-free havens.

Louise Atkinson, from the National Education Union (NEU), highlighted the growing level of homelessness among workers, particularly working professionals such as teachers. She added that the seven-year-long public sector pay freeze had led to a sharp rise in the level of housing and job insecurity among public sector workers.

The conference also discussed the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the need to recognise the work of emergency workers by lifting the pay cap.

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack strongly criticised the policies of May’s government and the Kensington and Chelsea local councils for allowing the Grenfell Tower tragedy to occur in “one of the richest boroughs of London, in one of the richest countries in the world.”

He also praised the work of his fellow trade unionists in dealing with the fire and its aftermath, saying “the next time we come under attack in the news, we should tell them ‘this is what a trade unionist looks like’.”

Brexit debate

Several disagreements and conflicting proposals were brought forward by unions over Brexit and the approach unions should take towards Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU).

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner and general secretary Len McCluskey argued it was necessary to recognise the significance of the Brexit vote as a vote against “Tory austerity as much as against the Brussels bureaucracy”.

At the same time, they said unions had to oppose the Tory’s vision of Brexit leading to “a low-wage, deregulated tax haven off the shores of Europe” and support Britain’s membership in the single market for an extended “transitional period”.

They emphasised the need for a “jobs-first, workers-first Brexit”.

In contrast, Communication Workers’ Union general secretary Dave Ward criticised the apparent willingness of the TUC to defend the existing provisions of the EU free movement of labour laws, which he pointed out lead to greater exploitation unless workers were formally covered by strong labour laws.

Eddie Dempsey, a delegate from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT), strongly criticised the calls to remain in the single market. He said the EU was a neoliberal institution created by Europe’s industrialist class and that the single market itself was strongly supported by the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Dempsey emphasised the need to stand up for class interests and build solidarity among workers across Europe and the world. He advocated replacing the bosses through workers’ ownership of the means of production.


Among the most prominent guest speakers at the TUC congress was British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who praised the actions of various unions. He voiced his solidarity with various ongoing labour struggles across the country, including Unite’s campaign at SportsDirect, and McDonald’s workers fighting for a fair wage and Birmingham bins’ workers.

Corbyn said: “The next Labour government would seek to take action across the board to help protect people in the workplace”.

He also outlined Labour’s vision of a “jobs-first Brexit” that would include the banning of zero-hour contracts, raising the minimum wage to a genuine living wage, guaranteeing unions the right to access workplaces and defending the rights of EU workers and migrants in Britain.

Huber Ballesteros, a Colombian trade union leader and former political prisoner who was released from jail in January after a prolonged campaign for his freedom — of which the TUC was a part — also spoke.

He vowed that the Colombian trade union movement would continue fighting for workers’ rights on issues such as sub-contracting, casualisation, low wages, high unemployment, corruption in the public sector, and the ongoing repression and assassinations of unionists by far-right paramilitary forces. 


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