UK: The TUC continues to hold-back the working class

As a long-term delegate to two branches of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) – York, where I was secretary and Calderdale, where I am deputy chair, it fills me with unhappiness to witness the workings of an organisation that should be leading workers in struggle, but instead is a silent partner of the state machine.

1926 General Strike

It has always been historically true that the TUC has been unprepared to act in any meaningful kind of radical leadership role. The General Strike of 1926 put power within the hands of workers, but the unions and the TUC were prepared to hand that power back to the government of the day instead of playing a revolutionary role. They didn’t want power, they only wanted workers to let off steam before going back to work. This pattern has been reproduced ever since.

The general strike of 1926 was triggered by the threat of a reduction in mine-worker’s wages and other attacks on terms and conditions for 1.2 million locked-out miners. The strike lasted from May 4th to May 12th, 1926. The strike was nationwide. Although it was called by the TUC and it is the only general strike in British history to have been led by them, it was also called off by them only nine days after it had begun. Other workers, especially transport workers, came out in sympathy with the miners, so that at the height of the strike 1.7 million workers were out. The issue of miner’s wages was critical, with a plan by the mine owners to reduce wages by 13.5%, which was supported by the government’s Samuel Commission. Miner’s wages had already fallen on average from £6 to £3.18s over a period of seven years. There was also a proposal to increase the number of hours worked.

The Conservative government, led by Stanley Baldwin, had been preparing carefully for the strike for over nine months. It created the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, a militia of special constables and enlisted middle-class volunteers to drive buses etc and so lessen the strike’s effectiveness. It also called on the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. It is a lesson that we should still remember, that the ruling class will organise systematically to weaken the effectiveness of strikes, both through direct and covert action as well as by utilising its control of the media to undermine the arguments of the strikers. Margaret Thatcher understood well that strikes had to be prepared for and in the case of the miners’ strike of the 1980s, provoked at a time to best suit the objectives of the ruling class.

The Labour Party was uneasy about the calling of the 1926 general strike and gave it no support. It was worried about the revolutionary potential of the strike and about workers who were not subject to Labour Party authority. The TUC quickly began to see that were revolutionary elements involved in the strike, who were seeking to organise worker’s councils that could cut across the authority of both the Labour Party and the TUC. The government also, as it usually does, used the courts to attack the right to strike and to allow for the sequestration of union funds on the grounds that the strike was illegal. Today, we have sharp reminders in the current wave of strikes of the government’s use of the courts to undermine and weaken strikes resulting from interpretations of the law that invariably favour the employers and government’s ends.

In spite of there appearing to be no weakening of the striker’s resolve, the TUC and unions called off the strike – citing the court’s judgement and a promise made by the government to honour the terms of the Samuel Commission, including the 13.5% reduction in pay. That promise was never kept but the reduction of pay was enacted. The 1926 general strike shows us that the TUC was more afraid of the revolutionary power of the working class than it was of the oppressive power of the state. It also reveals that the TUC is prepared to enter into negotiations with the state, behind the backs of its members, a trend that continues. It has been reported that Stanley Baldwin put to the TUC leadership that the workers had taken power and asked them what they were going to do with it. Then, as now, the TUC was unprepared to shoulder the responsibility of leading the class it represents in a radical direction.

Miners’ strike ’84-‘85

Subsequently, the TUC has played a similar role. As mentioned above, the miners strike of 1984 – 85 showed a complete lack of resolve to back the miners from both the TUC and the Labour Party, even though the strikers had strong popular support. The government under Margaret Thatcher however had been preparing for the strike by stock-piling coal at power stations, so that electricity could be still be generated over a protracted strike. During the strike, the police were used as a political weapon. They were bussed into the coalfields from London and acted as provocateurs when the local police were unprepared to use violence against miners and were beginning to develop cordial relations with pickets in some cases. Throughout the course of the strike, 11,300 strikers were arrested, 5,600 put on trial and 100 were gaoled. Two miners were murdered at the infamous Orgreave demonstration, an event that is still shrouded in secrecy by the British state, because of the calculatedly provocative role played by the police, in a clear attempt to provoke a riot and discredit the miners’ cause.

Although the miners held out for almost twelve months and at one point were close to victory, the TUC and the Labour Party sat on their hands and did little or nothing to assist them in their struggle. This was ultimately the critical factor that led to the defeat of the miners. Many trade union leaders were talking about a “new realism” in industrial relations and the Labour Party, led by the defeatist Neil Kinnock, was afraid of a rising tide of militancy. Kinnock paved the way in the Labour Party, for the New Labour of the Blair / Brown era, and wanted to show to the ruling class that the Labour Party could be trusted by capitalism. Kinnock didn’t want powerful trade unions, especially if he were to become prime minister. The successful strikes of the 1970s had clearly proven that the Labour Party was closer to the ruling class and capitalism than it was to the workers who voted for it.

Current strike wave

The above are two examples of where the TUC could have played a leading role in promoting the rights of the working class and chose not to. We are in a similar situation today, although the current strike wave cannot be compared to the 1926 or the 1984-85 strikes. In spite of the heroic struggles of a wide range of trades unions, many of which are affiliated to the TUC, the TUC remains silent. It talks about having discussions with the affiliated unions about strategy, but there is absolutely no sign of any real joined up thinking in terms of a strategy or tactics. The arcane discussions are kept from the membership, who can only surmise at the possible direction they might be taking.

During the covid pandemic the TUC acted as a bastion to the incompetent Johnson government, who squandered the nations resources. On her retirement as general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady was lauded for winning the furlough scheme for workers. This was a scheme that was introduced by states across the world, including a similar and earlier scheme in China, as a way of preventing unrest. It was an example of the state acting with the TUC to maintain its survival, not an act of generosity towards workers. As for any critique of the Johnson administration’s handling of the crisis, the TUC stayed silent in spite of evidence of an early consideration of herd immunity, slowness to enact a lock-down and the total lack of preparation for a pandemic that the state knew was inevitable. Along with the Labour Party, the TUC refused to criticise in any effective way the Tory government and therefore allowed a perception to develop of a government that had acted effectively, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As with the general strike and the miners’ strike, they were more concerned with national unity than with progressing worker’s rights. As reported previously, the TUC also showed its support for the repressive institutions of the state, when it sent out a message to its members on the coronation of King Charles 3rd. The message read,

“We send our congratulations to King Charles 3rd on the day of his coronation and thank everyone working to make today a safe and enjoyable event.”

Discussions about a general strike

At the end of last year and even earlier this year, a mood amongst strikers as well as more broadly, was building towards the concept of a general strike or at least more generalised collective strike action. This mood was ignored by the TUC and it appears the trade union leaders. The lack of coordination of strike days is the remarkable feature, rather than their coordination. The TUC organised two days of action on February 1st and March 15th instead. These, as with previous marching events, appear to be a device for workers to let off steam in response to pressure from below, not a serious attempt to build anything.

The TUC acts hand-in-glove with the Labour Party. This seems to be especially the case now that Sir Keir Starmer is leader of the Labour Party. It acted in concert with Labour during the covid pandemic and continues to do so. On attending my regional TUC conference earlier this year I was sickened by the love-in between local Labour Party high ups and the conference organisers. We listened to several addresses from leading local Labour Party figures on the subject of how marvellous they are and how the Labour party is trying its best to help ordinary working people. The Labour Mayor, Oliver Coppard and the Labour MP, Louise Haigh, were eager to reassure the trade unionists present that Labour was on the side of workers, when every pronouncement of the leadership of their party suggests the opposite. One Sheffield Labour councillor, claimed that she entered politics in order to fight austerity and then admitted that she had been persuaded by her council colleagues that this is not possible via the setting of no-cuts budgets – a fact that is palpably untrue.

Sometimes small events tell a big story. As a member of Calderdale TUC, I was involved in applying for a grant from the regional TUC to purchase a PA system for use on demos and other public events. We were told that we had to remove references to working with and being prepared to lend the equipment to, Enough is Enough and People’s Assembly (PA) groups. We were told that this could jeopardise us receiving funding.  These groups are both widely supported by trades unions – PA is in part funded by UNITE the Union. Enough is Enough is supported by the CWU and other unions. But neither is approved of by the current leadership of the Labour Party and so it seems the leadership of the TUC.

As a member of my local TUC we are seeking to challenge the orthodoxy that muzzles opposition. Paul Novak, the recently appointed general secretary seems to be as reactionary and conformist as his predecessor. He came to office through a system of patronage and bureaucratic routinism. He was unopposed and had been a full-time trade union and TUC full-timer since 2020. It is well known in the movement that unions and the TUC have a system of patronage that promotes moderate trades unionists into positions of full – time responsibility. Those who work for the unions are well paid and see a reasonably easy and trouble-free career ahead of them, so long as they do not rock the boat.

Voices of discontent

There are voices of discontent within the TUC and there is an attempt for those voices to become louder. Calderdale TUC for example is putting a motion to the TUC congress, demanding that the TUC works more openly with its members and prepares systematically for generalised strike action. The local branch along with most other TUC branches, supports the strike movement and tries to widen the public’s understanding of the importance of trade union membership and activism. Calderdale branch is submitting an amendment to the Greater London Association TUC on the fight against trade union laws which states:

We further request the TUC play a leading role coordinating strike action across unions and protest action involving the wider population with the objective of generalised strike and protest action against the government’s anti-trade union legislation and Employment Act and to use the international courts if necessary. The TUC should communicate more openly with trades unionists and others in struggle.”

These are not the type of amendments to motions that the TUC wants to debate. The amendment was not only submitted by Calderdale TUC but was emphatically endorsed by the West Yorkshire Association TUC, a much larger body.  

Teachers, nurses, doctors, civil servants, transport workers, postal workers and others are in a fight for their union’s future and for the economic future of the working class. Following the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 there has been an atmosphere of pessimism within the ranks of the TUC and other unions. The desire to fight has never really been there. TUC bureaucrats are remote from their associations and members and spend most of their time in offices – being more concerned at maintaining harmony with employers than developing the rights of workers. I was once told by a full-time UNITE official that there was no point in taking an indicative ballot at York NHS Trust because they would never get a majority in support of strike action. This was over an issue of privatising the facilities staff. Nine months later the facilities staff were on strike because the union official in question had retired and not been replaced, which allowed an opening for the local shop stewards to lead the fight. This is another apparently small example of the complicity of bureaucrats with the system, in this case exposed by the behaviour of a UNITE official. Following this official’s departure from the scene however, UNITE, which is one of the more militant unions, got behind the workers and helped them build for the strike as well as supporting the strikers when the strike took place.

The TUC ought to do the same. The determination of the masses of workers to enter in struggle is there. They need support for these struggles, not by calling routine days of action, but by organising coordinated action across the trade union movement. This could of course include a general strike at some stage. The TUC should work more closely with its members and the trades councils about how best to promote this struggle. At the present time the militancy of individual trades councils and individual trades council members, far exceeds the militancy of of the TUC leadership, including Paul Novak, the new general secretary, which appears to be complicit with the ruling class. The lack of openness and real democracy in unions stifles debate and shifts the rhetoric towards support for the Labour Party, rather than a challenge to a system that is attacking worker’s rights and conditions. We need a TUC that is not under-estimating the resolve of the working class and its members and instead show leadership. Workers, activists, local trades unions councils, movements and community groups who grasp the underlying problem of the TUC should come together and coordinate this struggle.

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