THE SPEECHES by union leaders at and around the TUC this week were among the angriest and most confrontational ever under a Labour government. It was not an industrial issue like wages or a single piece of legislation like a proposed anti-union law which was in the spotlight. It was the whole relationship between trade unions and New Labour.
Privatisation is the central element in something much wider- fury at a New Labour government which is spitting on those who put it into office. John Edmonds, leader of the GMB union, said this week, 'Tony Blair threatens to crack the foundations of the Labour Party. He has tested the loyalty of Labour Party members to destruction.'
Edmonds also revealed an opinion poll which showed that a quarter of Labour voters will switch their votes at the next election if the government presses ahead with more privatisation.
The Mirror's Paul Routledge, who is solid Old Labour, comments, 'The honeymoon between the unions and Tony Blair is over. Official.' The response to trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt was so frosty on Monday that the BBC's political editor reported, 'It wouldn't have been a surprise to see a penguin walk on the stage.'
In 1977 and 1978, before the last great upsurge of industrial action under Labour, the union leaders manoeuvred to keep the TUC conferences largely restrained affairs. They gave no real indication of the mood among rank and file workers. This week in Brighton the union leaders are under such pressure that they had to give some sense of bitterness at the base. They know their members are outraged about fat cats grabbing services.
They also know that Gordon Brown's talk of an end to boom and bust has turned to ashes after the moves towards meltdown in the markets this week. Union leaders' critical words about New Labour are welcome, but words will not be enough.
Tony Blair's second term has privatisation at the centre of its project. New Labour remains committed to PFI for hospitals and schools, to transferring hundreds of thousands of council homes out of the public sector, to privatising the London Underground and selling off crucial parts of the Post Office. Only action will stop them.
The great danger is that union leaders settle for small reforms in the privatisation programme rather than confronting it head-on. We need a great deal more than a few empty promises about terms and conditions in privatised services.
The TUC should call a monster demonstration against privatisation. UNISON's Dave Prentis ought to be encouraging every one of his members to take action against PFI and PPP. The CWU's Billy Hayes ought to start a strike ballot for every postal worker now against the competition and privatisation plans. John Edmonds should follow his speeches with a campaign for strikes to defend services.
Something big is happening in the labour movement in Britain. Workers in some industries have seized the initiative and set up rank and file organisations. In every workplace socialist politics needs to be raised to link up the different struggles. These initiatives by workers can place pressure on our leaders to fight and make sure the anger with Blair is filled with socialist politics.