The pressure on the union leaders over their loyalty to the Labour government emerged on the conference floor of the TUC last week.
A motion from the Communication Workers Union (CWU) was introduced by Tony Kearns, CWU deputy general secretary.
He said, “The political debate in Britain is now ‘who can cut the most?’ All of a sudden it is public sector workers who are taking the blame.
“This is about is preparing the whole movement for difficult years that lie ahead. It will allow those of us in the Labour party to promote our concerns in a Labour manifesto.”
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said the call for unions to debate political strategy was “an implied attempt to set up a new political party”.
“We do not believe that a conference talk about political representation will be a politically smart move,” he argued.
The motion was defeated but the debate continued when the TUC passed a motion in support of the People’s Charter.
Bob Crow, from the RMT union, asked delegates, “Is anyone going to argue that we should not have a democratic say over the way banks are run?
“The job of unions is to represent workers whatever political party they are in – and millions of trade unionists are not members of any party.”
In contrast, though also speaking in favour of the motion, Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson said, “There is no point criticising Labour if you’re not prepared to get in the party and fight to change it.
“The political parties are not the same, because there is one party – the Labour Party – that we can change. We must support it and, for Christ’s sake, stop a Tory government inflicting the same damage that they did in the ’80s.”
The union leaders cannot avoid the issue of Labour. But the issue is whether there is enough resistance to stop the attacks now – and the ones both the Tories and Labour are planning.