IT WAS billed as his most “union friendly” speech since he became Labour leader ten years ago—and still it fell flat.
Tony Blair’s address to the TUC conference on Monday was meant to inspire union activists to enthusiastically campaign for Labour’s return to office at next year’s widely expected general election.
But his speech got just 24 seconds of lukewarm applause from delegates, who are largely drawn from the unions’ apparatus and form the linchpin of Labour’s union base.
Attempts by New Labour functionaries who were drafted into the conference hall for the speech to whip up an ovation were embarrassing.
“I was sat behind Labour chairman Ian McCartney,” says Ross Marshall of the RMT union. “He was clapping so hard I thought his arms were going to drop off. But around him there was silence.”
Instead of demonstrating a resurgence of support for New Labour, the TUC conference revealed the scale of Blair’s crisis.
A series of the big union leaders warned that he is pushing people away from Labour and making it harder to win the next election.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said, “If they think we are going to keep our gobs shut for Labour, they’ve got another think coming.”
GMB general secretary Kevin Curran acknowledged that “at root the government is in favour of a neo-liberal, US-style labour market, while we want a regulated, social democratic one”.
These union leaders are caught between two pressures. Many of their members want them to speak out—and then to start a fightback—against the government.
But the union leaders also want to act in partnership with Blair and defend Labour from the growth of a left wing alternative.
That is why there have been so many words detailing the pension crisis—yet so little action. And that is why there is much talk of workers’ rights but precious little struggle to achieve them.
Nor is there nearly enough support for groups, like the Scottish nursery nurses, who do resist.
Leaders of the “big four” unions—Unison, TGWU, GMB and Amicus—talked up Blair’s speech as a signal that he is finally listening.
They also told journalists that Blair had called on people to join a trade union.
In fact he said that people could “go and see what a modern trade union can do and if you want to, as is your democratic right, join”.
That less than ringing endorsement was poorly received.
Paula Mason from the RMT told Socialist Worker, “There is supposed to be a new partnership with the unions, but I heard nothing that will alter the misery afflicting working people.
“I work on P&O ferries. Pay and conditions are bad enough for us, but we’ve got Portuguese agency workers having to do 1,000 hours a year more than us and on lower pay.
“It’s been going on for 15 years—seven and a half under the Tories and seven and a half under Labour.
“Blair has not made a blind bit of difference.”
Stewart Brown from the Fire Brigades Union said, “Blair invoking the prospect of Michael Howard is poor, desperate stuff.
“He said he would stick by an agreement made with the unions at Labour’s policy forum in Warwick in July. But those commitments are really thin.
“They might be what some TUC leaders want to hear, but they are way short of what my members want.
“And it’s all about what might be in a manifesto. Well, going to war wasn’t in the last manifesto. Nor were top-up university fees, foundation hospitals or attacking firefighters and emergency control staff.
“But we got all that.”
The so called Warwick accord, made at the policy forum two months ago, is now at the centre of TUC leaders’ attempt to recover support for Labour.
The specific pledges are pitifully short of what all unions have called for, let alone what their activists want.
Tony Donaghy, president of the RMT, told delegates, “The government is abolishing unfairness to foxes—and quite right too. But it’s high time that a Labour government abolished unfairness to working people.”
Sacked Wembley steel erectors made the same point when they lobbied the conference. Their treatment shows how hollow Blair’s warm words and the Warwick accord are.
Whatever concessions the TUC believes it has wrung from New Labour, the reality is that workers still face a catalogue of attacks. These include raising the retirement age, a wider assault on pensions and, crucially, the massacre of 104,000 civil service workers’ jobs.
The conference unanimously voted to support the PCS civil service union, which is to ballot for a strike on 5 November.
Twelve union general secretaries spoke at a packed PCS fringe meeting.
The breadth of support was a big boost to PCS delegates. All speakers attacked the brutality of chancellor Gordon Brown’s TV announcement of the sackings.
Billy Hayes of the CWU likened it to the Tories’ infamous pit closure campaign in 1992.
There were pledges of support for whatever action civil service workers take.
“The issue now is to make that support real,” Jane Loftus from the CWU national executive told Socialist Worker.
“One of the issues facing the PCS is raising the pension age. Every union in the public sector should say they are moving to strike action over that.
“Every union should coordinate disputes with the PCS. This is an attempt by the government to pick off a left-led union before the election so they can go for the rest of us afterwards.
“We’ve got to put pressure on for real solidarity from the TUC and start building it now from the bottom up.”
The PCS dispute is part of a wider problem facing union leaders who are putting their faith in a third term for Labour.
Alan Milburn’s return to the cabinet is a signal that a “radical third term” means more privatisation and attacks.
The TUC and the Labour leadership are trying to mute clashes with Labour in the run-up to the election.
But they are not going away.
For more on the PCS and Wembley disputes turn to pages 14 and 15.