'HORRIBLE' was how one of New Labour's staunchest supporters in the trade union movement described last week's Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Brighton. The vast majority of delegates, the seven million workers they represent and millions of others felt differently. 'You get a feeling that, at last, slowly the anger and concerns of working people are finally getting a hearing at the top of the unions,' says TUC delegate Jane Loftus, a member of the national executive of the postal workers' CWU union. The conference put clear red water between the trade unions and New Labour.
This was despite the efforts of TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and some union leaders to cling to the fiction of partnership with the government and the bosses. It also provided a challenge for the left and the unions to organise resistance to the government and a political alternative to New Labour.
Last week most delegates, who were largely part of the trade union apparatus, privately took it for granted that Tony Blair is on his way out. For most of them chancellor Gordon Brown is seen as some kind of leftish alternative to Blair. But Brown offered them nothing in his speech to the conference, and he got a frosty reception. Nothing symbolised the scale of the shift over the last year more than the TUC's unanimous condemnation of the government for launching war on Iraq.
Last year the TUC voted narrowly on a card vote against clear-cut opposition to the war in favour of a motion allowing for an attack on Iraq provided it had the blessing of the United Nations Security Council. This year Roger Lyons, the union leader who slurred anti-war campaigners as representatives of 'Baghdad Trades Council', had to announce the TUC's support for the motion opposing the war and occupation.
There were huge cheers when Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said in the debate it seems those who opposed the anti-war position last year 'were speaking for Camp David or Washington TUC'. Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary of Britain's largest union, Unison, called on the TUC 'to provide a speaker for the stop the war demonstration on 27 September'. The TUC refused to speak at the historic march on 15 February.
Sonnet added, 'It is shameful that this country is standing shoulder to shoulder with the warmongers in the White House. We should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians and the Iraqis.' Andy Bain of the traditionally moderate TSSA rail union recalled how close the Stop the War Coalition came to preventing the government sending troops to Iraq:
'If the TUC had taken a clearer position, it might, just might have tipped the balance,' he said. Accumulated grievances with Blair's government burst out over other issues too. Delegates laid into New Labour in every debate-over pensions, privatisation and the massacre of manufacturing jobs.
Speaking in an emergency debate on the threatened closure of the Appledore shipyard in Devon, Danny Carrigan of the Amicus union reminded delegates of the occupation to save the UCS shipyard in Glasgow three decades ago. Such speeches have raised the confidence of union activists. But they have also posed the central issues of what the unions are going to do to challenge New Labour politically and industrially.
'TUC must flex muscles'
'IT'S A very welcome swing to the left. But the government just isn't listening to us. It's rushing through a bill on the fire service that the Tories would be proud of. I think we are heading for a major bust-up with the government, and it will take that to change anything. The speeches are fine. But we need to see the TUC flex its muscles over industrial and political issues.'
TUC delegate VAL SALMON, a national executive member of the Fire Brigades Union