THE RIFT between the unions and Tony Blair's government came into full view at the TUC conference this week. Union leaders and delegates representing over seven million workers tore into every core New Labour policy-from the occupation of Iraq to foundation hospitals, top-up student fees and the anti-union laws. Calls for action over the pensions crisis moved to centre stage.
Even union leaders who have spent the last six years slavishly defending New Labour felt they had to get behind motions that signalled confrontation with the government. On issue after issue those union leaders who normally speak up for the government had to vote for motions that laid into New Labour. Those motions were composites drawn up from separate resolutions submitted by individual unions. That process has usually meant filleting out left wing criticism of New Labour.
This time the bulk of proposals from the left stayed in. So the motion on rights at work, passed unanimously on Monday, called for 'the right of unions to engage in secondary industrial action' and to 'determine their own rules in relation to discipline and exclusion' of organised racists and fascists.
The best-received speeches were those that articulated the immense bitterness of rank and file trade unionists with what the Labour government is doing.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail and transport union, won loud applause when he said:
'People on the TUC general council who talk about partnership with the employers must meet different partners than I do. Brian Souter is the boss of Stagecoach buses. His drivers, our members, in Devon went on strike over pay. He bussed in managers from all over the country to scab. If it's good enough for the bosses to know what solidarity is, it should be good enough for us. We want full union rights from day one and the right to take secondary action in support of other workers.'
Barry Camfield, from the TGWU union, said, 'Prime minister Blair was only half right when he promised us fairness, not favours. He's certainly done us no favours. After years of the Tories working families' expectations changed. But the reality under this Labour government has been vastly different. The firefighters were treated appallingly.'
Most speakers in the debate on rights at work limited their criticisms to specific aspects of the anti-union laws and leading TUC figures continued to plead for partnership with employers and the government.
But none of them could point to any great success from a strategy of holding back from confrontation under Labour. Most delegates applauded when Bob Crow attacked the TUC's decision to invite Digby Jones, head of the bosses' CBI, to speak at the conference.
Crow said, 'I don't want to listen to an employers' representative talking about partnership. And we shouldn't simply be talking about consultation when there are redundancies. We should be leading a campaign to stop factories being shut down in the first place.'
Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said the reality under Blair is 'low pay, long hours, stress and illness'. In a debate on 'work-life balance' Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants' union, pointed to the successful wildcat action taken by British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow over the summer.
'They have shown how to fight for a work-life balance and provided an example for all of us,' he said. GMB union delegate Sandra Allen works at the Birds Eye plant in Grimsby. She called for a campaign to raise the minimum wage for young workers:
'The work is no less if you are 16, 17 or 18. So why should there be age limits and exemptions for the minimum wage? We want to see an end to that. All workers should get a decent living wage.'
A group of workers facing redundancy at the Alstom engineering firm observed the conference on the first day. 'We are here because we face being thrown on the scrap heap,' said one. 'The government's just not listening to us. We are here to get the union movement to listen, give us support and do something.'
Demanding action to halt pensions crisis
THE CONFERENCE reflected the shock and fear of millions of workers that they will be forced to work till they drop as pension schemes are wound up and cut. Tony Woodley, the incoming leader of the TGWU, accused bosses of stealing £19 billion from pensioners through pensions contribution holidays. Woodley said, 'Ronnie Biggs has spent 35 years on the run for stealing pennies compared with what the employers are stealing now.'
Gerald Imison of the teachers' and lecturers' ATL union said, 'The government has failed to learn the lessons from Robert Maxwell by playing with public sector pension funds as though they were government property rather than being held in trust for pensioners.'
Jennie Drake, from the post and telecoms CWU union, said, 'What motivates employers is the desire to transfer risks to employees and reduce costs. British employers have saved billions by closing final salary schemes. 'For years and years when the stockmarket was rising employers took contribution holidays but when it fell they dumped the risk onto the employee.'
Tony Brockman from the National Union of Teachers called moves to raise the retirement age a 'disgraceful swindle'. He said, 'It is telling working men and women they will have to stay at work for years longer to get a pension they thought they had already paid for.' He added, 'That is nothing short of cruelty.'
The conference unanimously passed a motion that called on the TUC to organise 'a demonstration and rally in cooperation with the pensioners' movement'. It instructed the TUC to launch 'a sustained campaign, including consideration of a national day of action, uniting public and private sector unions'. Tony Brockman called on delegates to 'build for a massive demonstration'.
Train driver Dave Tyson from the Aslef union said, 'The great danger is placing all our funds and hopes on the stockmarket. Where's the sense of putting all our money in the very firms we condemn over the arms trade and Third World debt?' Mark Serwotka said, 'There have been huge demonstrations and strikes across Europe over pensions. If French, German and Austrian workers can do it, so can we.'
Turn up the heat on liar Blair
OVER 140 delegates crammed into a fringe meeting organised by the Stop the War Coalition. The coalition now has the support of 14 unions-including the five biggest. Paul Mackney, general secretary of the Natfhe lecturers' union, said, 'The greatest success of the Stop the War Coalition is that the enormous demonstrations showed we have the power to change things. It is more vital than ever that we continue to build that broad movement for peace and justice.'
Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary of the Unison union, attacked the 'downright lies' told by the government to take us to war. 'I particularly want us to condemn Tony Blair,' he said. Together with Italy's Berlusconi, Spain's Aznar and Australia's Howard he makes up the right wing axis of evil.'
Kate Hudson, newly elected chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), welcomed the way the Stop the War Coalition had 'grown remarkably in just two years', and had developed a close working relationship with CND and the Muslim Association of Britain. 'We need to do everything we can to have a massive demonstration on 27 September,' she said.
Other speakers were Tony Woodley of the TGWU, Ruth Winters, president of the FBU, Jeremy Dear of the NUJ and anti-war MP George Galloway. Stop the War Coalition chair Andrew Murray underlined the importance of the national demonstration in two weeks time.
The whole meeting rose to its feet in support of Galloway, who faces the very serious threat of expulsion from the Labour Party for his anti-war stance.