Socialist Worker

TUC Congress - unions must break the law to defend workers' rights

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans in Brighton
Issue No. 2521

Delegates listen to TUC general secretary Frances OGrady at this years TUC congress

Delegates listen to TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady at this year's TUC congress (Pic: Socialist Worker)

This year’s TUC congress in Brighton came after the Tories passed their Trade Union Act in May. 

It is a serious attack on trade union rights, which further restricts the right to strike.

As Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, told delegates, “This time last year we were facing the biggest government attack on our movement for generations.”

But O’Grady then fantastically claimed that the TUC had beaten back the Tories’ assault.

“Yes, they got their Trade Union Act—and it will be bureaucratic, a waste of members’ money and a waste of everyone’s time,” she said. 

“But we beat them, not on everything but in the big battles we beat them back.”

In fact the central elements of the proposed law went through.Many delegates weren’t convinced by O’Grady’s claim.

Mick Whelan, Aslef train drivers’ union general secretary, told Socialist Worker, “We’re grateful to the work the TUC did do against this pernicious law. 

“But the reality is we have worse trade union rights than other countries in Europe—we have to fight for our rights.”

The Trade Union Act requires a 50 percent turnout in ballots if workers want to take industrial action.


Workers in “important public services”, such as health and transport, will need 40 percent of those eligible to vote to back strikes. 

Alex Stoten, a TSSA union delegate, told Socialist Worker, “There were some small concessions, but we could have gone a lot further.

“The big issue in the law was the ballot thresholds—it’s total hypocrisy from the Tories because many of their MPs don’t reach such thresholds. But these restrictions are still in the law.”

O’Grady promised to throw “the kitchen sink at defeating the bill” at TUC conference last year.

In reality, the TUC had already thrown in the towel on full-scale confrontation. It relied on lobbying Tory MPs and the Lords instead of mobilising members.

Sections of the law, including the ballot thresholds, don’t apply until the secretary of state makes a “commencement order”. It is expected to come soon.

Workers must prepare to defy the Act. Alex agreed, “We didn’t win all the rights we have by going along with what’s legal. If we did, then we would never have won anything. 

“My union and Unite said we would ignore the ballot thresholds if they brought them in. The TUC should do the same.”

Whelan added, “Unions will have to stand up and break the law—or unions have to come together and coordinate to break the law.”

Brexit is a chance to push back the Tories

Debates about how to respond to the European Union (EU) referendum Leave vote dominated the first day of the Congress.

Delegates passed a motion that reflected the majority of union leaders’ support for the EU. It regretted that unions had been “unable to persuade working class communities to support the Remain position”.

But it also said the TUC “accepted the result” and the result “was a rebuke to an out-of-touch political and economic elite”.

CWU union delegate Amarjit Singh

CWU union delegate Amarjit Singh (Pic: Socialist Worker)

The scale of support for Leave among union members forced union leaders to put forward a positive vision of the future. Len McCluskey, Unite union general secretary, said, “This could be an opportunity to break with neoliberalism and put forward what sort of country Britain could be.”

Unison union leader Dave Prentis similarly argued that “the government could use Brexit to throw off the shackles of austerity”.

It’s urgent that the unions—and the Labour Party—draw up a clear plan for a “left Brexit”. The debate and the decisions cannot be left to varying shades of right wingers.


The motion that was passed puts forward some positive, if vague, demands towards such a programme. It included, for example, a call to “stand in solidarity with all migrant workers, who contribute enormous value to society and support the right of all EU nationals living here to remain.”

It also said that the TUC should “support public events, rallies, protests and demonstrations, coordinated between affiliates, aimed at defending working people from the impacts of Brexit”.

These words need to be turned into action.

To secure the opportunities after the Leave vote will mean the unions leading a fight. 

Amarjit Singh, a CWU union delegate from South Wales, told Socialist Worker, “The TUC must be a focus for activity.

“We’ve got to get out onto the streets—not just one event but actually mobilise trade union members. When there’s big disputes, like the junior doctors, the TUC should support them.”

Migrants are not to blame

TUC delegates were clear that defending EU migrants’ rights and standing against racism was a priority. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told Socialist Worker, “It is immoral to use people as bargaining chips.

“EU nationals should be guaranteed the right to remain—and we know that the majority of people agree with us.”

Some union leaders have previously played to the idea that migrant workers drive down wages—what they call “social dumping”. 

But at TUC conference union leaders agreed that migrants are not to blame for low wages, lack of housing or pressure on public services.

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