The Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference in Blackpool last week was the most significant for years. The debates, speeches and votes made headline news on TV and in papers which normally shun serious coverage of trade union affairs.
Not since the 1984 TUC during the year-long miners' strike has the annual gathering of delegates from Britain's unions had such a political impact.
There is a long established, and damaging, tradition in the British working class movement of separating 'politics' and 'economics'. Unions concern themselves with the economics - jobs, pay and conditions. 'Politics' is the preserve of the Labour Party. That divide was spectacularly breached at the TUC, with Palestine and war against Iraq taking centre stage alongside pay, privatisation and pensions. On all fronts unions are on a collision course with the New Labour government.
Central to the new mood is a significant shift in the leadership of important unions, with the emergence of what has been dubbed the 'awkward squad' of left wing union leaders. One of those leaders, Bob Crow of the RMT rail union, rightly says the shift at the top of the unions 'is a reflection of the changing mood' among union members and 'not the reason for it'.
The TUC is dominated by the upper layers of the trade union movement, union leaders, national executives, regional officers and union officials. Their positions in the unions' bureaucratic apparatus, years of defeat and, for many, institutional loyalties to Labour foster a conservative, cautious approach. But the clash between New Labour's policies and the deepening bitterness among workers has produced a sharp echo at the top of many unions. Key leaders who stood for ultra-loyalty to New Labour, and a Cold War opposition to the left, have been swept away.
First Barry Reamsbottom was defeated by Mark Serwotka for leader of the PCS civil servants' union. Mark was a rank and file activist and is a left wing socialist. Bob Crow then won the election against the right in the RMT rail union earlier this year. More recently Sir Ken Jackson, 'Blair's favourite trade unionist', was defeated by former Communist Party member Derek Simpson for leader of the Amicus engineering union.
The only major union leader now seen as a hard New Labour supporter is Roger Lyons, joint leader of Amicus. His interventions at the TUC to push what one union leader described to Socialist Worker as 'the Foreign Office line' only underlined how isolated he was - delegates hissed him.
Unrest among union leaders
The mood among ordinary union members also affected what the media label the 'mainstream' leaders of some key unions, such as Bill Morris of the TGWU, John Edmonds of the GMB and Dave Prentis of Unison. To different degrees, and in a contradictory fashion, they have distanced themselves from Blair's government - though all remain deeply committed to Labour.
Bill Morris played a key role in backing a TUC statement which could give Blair a green light to wage war if it has UN Security Council backing. The TGWU, however, then produced its own 'Stop the war' stickers for its delegates to wear when Blair addressed the TUC the next day.
GMB leader John Edmonds has been even more critical of New Labour, even though his union backed the TUC statement on the war. One well informed source told Socialist Worker that Edmonds was spitting blood at having being labelled 'a communist' by figures in the New Labour coterie. Edmonds told Socialist Worker that there could be circumstances over the war where he could see the TUC 'organising lobbies and demonstrations' which 'could change the political landscape'.
Few speeches by TUC delegates are made without their content being agreed to by the union's leaders, especially in the GMB. When 16 year old GMB member Kate Farrington was presented with the congress youth medal for organising young people she concluded by turning to Blair, who was on the platform, and asked him 'not to go to war'. She won a standing ovation.
The leaders of Unison have long been bitter at New Labour, with their members in public services on the sharp end of privatisation and low pay. But Unison leaders expressed the gulf between them and New Labour more starkly than I can remember. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis stayed firmly in his seat at the end of Blair's TUC speech. The next day Prentis made a blistering attack on Blair's policies. Unison deputy leader Keith Sonnet showed clear opposition to the war during the key debate.
Rise of the 'awkward squad'
The most significant feature at the top of the unions was the emergence of a coherent grouping of left wing union leaders. The press, and these leaders themselves, label the group 'the awkward squad'. Who is in the squad varies depending on who you ask. Unison's Dave Prentis and new Amicus leader Derek Simpson are sometimes lumped in. Neither would be happy with that themselves.
Simpson's victory signals the start of a fight to change the union from the rotten traditions of Sir Ken Jackson. But Simpson welcomed Blair's TUC speech and refused to speak out clearly against the war.
The core members of the 'awkward squad' are clear. They are Bob Crow of the RMT rail union, Mick Rix of the Aslef rail union, Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil servants' union, Andy Gilchrist of the FBU firefighters, Billy Hayes of the CWU post and telecoms union, Jeremy Dear of the NUJ journalists and Paul Mackney of the Natfhe college lecturers.
There are important political differences between these leaders. Some are committed members of the Labour Party. Mick Rix and Jeremy Dear have rejoined Labour since they were elected. Bob Crow and Socialist Alliance supporter Mark Serwotka are not Labour Party members. Nevertheless the group is an organised new left at the centre of the labour movement.
Andy Gilchrist says of the grouping, 'It's a well known secret that many of us meet up to discuss. We'll support each other on specific issues and follow each other's lead.'
All have a commitment to leading struggles. All insist on taking up political issues and want unions to embrace wider movements in society, such as initiatives like the European Social Forum.
These leaders are aware that having left wing leaders is not enough to win real victories. Billy Hayes, for example, has been subject to enormous pressure from New Labour and its supporters in the union not to lead a real fight against Post Office privatisation.
That has led to postal workers' votes for action not being acted on. This underlines the pressures that every member of the 'awkward squad' faces and the centrality of building rank and file organisation at the bottom of the unions.
Challenges for socialists
The emergence of the left union leaders, and the wider shifts at the top of the unions, create real opportunities for activists and socialists. They also pose real challenges. One immediate example is the war.
These leaders' enthusiastic backing for the demonstration next Saturday is an enormous boost to the anti-war movement. It makes it possible to mobilise trade unionists in far bigger numbers than would be otherwise possible. Those leaders need to follow words with action, pushing inside their respective unions to ensure that mobilisation.
Just as important is what activists in the anti-war movement do in every locality in the coming week. Leaflets carrying the message must be got into every workplace. This can forge a network in every area which can be the basis for activity on other issues.
The level of strikes and struggle has not yet reached the intensity of the movement around political questions such as the war. There are clear signs that this could change in the months ahead. In the summer we saw the biggest one-day strike for many years, when almost one million council workers walked out.
The firefighters are now heading for a major battle, and the outcome will depend on solidarity. Bob Crow of the RMT is arguing that his union's members could take solidarity action with the firefighters. A network of activists in workplaces in each area can help spread that idea. College workers - lecturers and admin workers - could soon strike too, and London council workers are set for more strikes.
Building the rank and file networks in each union and area can ensure the mood reflected by the TUC develops much further, and that we have a hot autumn which rocks Blair and New Labour.