THE ANNUAL gathering of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) this week was unlike anything even the most seasoned delegate could remember. The threat by George Bush and Tony Blair to launch war dominated the opening day on Monday. It led to one of the most important and electric debates ever seen at a labour gathering in Britain.
The TUC has a reputation for being dull, with unanimous backing for pre-agreed resolutions. Not this year. The TUC general council, its executive, sought to head off a row over the war. It opposed any attempt by Bush and Blair to wage war on Iraq without wider international support.
But it left the possibility of backing war open 'if there is evidence generally made available which clearly demonstrates that Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction'. It also talked of setting a 'deadline for Iraqi compliance' on weapons inspections and of military action as 'an option' if backed by the United Nations.
TUC leaders and watching New Labour ministers were rocked when a succession of key union leaders refused to accept this and instead argued hard for total opposition to a war. Mick Rix of the Aslef rail union told delegates to enthusiastic applause, 'There are times when fudge won't do, and war is such an issue.' TUC general secretary John Monks opened the debate, saying, 'The UN is the only route to action.'
TGWU leader Bill Morris backed up his argument but also felt he had to attack the government. 'One year ago this movement pledged support for the fight against terrorism. We did not sign up for a war against freedom, liberty and democracy. 'I hear the sirens in Baghdad. I hear the cries of women and children. We do not accept the military barons treating the dead as collateral damage. We must say no more war.'
However, he also appealed to Tony Blair to 'give us the evidence' and agreed that 'it is the job of the UN to enforce international law'. It soon became clear that many delegates would not accept the line of supporting a war if certain conditions were met. Andy brown of the white collar rail workers' TSSA union moved a call for outright opposition to war - with or without UN backing. 'The US,' argued Andy, 'has a history of supporting dictators, and Saddam Hussein used to be one of these. Now he's not a US puppet, they want 'regime change' to impose a more friendly dictator. It is not acceptable to say we agree with war if it is backed by the UN Security Council.
'We know that Bush and Blair are using every possible threat and bribe to get Russia, China and France in line. If we say that if the 'evidence' is there we'll back war, then we are leaving ourselves open to every propaganda trick in the book. I appeal to delegates and to people watching on TV to come to the anti-war demonstration in London on 28 September and show the world that Tony Blair does not speak for the British people.'
What they said in the discussion
'BLAIR IS committed to war. The US empire is hell-bent on attacking Iraq to impose regime change. It is not about weapons of mass destruction. The UN is being used as a fig leaf.
The business interests Bush represents want Iraq's oil. We must make a stand. War would mean thousands of people in Iraq who oppose Saddam Hussein would die. On 28 September I will be proud to demonstrate against war with our members and our banner. I think the whole trade union movement should be there.'
Mick Rix, leader of the Aslef rail workers' union
'IF JUSTICE was the motive, we would be considering troops to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. I was standing with those opposing Saddam Hussein when governments in the West were supplying him with arms. Get out on the street on 28 September.'
Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ journalists' union
'IF BLAIR follows Bush in this crude grab for oil and it results in more civilian deaths, they will be seen by millions around the world as war criminals. Everyone should join the 28 September demonstration. If there is war there should be mass protests outside bases.'
Bob Crow, general secretary of RMT rail union
'WE OPPOSE war on Iraq and we oppose sanctions that have killed some 40,000 children since 11 September. We should grasp the fact that the population is with us. We should mobilise people to say no to war and to join the demonstration on 28 September.'
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants' union
'I URGE the prime minister, who seems so intent on reordering the world, to deal with the problems here first. If they can find the money for war they can find the money for further and higher education. Join the 28 September anti-war demonstration.'
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe lecturers' union
'THE BRITISH population does not want this war. The trade union movement is no friend of Saddam Hussein - when he gassed the Kurds and was being backed by the US we opposed him. But if the US talks of deadlines, why don't they give Ariel Sharon a deadline to get out of the West Bank? Let a clarion call come from this conference: No war on Iraq.'
Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU post and telecoms union
'It won't be Saddam Hussein who suffers'
KEY UNION leaders made the argument against war during the TUC debate. Other delegates also made important speeches. Fawzi Abrahim, who is from an Iraqi background, spoke as a delegate from the Natfhe lecturers' union:
'The general council statement will give the go-ahead for the action planned by the US government and our government. It will not be Saddam Hussein who suffers. It will be working people, children, mothers. Capitalism is going back to old fashioned colonialism - what else is 'regime change' but the imposition of a puppet government in Iraq as they have done in Afghanistan?'
Keith Sonnet, deputy leader of Unison, spoke in favour of both the general council statement and the anti-war motion. But it was clear where his real sentiments lay: 'If our 'special relationship' with the US means following Bush and paying a price in blood then I say end the relationship.
'Military action against Iraq has nothing to do with UN resolutions. It's about security of oil supplies.' He added that war on Iraq would 'mark a turning point in relations between the Labour government and the trade unions'.
Maggie Barton from the Unifi finance union added, 'I saw on the news this morning a woman whose brother died on 11 September. She has been to Iraq and is campaigning now to say there should not be a war. If she says that then so should we.'
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, won applause when he said, 'There is no excuse for war, for killing people in Iraq who are just like us.' He reminded delegates, 'It is the US which used chemical weapons in Vietnam and nuclear bombs in Japan.'
Principled motion is only narrowly beaten
THE ONLY speaker to argue hard for backing a war if it had UN support was Roger Lyons, a leader of the Amicus union. 'We must act to prevent Saddam Hussein's regime from unleashing terror abroad,' he said.
But delegates hissed him when he attacked anti-war delegates as backing 'a resolution that could have come from Baghdad Trades Council'. During the debate TUC leader John Monks realised that the anti-war arguments had won most delegates over. So he sought to play down the differences in his summing-up.
'There are no warmongers here,' he insisted. 'Our statement is not about paving the way for war. It is about empowering the UN.' The general council statement was then passed, but with a significant minority against it. The crucial vote though was on the TSSA motion opposing any war. To cheers in the hall it was carried on a show of hands.
TUC president Tony Young ruled the motion carried on a hand vote. But he then called a card vote where unions cast block votes in proportion to their size. Though some big unions - including Unison, CWU, PCS and RMT - backed the anti-war motion, they were outweighed in the block vote by others - crucially TGWU, GMB and Amicus. The card vote saw the motion lost by 3.4 million votes to 2.4 million. As delegates left the hall on Monday night the debate was still going on among them.
Most felt that the anti-war case had won the debate, if not the vote, and that the discussion had given the movement to build the 28 September demonstration a real boost.