War may have been at the centre of the debates that rocked the TUC congress, but it was far from being the only issue where unions and the government seemed set on a collision course. The prospect of the first national firefighters' strike for 25 years, anti-union laws, and attacks on workers' pensions all surfaced on the first day of the conference.
Firefighters' delegates were set to leave the TUC early - to hold their own special conference to decide on a ballot for a national strike over pay. They received unanimous and enthusiastic backing from the whole TUC congress, including from the leadership in the general council. Firefighters' FBU union general secretary Andy Gilchrist was applauded as he rose to address delegates:
'We've been patient for 25 years on pay, and for five years of this New Labour government. 'Tony Blair says our claim will destabilise the country. It won't damage the country or destabilise the Middle East. War with Iraq will. There is no merit in denying us decent pay because other public sector workers are so badly paid - that needs addressing too. Our members are not a special case, but they are special people. We will put the sword to low pay in the fire service this year.'
TUC general secretary John Monks said, 'The FBU have sought our full support. We give it unanimously and hope congress responds positively to the FBU call for help.' In an earlier debate on anti-union laws RMT general secretary Bob Crow won one of the best receptions of the opening day when he pledged solidarity action with the firefighters.
He demanded 'the total repeal of every single aspect of the anti-union legislation brought in by the Tories and not repealed by the Labour government'. The TUC unanimously passed a motion backing a demonstration next spring pressing for increased union rights.
Bob Crow argued, 'The TUC is calling a public rally. Let's hear from the Italian workers, the Spanish workers. They walked out and went on the streets. That's what the British trade unions should do.' And he demanded solidarity action for the firefighters. His union, he said, was seeking safety guarantees from management on London Underground in the event of a firefighters' strike.
If these weren't adequate - as they were unlikely to be - 'there won't be one single underground train running.' In every union people should start organising to deliver solidarity with the firefighters.
In many cases safety could be an issue - and you don't need a ballot to stop work on jobs that are unsafe.
New Amicus leader says no to 'sweetheart' deals
Derek Simpson, newly elected general secretary of the Amicus engineering union, won a warm reception when he addressed a fringe meeting. He beat Sir Ken Jackson, who was rightly dubbed 'Tony Blair's favourite union leader'. Jackson continued a tradition pioneered by the EETPU electricians' section of the union in the 1980s, of pushing for 'sweetheart' deals with employers. These were often single-union and effectively 'no-strike' deals.
These left workers with ineffective union rights, protection and organisation. Simpson signalled his intention to break from this approach and fight to return to proper trade unionism. 'We have to have both eyes on what the members want and not one eye on what the government wants and one eye on what employers want,' he argued. We will ballot our members in any factory where they have got a sweetheart deal. If the members vote for us to do it we will do everything to end these deals and seek a proper recognition agreement. I reject these deals, which my union has regretfully been involved in in the past. We've been undermining other unions and it's a disgrace. I invite other unions - let's have a contest - not a 'beauty contest' to see who can best suit the employers, but a competition to see who can get the best deal for workers.'
These welcome words should be a signal for activists in Amicus to begin rolling back the damage and to begin to build effective union organisation.
The pensions timebomb
The threat to workers' pensions was a key issue. TUC deputy general secretary Brendan Barber spelt out the background to what is likely to become an explosive issue in the coming months. 'We face a pensions crisis and it's getting worse as each day passes. There is a headlong retreat by so many employers from high quality final salary schemes.' Over 200 firms have already shut such schemes.
And according to figures from the bosses' CBI organisation, another 120 are now considering stopping the schemes. Some close off schemes to new workers, meaning they get lower pensions when they retire.
Instead of pensions based on a proportion of your final salary, employers and the government want to move to 'money purchase' pensions. These depend on the ups and downs of the stockmarket. Millions of workers could be hit.
'These moves represent the most serious real cuts in pay and conditions since the Second World War,' said Brendan Barber. John Marris is from the ISTC steel workers' union in Scunthorpe. Workers at the Caparo steel plant in the town, and at similar plants in Wrexham and Tredegar, have been staging strikes over an attack on their pension scheme.
'We are the first union to take action over this. I ask delegates for support in this vital struggle. It is a fight for justice, and for a decent retirement,' he said. TUC leaders and many unions are pushing for guarantees on pensions. They want employers and workers to be forced to pay into pension schemes. Of course existing pension rights must be defended, with strikes where employers threaten them.
But some unions and delegates pointed to the real answer to the pensions crisis. Barry Camfield of the TGWU argued, 'Tony Blair's promise of social justice is becoming a nightmare for many retired people. We need decent retirement guaranteed. It shouldn't be means tested - it should be funded by national insurance, and it should be provided by the state.'
Sheila Bearcroft of the GMB agreed: 'Half the population does not have occupational pensions. They need decent state pensions.'
'Blair's out of touch'
Bitterness with Tony Blair and New Labour was evident among the overwhelming majority of delegates. And the depth of that anger was often greatest among people who were still members of the Labour Party.
Pat Buttle is an Usdaw shop workers' union member. 'Blair has more in common with capitalist management than he does with my members. We have to unite and defeat Blair's attacks on working people,' she said. 'It's my first TUC and I'm a Labour Party member,' explained Chris O'Sullivan, a Unison member. 'People are feeling angry. What the hell does Blair think he is doing? He's just out of touch.'
Speaking out against Nazi threat
There was an excellent debate on fighting racism and fascism. Speakers warned of the threat posed by Nazi groups like the BNP, and the need to defeat them in Burnley, where they won three councillors last May. Speakers also attacked the way the policies and rhetoric of the government often undermined the fight against racism.
Dave Anderson of Unison, a Labour Party member, argued, 'The far right feed off our members being in a society passing them by. The political refuge for these members has traditionally been the Labour Party - now no longer seen as our saviour from despair but seen more likely as the cause of it. It is on this fertile ground that the far right rats will breed.'
A motion calling for demonstrations against the BNP in the Greater Manchester area was carried unanimously, as was a call for the TUC to initiate a national 'Defeat the BNP' campaign.
Edna Greenwood, a GMB delegate, told congress, 'I live three miles from Burnley and am an active member of the Anti Nazi League. On 1 September the ANL organised a carnival. It was supposed to be in Burnley but the Labour council wouldn't sanction it. So we had it in Manchester and it was fantastic - thousands of people sticking their fingers up at the Nazis. We do need a big demonstration now, not in Manchester, in Burnley. The TUC should come to Burnley.'