Labour leader Keir Starmer promised very little for workers and rank and file trade unionists when he spoke to the TUC union congress on Tuesday.
There was no talk of a pay rise for NHS and public sector workers to make up for more than a decade of cuts and freezes, for instance.
His headline promise of a £10 an hour minimum wage will be far too little by 2024 when a Labour government might be elected.
Even the Tories are on course to raise the minimum wage by then.
But Starmer’s message wasn’t for workers, or even rank and file trade unionists.
He was speaking over their heads—to the union leaders and full time bureaucrats.
For all of Starmer’s attempts to woo big business, he still needs the union leaders. Trade unions are by far the Labour Party’s biggest funders.
But the union leaders expect something in return.
They want the Labour Party to promise just enough reforms so they don’t feel the pressure to organise strikes on behalf of their members.
And they want a say in how the party is run.
That’s why Len McCluskey, the former leader of Unite—Labour’s biggest donor—is angry with Starmer.
He used an article in the Guardian newspaper to attack Starmer just hours before the Labour leader’s TUC speech
McCluskey says Starmer betrayed a deal to restore former left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour MP. But McCluskey chose not to fight back against Starmer.
Instead chose to preserve the “unity” of the left and right in Labour by arranging a compromise.
Corbyn would backtrack, and Starmer would let him back in.
McCluskey is furious because Starmer didn’t do as he was told.
Now some union leaders such as the bakers’ Bfawu union’s president Ian Hodson, fear Starmer wants to marginalise them in the party. Others, such as Unite’s new leader Sharon Graham, are talking openly about breaking unions’ reliance on the Labour Party—and maybe even returning to strikes.
Starmer’s speech was a direct response. He promised the union bureaucrats that Labour would ban zero hour contracts and “fire and rehire” attacks.
Union leaders care about these a lot—not just because they affect many thousands of their members, but because they undermine their ability to negotiate with bosses.
So Starmer talked of how Labour arranged parliamentary opposition against fire and rehire. But it came with a warning. “Until we have a Labour government, our ability to deliver the transformational change that we all know is necessary will be frustrated,” he said.
“We have lost the last four elections, and if we don’t change then we won’t be in a position to deliver the new deal that workers in Britain, your members, deserve.”
The real message to union leaders was this—stick with me and don’t rock the boat, and in 2024 I’ll give you just enough of what you want.
That might be enough to satisfy some union leaders. But for ordinary people, it’s all far too little and far too late.
Starmer’s speech showed that we can’t sit around and wait for Labour anymore. We need to turn talk about action into reality with strikes and workplace struggle.