By Sean Vernell UCU TUC delegate
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Union leaders aren’t doing enough to unite workers in action

This article is over 5 years, 9 months old
Issue 2622
Unison union leader on the TUC march earlier this year
Unison union leader Dave Prentis on the TUC march earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) this year meets on the 150 anniversary of the TUC. Rightly there has been a great deal of celebration of our movement’s history.

But it’s also the 10th anniversary of the crash of 2008—a crisis that ushered in the biggest attacks on working people since the 1930s.

While millions of people face low pay, insecure contracts and food banks the ones who created the crisis have become even more fabulously wealthy.

To meet this onslaught on workers’ conditions the trade union movement must go beyond passing sound policies. This congress has passed a number of policies that if implemented by a government would make a real difference to working people’s lives.

The call for a four day working week without the loss of pay and the support for sectorial collective bargaining are just two. But how are they going to be implemented?

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have made clear their support for these polices if elected. But we know that the employers and other forces will do what they can to prevent such policies from being implemented.

Attacks on our living conditions are happening now.

Waiting for the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government doesn’t just allow the Tories and the employers to continue their attacks. It weakens the movement’s ability to build the organisations in our workplaces to deliver the necessary action that can defend a future radical Labour government.


Sectionalism and competition has plagued our movement since the beginning of trade unionism.

Dave Ward from the CWU union called on congress towork together and put an end to the practice of unions attempting to compete for members. Yet not long after delegates applauded Ward’s call, congress passed motions which further institutionalise sectionalism and divide the movement.

A GMB and Unison motion and amendment on a just transition and climate change—supported by congress—were among the worst examples of this.

Both unions successfully gained congress’s support for their motions that members who work in the energy industry should make the primary decisions on energy policy.

They argued that their members should be the main ones who have a say on this policy in order to protect their jobs.

The TUC—Managing Workers’ Anger
The TUC—Managing Workers’ Anger
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Nobody who opposed the Unison and the GMB motion and amendment did so on the basis of getting rid of energy workers’ jobs. There are plenty of alternatives to how these workers skills can be transferred to making energy from renewable sources.

All workers whatever their industry have an interest in dealing with climate change. They must be allowed an equal say on the future of the planet. This will not, as one GMB delegate argued, lead to “a just transition from skilled jobs to unemployment”.

This kind of sectional interest not only divides the movement—it won’t deal with climate change or save jobs.

Some sections of the movement seem to be stuck in the same mindset that the engineering union ASE held in the First World War. This led it to oppose its members being drafted into the army with the slogan, “Don’t take me I’m with the ASE”.

We must move on from this mindset.

This year’s congress has even less calls for action than in previous years.

Ward’s call for a day of action across the movement was supported by congress. This should be supported by every trade unionist. But it falls pitifully short of the kind of action that is needed and could be organised by the 6 million strong trade union movement.


There are many examples of sectional battles that are being fought. From TGI Fridays and McDonald’s fast food workers to Birmingham care workers. All need our support.

These are important fights that can make a difference to those who are working in these sectors. Their victories can give a real boost to all other workers.

But if the ambitions of the trade union movement are going to be realised then we need to go beyond these sectional battles. We need to far more bold and audacious.

We have shown in the past that we can coordinate our action. The fight over pensions in 2011 demonstrated that we can do so. We have opportunities to do so again today.

UCU is balloting all its members in 110 universities and 147 colleges over pay. The PCS union has said that it will re-ballot its members over pay and the NEU union is also looking to organise its members over pay too.

If we are going to win a four day week, stop climate change and rid society of the gig economy we can’t leave it to the least organised.

It will take the whole of the movement and especially the most organised and powerful groups of workers.


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