Monday, September 10, 2007

Brendan Barber opens TUC

Congress opens with the annual address of the TUC General Secretary.

Brendan Barber reports “another year of solid progress for our movement”.

He rightly talks up the unions role in fighting the Far Right, and Congress has applauded ASLEF for winning a crucial legal victory allowing trade unions to exclude fascists.

The applause welcoming the creation of UNITE is perhaps a little more muted, but the applause for the CWU, the POA and the Unions fighting job losses in Remploy is more enthusiastic.

This isn’t just an emotional appeal – unions in dispute are unions doing something for their members.

However it doesn’t take long for us to get on to empty self-congratulation. Apparently in the past year we have put private equity on the map, we have changed Government policy on health service reform and we have made social housing into a political issue. (One out of these three claims is well founded I would have thought?)

There are real political gains (the increase in statutory annual leave, the prohibition on discrimination against lesbians and gay men in the provision of goods and services). However our leaders do have a tendency to talk up our successes in a way which tends to float away from reality…

Moving on, Brendan welcomes Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, warns us about the Tories and is pleased with increasing public spending. However he is expressing firm opposition to the 2% pay policy for the public sector (to good applause). The TUC General Secretary has just said that this centralised attempt to hold down public sector pay “must never be repeated” – he wants the Prime Minister to listen to us about this. Later this morning we will hear if he will do…

Brendan moves on to point out that we can have social justice with economic growth, citing the postwar settlement in Western Europe as an example. This leads, by way of praise for Government policies to tackle poverty to a call for a “new national consensus” in favour of equality, and a Commission to look at the distribution of wealth and income. (How cynical would it be to see the TUC still casting around for a role as brokers of consensus rather than organisers of a combative union movement?)

On the one hand, our TUC General Secretary believes we have a historic opportunity to found a new progressive consensus, on the other hand he is telling us about the examples of super-exploitation of migrant workers which he has encountered over the last while. A fine example of the difference between the experience of dialogue and “listening” to the trade union leadership at the top, and the experience of exploitation of ordinary workers through an economic system thoroughly endorsed and supported by the Government.

It is impossible to disagree with Brendan’s final call for us to “make this country better” but I don’t feel any better informed about how to resolve the contradictions between how our members (and potential members) are being treated by Government and employers on the one hand and the faith which we are being asked to put in working with our adversaries on the other.

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