Britain: Trades Union Congress – Will it act to coordinate the strikes?

In the past few months the pages of the Socialist have been packed with reports of strikes throughout Britain. Significantly, hundreds of thousands of railway, telecoms and postal workers are taking nationwide action. These strikes are popular, demonstrated by BBC journalists scrabbling round for negative comments from the public about the RMT rail union’s action…, and failing!

The growing strike wave demonstrates the potential power of the trade unions, and makes a mockery of the views of a few, including some calling themselves socialist, who had consigned the role of organised labour to history. By withdrawing our labour, workers can hit the capitalists where it hurts most, in the pockets of big business and the super-rich.

Lower trade union density in the recent past doesn’t mean working people are apathetic or they’ve abandoned the struggle. It’s a reflection that, for a whole period, they didn’t see unions as fighting for them collectively. In the immediate aftermath of this year’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) march in June, and the RMT strikes on rail networks and London Underground, internet searches for ‘join union’ rocketed by 184%.

As strikes spread further, support for the idea of striking together and coordinating the action is growing. When the TUC tweeted at the end of August that it was set to make an announcement, thousands optimistically anticipated the announcement of a general strike!

The TUC, bringing together seven million workers in Britain, has the ability to organise such action. That’s why the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has organised a lobby of the TUC when it meets in Brighton on 11 September, to put the pressure on the leaders to act.

What role has the TUC played historically, and how can coordinated strike action be organised today?

The TUC celebrated its 150th anniversary four years ago. It was formed with the ideals of uniting the disparate craft and trade unions into one body and seeking independent political representation for the working class in Britain and Ireland.

But by the time of the 1926 general strike, the right wing of the TUC leadership was playing the role of what leader of the Russian revolution Leon Trotsky termed the ‘political police’ on behalf of capitalism. They played a reactionary role, seeking no more than a few crumbs from the bosses’ table and policing the working class away from revolution.

In Peter Taaffe’s book, “1926 General Strike – Workers Taste Power”, he relates how Liberal prime minister Lloyd George had told union leaders seven years earlier: “If you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But… have you weighed the consequences? If a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state.” The miners’ leader Robert Smillie’s reaction was: “From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were”!

The 1926 strike itself was a magnificent show of working-class strength, defeated because the TUC general council caved in at the height of the struggle. But workers were willing to fight, there were more on strike the day after it was called off, and the miners fought on.

There are other examples of the TUC holding workers back for fear of challenging the status quo. In the 1970s the TUC leadership, under general secretary Len Murray, played a key role in preventing action against below-inflation pay rises by signing up to the Social Contract – an agreement to limit wage rises to 5%. This was done to save the Labour government rather than to advance workers’ interests.

But the pressure eventually told. The official 5% limit was brushed aside in a wave of strike action. The Washington Post commented: “The most significant change is that the leaders of the union movement have lost control over their rank and file. The workers have taken things into their own hands.”

During the 1980s, the TUC failed to organise solidarity action for the miners’ strike in 1984-85 and printers’ strike at Wapping in 1986-87. Both ended in defeat, changing the political landscape of Britain. To make matters worse, some trade union leaders, later exposed as agents of the British state working against trade unionists, were able to hide in open view on the TUC general council!

‘National unity’

Twice during the pandemic, outgoing TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady thanked Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak for “real leadership” over the furlough scheme. On the second occasion, she was pictured with him and the director general of the business confederation, the CBI, after ‘successful talks’ had led to a reduction in pay for those forced out of work. It was an outcry from workers and employers who then forced the government into another U-turn, not the TUC!

So, is the TUC worthless? Won’t its leaders forever sell out the working class? Three of the last six TUC general secretaries became barons in the House of Lords, another was knighted. O’Grady is a director of the Bank of England.

But the TUC general council itself is made up of representatives from all the larger unions who have the power to build much sterner opposition and to consolidate strike action across the whole economy. They don’t have to rely on the TUC general secretary or other officials.

In 2011, the TUC conference led to the major public sector trade unions calling a one-day public sector strike in defence of pensions. When the majority of TUC leaders capitulated after just one day of generalised strike action, the left of the TUC did organise separately to try and stop the retreat. This approach needs to be built on today. Unite, Unison, RMT, NEU and PCS are among the unions calling for coordinated strike action at this year’s conference. Think of the effect if some of these unions and others coordinated strike action across several industries on the same day(s). There would be a partial one-day general strike which would then give greater confidence to workers everywhere.

And if the left leaders were unable to win their position on the general council, they would need to go over the TUC leader’s heads and appeal to workers directly. As more workers are demanding action from their unions over rising prices and the obscene accumulation of profit by the ruling class, socialists must maintain the pressure on the TUC general council to link the struggles.

The working class taking action together could potentially bring down this Tory government. We would be strengthened further by a mass party of our own armed with a socialist programme. Workers are already growing in confidence of their collective power from the existing strike wave. Coordinated action would build this further still; join us at the NSSN lobby as part of the fight to make it happen.

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