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Putting the cart before the horse

When the Trades Union Congress meets in Liverpool this September, it does so as a venerable institution of 141 years standing. But what relevance to the contemporary world of work and worker representation does it now have? By Gregor Gall

August 22, 2009
6 min read

The heady days of representing more than half of the workforce and tripartism – the so-called era of ‘beer and sandwiches’ in Downing Street – are long since behind it. But with 6.5 million affiliated members, the TUC is still by far the biggest voluntary association in Britain. (The National Trust, by way of contrast, has 3.5 million members; the Women’s Institute 205,000. The Conservative Party has fewer than 250,000 members, the Labour Party 180,000.) And its members are employed at most of the key points of production, distribution and exchange in the economy. On this basis, then, the TUC is still potentially a powerful player in British politics. But any examination of what it does says as much, if not more, about what it does not do. And here the TUC, as the federal apex of organised labour in Britain, is found wanting in a number of respects.

For too long the TUC has played only one string on its bow – that of behind-the-scenes lobbyist in government circles on behalf of union interests. Of course this is necessary and vital work, for no amount of mass mobilisations will bring about change on their own. Once the protesters have gone home, somebody has to sit down and conduct the detailed negotiations with ministers and the like to secure the necessary advances. This is all the more the case when you consider that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has had undue influence over the Department of Trade and Industry and its successor, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

But the ‘old cart horse’, as the TUC has long been portrayed by cartoonists and commentators alike, seems to almost invariably put the proverbial cart before the horse. The result is that it lacks firepower when it goes into negotiations with the government in the first place. This either means that it takes a very long time to get a deal and/or the deal is not a particularly favourable one. And then, on top of this, the TUC often finds that any deals it has brokered with the government are subsequently unpicked and watered down by the business lobby.

Since 1997, when ‘new’ Labour first came to office under Tony Blair, the list of such missed opportunities is a fairly long one, even taking into account that Labour has been no great friend of the union movement during this period. Probably the best example of this process concerns the statutory right to union representation in the form of union recognition. After lobbying by the TUC and work by the affiliated unions, Labour won office in 1997 with a manifesto pledge to legislate for union recognition where a majority of workers wanted it.

Then came the Fairness at Work white paper, followed by the bill and the Employment Relations Act 1999 itself. All along the way the pledge became more and more bastardised, so that when the union recognition law came into force on 6 June 2000, it was as much as product of CBI lobbying as it was of TUC policy.

If the TUC had remembered some of its own history, this would not necessarily have happened. In the period when the TUC was at the height of its power, the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, told the engineering union to ‘get its tanks off my [Downing Street] lawn’. This kind of trade union assertiveness, with a few metaphorical tanks turning their gun turrets towards Downing Street, would have come in very handy under a Labour Party in government that has been captured by neoliberals, with social democracy resigned to the rubbish bin.

Now any veteran of the union movement will be familiar with the slogans on the placards of various left groups demanding that the ‘TUC call a general strike’ over this and that issue. The point being made here is not that the TUC should have called strikes and mobilisations willy-nilly. There is no virtue in re-running the glorious defeat of the 1926 general strike when the TUC did that very thing.

But if the TUC had taken just one leaf out of the book of its fellow union federations on the continent, then it would have at least have tried to occasionally mobilise the millions of its members and their families on the streets and in the constituencies of their MPs. The evidence of the results of such mobilisations in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain is that the various attacks on workers and public services may not have been stopped, but at least they were slowed and watered down.

Before simply dismissing the TUC as a group of bureaucrats who have moderation and appeasement written through them like a stick of rock, however, it needs to be clearly pointed out the organisation is pretty much the sum of its parts. That is to say that the TUC’s policy is the result of its annual congress, and its direction is dictated democratically by its general council, which is elected every year by its affiliated trade unions.

So part of the conundrum of the TUC is that it is only as strong as its affiliates allow it to be and – more widely – it is only as strong as they are collectively. For example, TUC policy for the past few years has been to have a united and robust fight on public sector pay. But the PCS union – the mover of such passed motions – has been left fighting on its own after other unions changed their minds and acted unilaterally.

But what is even more apparent is that shining the spotlight on the affiliates as the real movers and shakers reveals that just three mega-unions (Unite, Unison and the GMB) are the actual prime movers. With some 60 per cent of affiliated members in these three unions, one could well argue that the TUC is their creature and nobody else’s. When you factor in that these unions are also loyal Labour affiliates, then a picture begins to emerge to explain why the TUC has not been nearly as robust as it might otherwise have been.

For some observers, the domination of the TUC by the big three calls into question why there is even a need for a TUC or an annual congress. This is wide of the mark because there is still a need for a coordinating body – and one that can take the lead in spreading messages when the affiliates are a bit lethargic.

Indeed, its organising academy and wider work on organising are the best examples of the TUC providing value for affiliates’ money. Some unions are too small to do this work on their own and some needed pushing along this road.

That said, this does not detract from the problem of the aforementioned bigger-picture politics. Even for the Scottish Trades Union Congress, which has traditionally played a more radical and collective role, the challenges are the same. The TUC quickly and desperately needs to do some blue-sky thinking about how it can rebuild its muscle by collectively mobilising its troops and providing them with a social vision of what unions are about.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire

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