The Trades Union Congress (TUC) was formed in 1868 as an umbrella organisation for trade unionists in the UK. Its purpose was to bring unions together and ‘take action in parliamentary matters pertaining to the general interest of the working classes’. Today it has 48 affiliated unions representing over 5.5 million people – almost 90 per cent of all trade unionists in the UK. It describes its mission as to ‘campaign for more and better jobs, and a more equal, more prosperous country’.
With industrial action on the rise and many unions struggling to defend workers’ real-terms pay and conditions, let alone secure improvements, we asked Callum Cant of the University and College Union (UCU) and Geoff Earl of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to explore the role of the TUC in today’s industrial landscape. Despite the recent wave of strikes, union membership remains in decline and anti-union legislation continues to be passed, is the TUC up to the challenge or should we abolish it?
Callum Cant makes the case for abolition
This is not a moralistic argument about the TUC’s long history of sell-outs and failures (although they did collapse the 1926 general strike). It’s a practical argument about the reorganisation of the workers’ movement necessary to launch a combined political-economic struggle for a new Britain.
Trade union density in the UK has been in decline since 1979. New workplaces and industries have not been successfully organised for the last 45 years. The form of trade unionism we have inherited today has proven itself unable to arrest an unprecedented 18 years of flat-lining real wages, or to defend against the neoliberal assault on the welfare state. It is bankrupt, broken, and failing.
Renewal demands structural change. To make this argument, I want to focus on an example from personal experience. Staff in UK higher education are mostly represented by five TUC unions: UCU, Unison, GMB, Unite and EIS (in Scotland). These conduct collective pay negotiations that determine the pay structure for most directly-employed workers in the sector.
UCU has repeatedly attempted major strikes with the goal of reversing this trend. But academics alone can’t shut down the university. When academics strike, support staff represented by Unison, GMB, and Unite, predominantly continue to work. This means that the leverage of the strikes is fundamentally undermined by the existing union structure.
However, if UCU were to start trying to recruit and organise wider layers of support staff, then the other unions would doubtless claim they were ‘poaching.’ The TUC would then be asked to act as arbitrator using the Bridlington principles (first drafted in 1939) to decide the dispute. They have the power to issue unions who break these principles with very significant fines. This is not an abstract issue – the TUC recently fined the NEU £153,000 for balloting support staff in response to a real terms pay cut. This is absurd.
Industrial trade unionism, where one single union organises all workers in one industry, is a far more powerful model than the hodgepodge of unions that now characterise so many sectors across the UK. The TUC acts as a fundamental barrier to the British working class developing industrial unions. The TUC is therefore a barrier to the development of working class power.
The TUC either needs to be so profoundly reformed that it becomes open to genuinely industrial organisation – or, more simply, abolished. It is an institution rooted in a model of trade unionism that hasn’t won significant gains for more than 40 years, and its crumbling foundations act as an obstacle standing between the British working class and successful industrial reorganisation.
Geoff Earl makes the case against abolition
Since the RCN became a registered trade union in 1976 there have been persistent calls within the union for affiliation to the TUC. The core strengths of the TUC are well known: collective power and influence; policy development and advocacy; collaboration and solidarity; support and resources and international representation.
There are also genuine criticisms of the TUC – archaic rules that uphold rigid workplace and union boundaries being one good example, as Callum highlights. It is also fair to say that, like the RCN’s own leaders, the leadership of the TUC has at times prioritised the defence of the organisation over workers’ demands.
However, the strengths and criticisms previously mentioned are, in many ways, secondary to the true value of the TUC (and trade union itself): collectivism. Just as trade unions provide workers with the opportunity to organise collectively in their workplaces, the TUC offers the chance for workers to support each other at both the national and local levels.
Following the RCN’s first-ever strike action in 2023, members experienced the direct benefits of industrial action and shared a number of platforms with other workers as action spread across sectors in 2022 and 2023. At a national level, leaders from other unions stood side by side with nurse leaders. At a local level, nurses on the picket lines were joined by other trade unions and local trades’ councils, creating a powerful display of solidarity that became a transformative moment for many.
At this year’s RCN Congress, members narrowly lost a vote to run a year-long campaign to consider joining the TUC. This was despite the leadership’s efforts to negatively influence the outcome, including changing the debate process and the odd situation whereby two senior members read the same pre-prepared speech.
In the recent RCN ballot on further strike action, despite achieving an 84 per cent vote in favour among the 100,000 votes cast, the undemocratic anti-trade union laws caused the vote to be lost because it did not reach the required 50 per cent turnout threshold. These unjust laws can only be defeated by the collective strength of trade unions working together, and the TUC has a role to play in this collective effort.
CREDIT: CRESSIDA KNAPP
Callum Cant responds: a barrier to working-class unity
I understand the case for the RCN to join the TUC. The internal campaign to make the organisation act as a trade union rather than as a professional body is an important one, and I support it. But recognising the benefits of RCN joining the TUC does not negate the fundamental issues with the TUC in its present form.
Your case for the TUC hinges on the ‘collectivism’ supposedly enabled by TUC membership. On closer examination, this term lumps together two very different things: first, the cooperation of different trade union leaderships, and second, the cooperation of different elements of the working class. These are totally distinct phenomena, and I think we should analyse them separately.
Currently, the TUC is good at facilitating the former. It specialises in getting general secretaries together in boardrooms and coming up with moderate strategies to try and influence government and industry for the benefit of trade unions. But when it comes to supporting cooperation between rank-and-file workers, the TUC is a significant barrier.
As discussed in my first letter, the TUC recently fined the NEU for balloting support staff. In that instance, it took steps to discourage a union from bringing different parts of the workforce out on strike together. The second of these kinds of unity is far more important than the first. So, the TUC excels at facilitating cooperation with the goal of pursuing class compromise, and does the opposite when it comes to facilitating cooperation for class struggle.
If things continue as they are we face the death of the trade union movement
My central argument is that the TUC, as it stands, obstructs the necessary reorganisation of the British working class into fighting, democratic unions structured along industrial lines. As union membership continues to decline (despite the significant increase in strikes) and the disputes that sprung up last autumn are increasingly resulting in below-inflation pay deals, we have to be realistic.
If things continue as they are we face the death of the trade union movement as a force in British society within a few decades. Instead of leading a fight against repressive legislation, the TUC completely failed to effectively oppose the latest anti-strike laws. The status quo can’t continue.
Do we need a collective body that acts as an organ of genuine working class democracy? Yes, absolutely. But the TUC is not that. In fact, in its current form it is a direct barrier to the formation of such a body. Rather than accelerating the growth of working class unity, the TUC is impeding it.
Geoff Earl responds: there’s no alternative collective body
I appreciate the support for the RCN joining the TUC. However, I am surprised that whilst it is of value for the RCN to join the TUC, it is apparently not appropriate for the NEU to be a member of it. This seems to be arguing that until a union matures and begins to act as a proper union, then the TUC has a role. But after that point, unions should operate autonomously and independently of the TUC.
I understand the frustrations experienced by members of the NEU at the hands of the bureaucracy of the TUC. However, this is nothing new. The history of the trade union movement is littered with ghoulish bureaucrats who have failed the rank and file. But surely the point of class struggle is exactly that: it is a struggle, and this struggle must deal with the institutions we currently have instead of waiting on a perfect organisational form to appear.
Since 2018 when the RCN leadership sold its members down the river by recommending a poor pay deal, membership has increased by around 25 per cent and now stands at over half a million nursing staff. This increase coincided with a concerted effort by members to shift the organisation to a more class focused trade union. RCN activists have been absolutely fundamental in establishing NHS Workers Say No for instance. This year’s failure to once again achieve an acceptable pay rise has highlighted the tensions between the union’s bureaucracy and the rank and file.
As many unions go through the reforms necessary to genuinely deliver for the working class – Unite is perhaps another good example – we both agree that we need a collective body of some sort that represents the working class. As things stand, this has to be the TUC. I have seen nothing to convince me that the trade union movement is at a stage where the kind of transformative change required can be achieved by unions acting in silos.
Ultimately, yes, the TUC needs reform but will this come about without an energised rank and file movement channelled through the TUC’s member unions? I doubt it. Let us focus on building the former, collaborating where possible through existing structures, before we have the power to create a better system anew.