The TUC General Council has sabotaged childcare provision at TUC events by two appalling decisions - one, to refuse a proposal to provide childcare outside formal conference hours to enable parents to attend fringe meetings, social events etc; two, to change its own previous practice and bar school-age kids from creches at TUC events during term time.
(Pic: TUC pamphlet, 'Who's Looking After the Children?'. Good question.)
Women's Conference was united in its condemnation of the first of these, but the second provided conference with its first big controversy.
I think I can claim credit for setting the ball rolling on out-of-formal-hours childcare provision. A couple of years back, having spent too many conference evenings in a hotel room while others 'networked', and abandoned too many fringe meetings due to the reasonable demands of my kids, I wrote an open letter to TUC Women's Committee and asked other delegates to sign it. To my delight, dozens and dozens did so. the Women's Committee has endorsed this demand, but the General Council, unfortunately, has blocked it.
An emergency motion, moved superbly by Vicky Knight from the FBU, condemned the General Council's stance. Vicky asked delegates rhetorically, "When was the last time you heard a male General Secretary say, 'I'd love to come to that fringe meeting, but the creche closes in five minutes'?" But we've all heard plenty of women delegates say it. The motion was passed unanimously.
But when it came to the issue of school-aged kids - about which I blogged when I first heard about the General Council's decision - there was opposition which I have to say was reactionary, judgemental, and in practical application sexist. To its great credit, the National Union of Teachers (Kiri Tunks) seconded PCS's resolution, acknowledging that school is not the only place where kids learn. But the other, more right-wing, teachers' union, the NASUWT, spoke against, fearing newspaper headlines denouncing teacher trade unionists for "supporting truancy" and insisting that kids ought to be in school not in TUC childcare.
Attending a TUC event with your mum (or dad) is not the same as skiving off school to kick your heels and smoke fags in the local rec! And many schools are happy to allow a kid to miss a few days to accompany a parent to a conference. Modern-day conference childcare is usually very high quality, and, as one speaker pointed out, it is an insult to the childcare workers to imply that they are neglecting their charges' education and development. The fact is that in the context of this decision, "keeping kids in school" means "keeping mums at home", which means "keeping women in a second-class position in the trade union movement".
There was an annoying complication in the resolution, as PCS had also proposed that the TUC charge affiliated unions a 'childcare levy' to help fund expanded provision. I can't think of any other area of TUC activity for which unions have to pay an additional levy, and obviously many unions would be unwilling to do so. Unfortunately, that led to many unions opposing or abstaining on the resolution, although many of us recognised that childcare provision for kids of all ages was the over-riding principle and we could disregard the levy issue in order to stand up for that principle. PCS explained that they had included this proposal as an attempt at a compromise with the TUC to secure their support for all-ages childcare. But it had the opposite effect, weakening that support. See - that's where compromising gets you!
The whole RMT delegation voted in favour. The final vote on the matter to 85 in favour, 72 against, 52 abstentions. Hurrah.
It transpired that the General Council had not actually had a full and frank debate on these issues before making a decision. They had been slipped in to the General Council's papers as a brief minute of an Executive meeting, which the General Council rubber-stamping it without noticing that Brendan Barber and his cohorts were slipping something past them.
So let's hope that the better people on the General Council take Barber and the Executive to task not just on the childcare issue, but on the appalling abuse of democracy.