TUC Congress 2018 closed with its accustomed dearth of fanfare, with little to suggest it will be a major political factor in British politics over the coming period.
The one glint of hope was the discussion on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), where speaker after speaker stood up to make the case for self-determination on trans rights. Behind the scenes several union leaderships, including some regarded as left, have joined the chorus of opposition to changing the GRA on the grounds of women’s self-organisation.
But the Congress discussion was dominated by contributions from a range of women from different industries, some trans but others not, who explained how removing medicalisation and simplifying the registration process does not threaten women’s groups, refuges, facilities at work and other concerns. The TUC LGBT position, moved by Maria Exall, was carried unopposed.
However this step forward was overshadowed by at least two significant steps back on other fronts. First, the TUC position on Brexit, calling for a ‘people’s vote’, was definitely NOT the call for a second referendum in order to stop Brexit. Speakers from Unite’s Steve Turner (representing the General Council) to PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka queued up to argue that the vote should be called only on the terms of Brexit, not whether to leave the EU.
Their scenario seems to be that a vote on the terms would reject both a no-deal Brexit and May’s Chequer’s plan, undermining the government and triggering a general election. Brexit would be delayed to allow Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour government to negotiate a ‘workers’ Brexit’, which would be something like the arrangement Norway has with the EU.
The argument completely ignores the central question of what any version of Brexit will mean for workers, not only in the UK but in the rest of Europe, and for migrant workers more widely. If the consequences of Brexit are universally a setback for workers, then why pretend that there are some magical terms on which Brexit (‘by a Labour government’) will somehow be okay?
The response is generally, ‘you’ve got to accept democracy, the last referendum has to be respected’. Oddly, advocates of leaving the EC, including many with the unions, did not ‘accept’ the result of the 1975 referendum, despite it being more emphatic than the 2016 vote. Nor should the labour movement ‘accept’ that because the Tories won the last general election that they have a mandate to do whatever they want. Working class democracy is continuously renewed, as reality changes and as clarity is gained.
Sadly the TUC debate became a re-run of the tired trade union bureaucracy’s mantle of ‘sod any principles, wait for a Labour government’.
Another setback was the discussion on climate change and just transition. The GMB, backed by Prospect, Unison and Unite, brought a motion that made these unions and their members in the energy sector “paramount and central” to all union policy on climate change. This gives these union leaderships a veto over other workers. The GMB motion was motivated on entirely sectionalist, craft union grounds, bereft of the class struggle internationalism that should anchor union climate politics.
Almost all speakers opposed the resolution, explaining that firefighters, teachers, communication workers, civil servants and all manner of workers are directly involved with climate matters and should have a voice. But the arithmetic of TUC votes was not amenable to rational argument and the motion was carried.
The damp squib ending was epitomised by leaving vital debates on pay and collective bargaining to the final morning. There are no sign of coordinated TUC action on pay, despite almost every pay offer coming in below the current rate of inflation. The TUC says this decade has seen the worst pay squeeze for generations, yet there is no strategy to change the balance of forces and no plans for strikes to make business and government take notice.