Source: Militant, no. 121 (September 8, 1972)
Transcription: Francesco 2010
Proofread: Fred 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010
The radical mood of the working class against the savage attacks of big business and its puppet, the Tory government has found a reflection within the Trade Union Congress discussions. From this point of view, this year’s TUC marks an important step forward for the trade union and labour movement.
The bitter struggles and strikes against the Industrial Relations Act by large sections of the organised industrial working class, have had an impact within the unions. This was especially so with the attempt to bludgeon the railwaymen and the dockers.
This has led to a stiffening of the ranks. Even right-wing leaders like Chapple of the ETU and the leaders of USDAW and other non-industrial unions like ASTMS issued a declaration that they would de-register after the jailing of the 5 dockers.
Consequently the only unions of any size which declared they would remain on the register were the National Union of Seamen, which under its general secretary Hogarth has become virtually a semi-company union, Equity, representing the actors, NUBE, the National Union of Bank Employees and COHSE, the health employees’ union.
They, together with some smaller unions were suspended on the first day of the congress by an overwhelming majority. Thus a modicum of discipline in the face of the attacks by the Tory government has been restored. To go on the register was an act of blacklegging. To accept the interference of big business and the Tory government in regulating the affairs of the unions and to tamely accept the task of policing their members was an act of disloyalty to the principles of the trade union movement, especially when other sections of the movement have been under attack. According to Vic Feather, only unions representing 2.5 percent of the membership of the TUC will be registered by the end of the year.
Incidentally the government and the NIRC [National Industrial Relations Court] are keeping very quiet about the “contempt of court” represented by this suspension. Sir John Donaldson’s NIRC wrote a letter to the general council warning them not to take action against the seamen’s union!
This partial swing to the left was indicated by the radical programme of reform on pensions holidays and wages and other reforms adopted by the TUC. (This has been analysed in the last issue of Militant).
In the elections there was a further swing to the left. Jack Peel of the textile workers’ union, an extreme right-winger, was removed from the general council, though many right-wingers like Frank Chapple remain. The “left” however has a nominal big majority on the general council now.
However, the elements of conservatism which remain were indicated by the defeat of a resolution moved by the AUEW and supported by the T&GWU which demanded a complete boycott of the Industrial Relations Act’s facilities and urging the TUC to establish a joint fund to pay fines imposed by the NIRC. This was defeated on a card vote by 3,439,000 to 5,677,000.
This means that despite the pressure of the working class, the majority of the trade union leaders are not prepared for all-out opposition and struggle, even in words, against the IR Act and against the Tory government.
Perhaps this attitude was best reflected in the opening remarks of the chairman, George Smith of UCATT who denied any suggestion that the TUC—mighty representative, potentially of organised labour—considered itself in any way “an alternative government”.
But if not so, why are they not waging a campaign to rouse the workers against the attacks of big business and the Tory government and the election of a Labour government as an alternative?
In reality their programme of reforms is thus doomed to remain on paper. How are these reforms to be implemented? The Tories will certainly not accept this programme, especially if there is no organised action to make them do so. Similarly they will not repeal the Industrial Relations Act, or put it “on ice”, but rather keep it as a reserve weapon unless they are forced to do so by the organised working class.
The real thinking of the General Council was expressed by Vic Feather, general secretary of the TUC, in opening the debate when he said they had warned the government that it was time for a radical change of direction. “I believe the government know it” he remarked, “l believe that they wish they could get shot of the whole thing and start off again from square one.”
In other words, Feather and the majority want a nice horse-deal with Heath and company, who in return for concessions on prices and incomes will repeal the Industrial Relations Act or put it on ice.
But that was precisely the purpose of the act! If the TUC will voluntarily roll on its back like a tame cart-horse, with all four legs in the air, what need of the act has big business?
“Voluntary” arbitration, voluntarily putting the unions in the noose of “conciliation”, cannot solve the problems of the working class nor bring forward the reform programme of the TUC. That Heath, Carr, Davies and the crew of the Confederation of British Industry puppets, are prepared to make such an arrangement, indicates that big business and its government are in difficulties because of the strength of the trade unions.
They want to use the unions to get them out of a hole. But any agreements with the Tories or the employers as every active trade unionist knows depends entirely on the strength and consciousness of the workers. The moment the pressure of the workers ebbs, Heath, at a time that suits him, will withdraw any concessions favourable to the workers.
The TUC is supposed to be the general staff of labour. But if they are not prepared to campaign against the enemy—capitalism and its hirelings—but prefers the illusory path of class collaboration—that is the meaning of an agreement with the Tory government—that can, only mean disaster for the trade union movement.
Instead of this, militants must campaign in the union branches, wards, shop stewards committees and constituency organisations for a concerted campaign of the TUC, co-ops and LP to bring down the Tories and force a general election on the basis of a socialist programme. A campaign on the lines of sketching out an enabling act to take over the banks, insurance, land and the 350 monopolies with minimum compensation on the basis of need. The management of industry and the state to be in the hands of the trade unions with all officials working for skilled workers’ wages.