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Dudley Edwards

Trades Councils: An Historic Role to Play

(May 1980)

From Militant, No. 505, 30 May 1980, p. 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The National Conference of Trades Councils opening on May 31st has exceptional importance for the whole labour movement this year.

Over a hundred years ago, it was this body which took the initiative in bringing the TUC itself into existence. Yet, over the years, it was relegated to a purely advisory role, carrying little weight in the decisions made by the trade union movement as a whole.

Only at times of very great crisis has it become clear, as during the general strike in 1926, that trades councils must play an indispensable role in mobilising the whole working class by “hand or by brain”.

In the light of the successes and failures of the TUC’s ‘Day of Action’ on 14 May it has again been shown that this task of mobilising the working people in the localities almost automatically falls onto the shoulders of those thousands of delegates who give their time to the building of trades councils throughout Britain.

Wherever the Day of Action was a success it was because the local trades council rose to the occasion, taking bold steps in good time to rally around it all affiliated organisations and the officers and stewards of those unions.

Without these dedicated efforts, the hesitant and rather unclear call of the General Council of the TUC would have been as ineffective as the vile propaganda of the capitalist press has claimed it was.

In the event, in many areas, organised labour was able to put on demonstrations which in size and spirit have not been seen since 1926.

It is for this reason that resolutions coming before the National Conference have great importance for all workers in the labour movement. Unfortunately these resolutions can only have an advisory character, but they cannot be ignored by the TUC General Council.

They truly reflect a growing desire by thousands of the most active, enlightened rank and file members of the labour movement for active resistance to Margaret Thatcher’s attacks, both on working class standards of living and hard-won trade union rights.

Some of the resolution to be debated at Conference reveal an increasing demand that trades councils should become the all-inclusive “working-class parliament” they were originally intended to be.

Several councils have therefore put forward proposals for constitutional changes to enhance the authority of trades councils locally; enabling them to assist and co-ordinate all industrial and social struggles in their districts.

Resolution No. 1 from the Brighton, Hove and District trades council asks the TUC to “reconsider the possibility of direct representation of shop stewards’ committees on trades councils.”

For direct representation of shop stewards’ committees

At present trades councils can only contact such stewards indirectly through branches, but in most cases the branch delegates are not stewards. Direct representation would enable trades councils to more speedily reflect day to day struggles of workers.

At the same time it would make it easier to co-ordinate their activities when a national call to action is made by the TUC.

If this resolution was implemented it would enormously strengthen the cohesion and solidarity of the local trade unions.

Resolution No. 2 refers to the need “to strengthen the TC County associations” with particular reference to their key role in “co-ordinating long running official disputes and fighting the employers’ practice of black-listing.” It also calls for constitutional change and proposes that at least on representative from each trades council be elected to TUC regional councils as a constitutional right.”

There is also an indirect reference to the scandalous sacking of Derek Robinson from Leyland. This resolution expresses “its grave concern that shop stewards who put forward alternative proposals to those of management can be dismissed without consultation with TUC representatives concerned.”

It calls upon the “TUC to use all measures in its power to ensure that shop stewards should not be dismissed without consultation with the full-time officer of the union concerned.”

This resolution is therefore pressing for a real application of the traditional working class principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Too often has a valiant defence of trade union principles by rank and file delegates, as at Grunwick and now at Chix of Slough been abandoned by the TUC. Every time this happens the trade union movement as a whole is weakened.

Almost all the 28 resolutions reflect the growing anger of trade unionists against the ruthless attack of the Tory government on the social gains won by the workers in a hundred years of struggle.

Resolution No. 9, for example, calls for “non-co-operation with the government’s anti-trade union legislation” and asks the TUC “to get assurance from the Labour Party that when returned to office they will repeal all the anti-trade union legislation.”

It also calls upon the TUC “to wage an uncompromising campaign against these anti-working-class measures.” It calls for a restoration of all cuts in social benefits and an extension instead of a contraction of existing social services. All the demands in these resolutions must certainly be backed by the Labour Party in or out of office.

If there is a weakness in the resolutions, it is in the section dealing with economic affairs. Resolution No. 7 “recognises the reality of the world economic crisis of capitalism.” It also calls for a reduction in working hours as a means of combating mass unemployment. This must be supported by the entire movement.

The solution it proposes, though, is the ‘alternative economic strategy.’ It does not define what this strategy is, but as the articles on the centre pages of this week’s paper show, “you cannot control what you don’t own.”

Only the taking over of all the commanding heights of the economy and the driving through of a socialist economic plan will bring about any real increase in the production of real wealth in Britain today.

Writing in the Labour Standard 99 years ago Frederick Engels, who kept in close touch with the London Trades Council, wrote the following inspired words:

“The workpeople of England have but to will and they are masters to carry every reform social and political which this situation requires. Then why not make that effort?”

Today this situation requires that that effort be made to fundamentally change society. In bringing together all sections of the working class, the trades councils of Britain can play an historic part in bringing that change about.

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