That the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is even talking about taking action against the Con-Lib government’s planned spending cuts reflects the deep anger of public sector workers and their willingness to fight back. Most union leaders, however, clearly want to avoid a confrontation with the coalition.
The all-embracing composite motion that the TUC is set to adopt in Manchester this week hardly disguises sharp differences within the trade union leadership. On the one side, the transport union RMT and the public and civil servants PCS – led by Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka – want co-ordinated industrial action sooner rather than later.
Crow said at the weekend that if there was a "concerted effort by this new government to attack workers in all different parts of society" then workers taking action should "co-ordinate that resistance to defend working men and working women".
But the major unions like Unison, Unite and the GMB, want to emphasise public campaigns to win support for opposing the cuts agenda. Les Bayliss, who is hoping to be general secretary of Unite, said: "Strikes will also change the victims – our members – into the villains of the piece. The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy."
In the middle, TUC secretary Brendan Barber is looking for a deal with the Cameron-Clegg government. Behind-the scenes manoeuvres are already in train. The first action point of the resolution calls on “the Government to consult the General Council [of the TUC] regarding the comprehensive spending review”. Reports suggest that senior Tories have already held secret talks with union leaders and that Cameron will meet Barber soon.
The resolution, after 1,138 words of preamble, calls on the General Council to “support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action, nationally and locally, in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services”. Yet, as a report from the GMB union shows, the jobs slaughter is already well under way, with 150,000 redundancies planned across the public sector. If the time to act is not right now, when is it?
The whole mistaken tenor of the eclectic TUC resolution is to label the coalition’s plans as “ideologically driven”. Yet the same motion offers support to workers resisting the cuts in Spain and Greece (as well as other countries), where the governments call themselves “Socialist”, which rather shows that more than “ideology” is involved.
There is no reference to the global economic crisis and the term “capitalism” is studiously avoided. For the fact remains that, for all their bluster, New Labour would be carrying out the same cuts because they are a consequence of the recession combined with the demands of the financial markets that fund government deficits. In fact, many of the job losses now going through are the result of decisions taken by the Brown government and not the coalition.
The TUC has faced three grave crises in the last 80-odd years. The first was in 1926, when a Tory government imposed wage cuts on the miners. A General Strike was betrayed as it gathered strength and the miners were literally starved back to work. In 1984-5, the miners heroically fought to save jobs and communities – and again the TUC stabbed them in the back, this time through inaction.
The third crisis is the present one, against a government that intends to impose the full burden of the capitalist crisis on the backs of public sector workers and those who depend on services of one kind or another. Unions like the RMT and PCS have a responsibility to prevent the TUC right-wing from betraying the movement once again.
This will mean enforcing a split in the General Council against those preparing a deal with the coalition and mobilising communities against the government. Ultimately, this government is not for turning but it is weak and could be brought down by widespread and sustained opposition. What to replace it with is the biggest question of all.