What should the TUC do?
John Bowman highlights some simple but effective policies
When criticised for their lack of imagination and action, it’s a classic riposte from some leaders, to say, “of course I would like to do more, but we lack the strength to do it in most of the workplaces” or “the members just aren’t up for it.” Another line is “we want to fight together, but the other unions don’t.” From the more right-wing leaders, we tend to hear points like “striking now would alienate the public”, and “the unions laws are stopping us.”
Of course, these arguments should normally be taken with a pinch of salt – they are often used to excuse union leaders from giving a proper leadership to their members – but there is also a degree of truth to them as well.
So what should the union leaders be doing to solve these problems theysay are holding us back?
1. Launch a joint-union recruitment drive with a focus on encouraging new, young members to become activists and campaigners
It sounds obvious but it hasn’t been done. Imagine if the trade unions pooled their resources through the TUC, engaging the public with a huge publicity and advertising campaign to reach those many people in Britain who’ve not come into contact with unions before. Young people could be targeted before they even start work – at the schools, colleges, and universities. Materials and support could be given to new members interested in forming workplace branches, and unions could try to come across as campaigning organisations, not just insurance policies. If it was organised on a cross-union basis, inter-union competition could be avoided.
2. Think beyond the workplace
The cuts don’t just affect public sector workers, but those who rely on the services, including private sectors workers, the unemployed and residents. The TUC promised in 2010 to “build a great campaign against the cuts, rooted in every community with a clear national voice – that can win the argument for an alternative”.
Yet this opportunity to unite millions from all walks of life wasn’t carried through, and winning the public argument simply isn’t enough to stop the Tories. Unite’s new Community Membership scheme is a radical move in the right direction, aimed at organising everyone affected by cuts together with a campaigning focus, but it shouldn’t just be one union doing this – it should be all unions together.
3. Develop and publicise an escalating plan of action for the movement
The TUC should be playing a leading role in developing a political campaign against the cuts, with clear objectives set out and a convincing campaign plan to achieve them, publicly accessible and constructed. It could be put to a vote of the rank and file – in a democratic conference with delegates coming from union branches and sectors all over Britain. The campaign could produce mass publicity, petitions, organise demonstrations, national days of action in the localities, including sustained sectional strikes, up to and including a general strike. It wouldn’t all come at once, but it would be built with clear aims from the outset involving the working class as a whole democratically.
4. Campaign against – don’t hide behind – Britain’s anti-union laws
Union leaders need to stop hiding behind and start campaigning against Britain’s anti-union laws. The worst in Europe they systematically illegalise all but the most timid forms of industrial action.
The campaign against the union laws won’t be won by polite lobbying. We will need to defy them en masse – altogether. All the worst laws in history have been defeated when millions stood together and made them unworkable by refusing to abide by them. The big union leaders talk about civil disobedience – they warmly congratulated Occupy and UK Uncut for it – but they are more than a little averse to it when it comes our workplaces.
Will our current leaders do these things? Highly unlikely, but we should not let them off the hook. We should campaign for these proposals in our unions, expose the do-nothing national leaders and fight to remove them. At the same time we should get these ideas and campaigns taken up in every union and at every level we can; workplace, branch, area and region. And campaign against our leaders if they will not act.
It’s time to start matching fighting talk with real action that can win.