The Reluctant Resistance: The TUC and the Tories

September 14, 2011

Although Trade Unions in the UK are being pushed by their members to take strike action over pensions and the broader drift of British economic policy, the record of the TUC and many individual union leaders in resisting cuts to public services and job losses has been atrocious.

The TUC head Brendan Barber now talks about “the need for a much more radical approach to responding to the crisis” and assures us that “we have a responsibility to co-ordinate trade unions who take industrial action on this issue. We are certainly prepared and stand ready to do that.”

But nobody should mistake him or other union leaders for reliable allies of working people. When the students were being kettled and seeing their futures evaporate, trade union leaders were almost all silent. It took over a year for the TUC to organize a protest march to bring its members together in opposition to the coalition government’s cuts program – a year of time lost when the agenda was clear to anyone capable of reading a newspaper.

Why is this? Much of the blame must lie with Barber himself, a union careerist and political naïf, who has little courage for a fight but a strong sense of self-importance. Nowhere was this toxic combination of attributes shown clearer than in a cable released by Wikileaks last year.

The cable describes a meeting between Barber and the US Ambassador on December 9, 2009 at which the two discussed the likelihood of a Conservative victory in the 2010 General Election. As the Ambassador reported, “Barber stated that the Tories have actually been “courting” the unions a bit, because they know they would need union support in any effort to reduce public sector employment as a deficit-fighting measure.”

Barber expressed his pleasure at being courted by the Tories, saying that “If the election were to result in a hung parliament, the union movement might actually be in the strongest political position, since all three parties would need its support.”

This is Brendan Barber in private, scheming with the Ambassador of a foreign power. He doesn’t come out well. On one hand, he was astonishingly naïve, suggesting that the union movement, which has long been shedding members, would be in a ‘strong position’ whatever the result of an election in which, he was well aware, all parties were committed to deficit reduction. Since then, the unions have shown very little evidence to the public that their strength has grown due to political developments.

On the other hand, Barber appears slimy and self-satisfied in his position as a midwife for the Tories delivering their noxious economic program. The phrase “because they know they would need union support in any effort to reduce public sector employment as a deficit-fighting measure” bears repeating. A good question for union leaders would be, just how much support have you given the Tories in their deficit cutting crusade, and what rewards have you received in return?

Now, union after union is balloting its members. Workers are putting immense pressure on union leaders to take action against massive increases to their pension contributions and rises in the pension age. The act of striking, however, so long a staple of workers (and absolutely guaranteed under international labour law as a basic right) is still being resisted by those leaders. As Len McCluskey, seen as one of the more radical union leaders, told the Guardian, “Hopefully the government will see the anger and perhaps take a step back, be a little bit more flexible and less intransigent. We have heard union leader after union leader saying they don’t want to do this, but the anger comes from the ordinary men and women in the grassroots.”

McCluskey seems almost embarrassed by the passion coming from the “grassroots” (presumably he sees himself and his other well-paid leaders as beautiful flowers, and certainly not “ordinary men and women.”) And well might Len be shamefaced. After all, in November 2010, he promised us all that “I feel passionate about it. I will stand on the rooftops and shout about it and we will do everything in our power to resist it. We will join together the public and private sector workers.”

Back then, Len was thinking about the March demonstration, which came and went. He wanted it to “[rock] the establishment and [make] them step back” but it was the youthful occupiers of Fortnum and Mason who made the biggest stir, while Trade Unionists were babbling on in Hyde Park (even if Ed Miliband was booed at the rally).

McCluskey was promising to lead a truly radical campaign of resistance, however, even going so far as to liken himself to Nelson Mandela. As he put it, “Do I believe the law is sacrosanct? Absolutely I do not. If there are bad laws not only is it right to oppose them but your duty to do so…[Nelson] Mandela may have taken that position over the laws of apartheid and [Mahatma] Gandhi may have taken that position over the laws of colonialism and imperialism…”

We still await his heroic stand in the streets of London. Right now, what we are seeing is a promise of action on pensions – an issue that unions can legally strike over. But Len’s heroic rhetoric has been well and truly exposed as cynical posturing. And we should probably put Brendan Barber’s concern about pension rights and cuts in the same bracket.

Whatever happens over the coming months – and action will certainly be plentiful – it will be the anger and passion of workers that impels and shapes it. The power of men like McCluskey and Barber has long been an impediment to workers’ own power. They may now, hopefully, discover how irrelevant they can be made by a confident upsurge of organized labour.


One Response to “The Reluctant Resistance: The TUC and the Tories”

  1. Watsonlow Says:

    Len McCluskey’s passion concerning pensions may well be sincere, particularly in relation to his own retirement prospects. Derek Simpson, former joint leader of Unite, has recently taken a £ ½ million severance handout, which is possibly being funded by the 5% subscription increase demanded of the rank and file. Trade Union leaders are virtually indistinguishable from FTSE 100 company directors in their attitudes and aspirations. They are only too happy to play the Francis Maude game of setting public against private workers. They can safely be ignored by those who are really trying to effect a shift in resources from rich to poor.

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