2003 Congress: TUC must support workers in struggle

The British TUC (Trades Union Congress) Congress opens up today. NUJ General Secretary and TUC  General Council member Jeremy Dear spoke to Socialist Appeal about the tasks and perspectives for the trade union movement

What are the main issues facing this congress?

Public services will be a key issue for the Congress with a strong statement needed supporting a national framework for pay, including national rates and national pay bargaining and reaffirming our movement's commitment to universal provision of education, healthcare, fire cover and so on based on need not profit. But it is important to do more than that. The TUC must be prepared to support and lead action by workers to oppose privatisation and protect jobs and conditions too.

Other key debates will focus around workers rights where the TUC has adopted a good policy supporting the repeal of the anti-trade union legislation but now we need to build the campaign in to a more active one. Us and the RMT are calling for a national demonstration in 2004 to back demands for rights at work. We also need to increase the pressure on the government to stop the activities of the union-busters and enhance collective bargaining rights.

Another key demand from the unions will be for the TUC to lead a campaign to tackle the BNP and other fascist and racist organisations. Asylum seekers live in a state of fear in many communities in the UK and the TUC needs to be waging an active fight to counter organised fascism and racism and to expose the poverty, unemployment, poor housing and social conditions which are the breeding ground for these filth.

Top-up fees in education may become one of the next big battlegrounds between the trade unions and the government and the TUC is likely to strongly reassert its fundamental opposition to such fees which undermine equality of access.

The NUJ is one of those unions calling for a TUC commitment to campaign against any attempts to undermine public service broadcasting and force a greater commercial role on the BBC.

Talking of the BBC what do you think of events surrounding the Hutton enquiry?

In one sense the furore over the BBC report and the Hutton enquiry have achieved one of the government's aims - they have got people talking about who said what to whom and when and sight has been lost of the fact that we were taken to war based on a lie - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when none have been found; that it had chemical and biological weapons capable of being deployed in 45 minutes; and that it posed an imminent threat to the US and Western Europe. Despite the pages of information, the e-mails, the dossiers and the quizzing of intelligence chiefs, there is not a single shred of evidence for those assertions.

I always believed this war had little to do with the democratic rights of the Iraqi people and much more to do with US dominance of an oil-rich region.

And those who warned of the dire consequences of the war were sneered at when George Bush declared a quick 'victory'. Now new estimates say around 20,000 Iraqis may have died, there is still no electricity or water in some parts, killings happen virtually daily, unemployment has soared, malnutrition is rising. Is this what 'victory' looks like?

Hutton provides a useful distraction from that grim reality.

How has the trade union movement changed in the last twelve months?

Last year's Congress was one of the most dynamic for years and this year's is liklely to build on that. Since last year Derek Simpson has taken over at Amicus, Tony Woodley has been elected at the TGWU and Kevin Curran at the GMB. A new left Executive has been elected at the PCS and left trade union leaders like Paul Mackney at NATFHE and Judy McKnight at Napo have been re-elected. At the CWU the left candidate won the Deputy General Secretary post. With the exception of the surprise defeat of Mick Rix at Aslef there has been another steady move towards the left. And I think you can see that reflected in unions taking action over pensions, job losses, pay, working conditions and so on. There is a greater confidence and willingness among unions and their leaderships to fight on behalf of their members. That is then being reflected in many unions seeing significant increases in membership for the first time in many years.

That's what has brought unions in to conflict with New Labour. The government's relationship with big business is threatened because workers are no longer accepting that their wages must be held down or they must be more flexible simply to make ever greater profits for shareholders. Is it any wonder there is an enormous anger when fat cat bosses reap the dividends whilst workers in Britain have the longest hours in Europe, with the shortest breaks, the fewest public holidays and the least rights at work.

Much has been made of the rift between the unions and the government. What do you make of it?

It is a very real rift. On the one hand you have a government commited to privatisation, in thrall to sections of the media, with a relationship with big business they value above all else and a commitment to the 'free market'. On the other hand you have a trade union movement founded on the principles of justice, equality and solidarity that sees that the 'free market', big business and privatisation cannot deliver those values. The market hasn't delivered better public services or better transport, it hasn't delivered better working conditions or decent housing for all.

Many people say the rift is about personalities or grudges but it is much more fundamental than that. It is about ideology. There was great optimism in 1997 that we would see the end of the Thatcherite pro-business policies being pursued by the Tories. But too many of them have continued.

So what are the unions doing about it?

Well, on a personal level I welcomed Tony Woodley's call for a summit of unions to win the party back for our values. The unions have begun to get organised to take the party back from those who hijacked it in the 1990s. The TUC Congress would be a good place to launch that campaign in the wider movement. If unions do not act now many good trade unionists, disillusioned with the government's policies on pensions, rights at work, asylum seekers and so on will be lost to the party in the coming years. Labour's vote in many elections has fallen reflecting this disillusionment.

But where Labour candiadtes have stood, as in Wales, on a few Old-Labour style policies they have reaped the rewards.

The task facing affiliated unions is now to transform the call to reclaim the party in to action. As a first step they should make sure their representatives on Labour's NEC support union policy or are removed.

Socialist Appeal has put forward the idea of a '300 Club' aimed at signing up 300 trade unionists to each Constituency Labour Party with unions using their resources to help members join.

Such a move would be a concrete way of unions using their resources better to have influence over the party and its selection of candidates. Many unions give tens of thousands of pounds to Labour only to see the services their members work in privatised or like the firefighters have to wage a bitter battle with the government for fair pay. It would be much better if they directed that money at securing candidates and CLPs who backed demands for better trade union rights, who supported working peoples' demands rather than those of big business.

It has been a good year for the NUJ. How do you intend to build on that?

It certainly has been a good year. We've seen another significant rise in union membership, have won some very important recognition campaigns, not least at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph where more than 90% of the 600-plus journalists voted in favour of NUJ recognition and we've begun to use our new found confidence to tackle low pay in the magazine and local newspaper industry achieving rises of over 20% in some areas. It is important we now work to co-ordinate the various actions that are taking place throughout the industry. We are planning a major campaign against low pay in one particular newspaper group over the coming months as well as a campaign with other media and entertainment unions to defend public service broadcasting.

September 8, 2003.