New militant chapter opens for the British trade unions

Today marks the end of the Trade Union Congress in Blackpool. It was a Congress that reflected the mood not seen since the hey-days of the miners' strike of 1984-85. Since that time, we have had a decade and a half of "new realism" and policies of (class) "collaboration" or "partnership", epitomised by the likes of Sir Ken Jackson, ex-general secretary of the AEEU. Now a wind of change has hit the trade union movement.

"This Trade Union Congress is beginning to reflect the profound changes in the trade union movement. At last, the views from the workplace are breaking through. It is like a breath of fresh air." (Jeremy Dear, newly elected member of the General Council.)

Today marks the end of the Trade Union Congress in Blackpool. It was a Congress that reflected the mood not seen since the hay-days of the miners' strike of 1984-85. Since that time, we have had a decade and a half of "new realism" and policies of (class) "collaboration" or "partnership", epitomised by the likes of Sir Ken Jackson, ex-general secretary of the AEEU. Now a wind of change has hit the trade union movement.

Of course, this is no accident. It is a reflection of the mood that has been developing in the ranks of the British working class over the last 15 or 20 years. Strikes have now taken place on the railways, in the local authorities, among journalists, steelworkers and many other sectors.

Despite the intentions of Blair and John Monks, there is a lot more to come. A recent opinion poll indicated that nearly half of British bosses expect to face a strike ballot over the next 12 months. There is widespread talk of a new "Winter of Discontent", a reference to the winter of 1978-79 when millions of low paid workers took industrial action against the wage restraint of the then Labour Government. For many workers who have been promised jam tomorrow there is a growing feeling that enough is enough.

Today, the Firefighters' union, the FBU, meets in Manchester to decide whether to ballot its members for strike action over a substantial wage increase. The wages of these workers have fallen behind other sectors by as much as 20%. The hard-nosed employers have offered a measly 4% rise as well as the ploy of an independent enquiry.

However, the mood of firefighters has become very militant as indicated by their recent demonstrations in Belfast and London. It seems inevitable that their recall conference will definitely decide to ballot for action. In the next few months we will be facing a national firefighters' strike. The last time this section of workers took such action was 25 years ago under the Callaghan Labour Government. Rail unions ASLEF and RMT have indicated that their members will refuse to work on safety grounds in the event of a firefighters' strike. They have made it plain that they will not tolerate the lack of essential cover by the fire service. Such a scenario will see paralyse the capital as rail and tube systems come to a grinding halt.

The new mood of militancy in the factories and workplaces was reflected in the election of a string of left-leaning general secretaries over the past few years. Mick Rix was elected the general secretary of the train drivers ASLEF, Bob Crow in the rail union RMT, Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union, Billy Hayes in the Communication Workers Union, Mark Serwotka in the civil service union, Jeremy Dear in the journalists' union, and most recently Derek Simpson in AEEU Amicus. This new mood on the shop floor is reflecting itself in a change in the executive bodies of the union. And this will intensify in the future.

This is in complete contrast to the right-wing victories over the past 20 years. The engineering workers' union, the AEEU, was under the grip of the right wing since 1977 and the election of Terry Duffy. The old ETU, the electricians' union, was under right-wing control since the early 1960s under Cannon and Chappel! The electricians union was even expelled from the TUC. The amalgamation of the AEEU and the ETU meant the creation of a right-wing bastion. But this is in the process of being blown apart and the scene is being set for a massive swing to the left. Already Simpson has threatened to tear up a series of no-strike "sweetheart deals" with employers.

These events demonstrate how even the most right-wing and bureaucratic unions can shift to the left on the basis of changed conditions and a new mood in the rank and file. This is a complete answer to the ultra-lefts and sectarians on the fringes of the labour movement who wrote-off these unions - as they write-off the Labour Party today. They are incapable of thinking dialectically. The molecular changes in the minds of the mass of workers have produced a qualitative change in the situation.

After the hard-hitting debate at the TUC on employment rights and the repeal of the anti-union laws came the debate on war against Iraq. This set the Congress alight. An amendment from the rail union TSSA unequivocally opposing the war became the battle ground between the new left and old right. A stream of left general secretaries - Crow, Rix, Hayes, Dear, Serwotka and others - challenged the Blair/Bush hypocrisy and loudly opposed the war. All were met with thunderous applause, as the mood of the Congress was overwhelmingly anti-war.

John Monks appealed to Congress to have faith in the dis-United Nations, which should be permitted to authorise a "just" war against Iraq is need be. The only other speaker the right could muster was the discredited Roger Lyons. After his cheap attack on the TSSA amendment "as one coming from the Baghdad Trades Council" - which caused a roar of disapproval from the delegates - his whole argument fell flat.

When the vote was taken, the president of the TUC, (Sir) Tony Young, was forced to concede - to rapturous applause - that the amendment was passed. However, not to be out done, he announced a card vote. With the TGWU, GMB and AEEU Amicus voting against, this resulted in the amendment being rejected by a million votes.

Even then, nearly 2.4 million trade unionists, or about 40% of the movement, voted to adopt a position of outright opposition to any US attacks. Also, the fact that the AEEU Amicus opposed the amendment was decisive. Their delegates were chosen by their right-wing dominated executive meeting, which had not faced election for over two years and were out of touch from the real mood of the union, as the election of Simpson clearly indicated. They cast nearly a million votes, which if they had gone the other way would have meant a majority of a million for the amendment.

However, this lag in the tops of the unions will tend to correct itself in the coming period. The right wing, however, will be do their damnedest to hang on to their privileged positions and will revert to all kinds of tricks to frustrate to genuine will of the rank and file. This was clearly illustrated by the manoeuvrings of Sir Ken Jackson and Barry Reamsbottom of PCS to keep their general secretary positions - despite losing the vote.

Again, the mood at the TUC when Tony Blair spoke was decidedly cool. Blair's speech contained few facts or firm commitments except the need to remove Saddam and on the home front for workers to modernise and develop their skills. But he needed 10 years, he said, to really complete the job. This was spiced up with the threat that the choice facing working people was Blairism or the Tories, but many seemed unconvinced. There was a desperate attempt by the right to stage a standing ovation, but it did not come off, with only the most perfunctory ovation. Even the applause was muted, expressing a deep-seated opposition to Blairism. Many delegates sat in stony silence.

The elections for the General Council of the TUC saw a significant step forward for the left. Newly elected were Andy Gilchrist (FBU), Billy Hayes (CWU), Derek Simpson (AEEU Amicus) and Jeremy Dear (NUJ). Mick Rix (ASLEF) retained his seat and the left are likely to be joined by Mark Serwotka, as soon as the PCS rightwing are forced to accept inevitable defeat. The same is true for left-winger Bob Crow (RMT) who narrowly missed election this time around.

This new mood in the TUC is but a pale reflection of the bitter and angry mood in the workplaces. Nevertheless, the decades of right wing domination of the trade union movement are coming to an end. Next year there will be the election of a new general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. The likely election of a left-leaning general secretary will serve to tilt the balance further. This process will inevitably take place in the Labour Party in the period that lies ahead, opening up a new chapter in the transformation of the British labour movement.