Monday, September 10, 2007

TUC Congress Monday Morning: Barber and Brown

It was a morning of Speeches By Important People, interspersed with some awards and the odd resolution. First up was TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, who began by welcoming “another year of solid progress for our movement”. He cited the TUC’s work fighting the BNP, congratulated ASLEF for its landmark legal victory securing the right of unions to expel fascists, and welcomed the formation of Unite. He also offered support for the industrial battles currently being waged by the CWU, Prison Officers’ Association and GMB/Unite/Unity in Remploy. Somehow, he ‘forgot’ to mention RMT’s strike on Metronet just a few days ago.

Telling us that Gordon Brown would be speaking later, Brendan described the PM as “an old friend and a good friend” (isn’t there some saying that starts “with friends like these …”?), and pleaded that “it’s not easy to be a Labour Prime Minister addressing a TUC Congress”. My heart positively does not bleed. Of course, it’s also not easy being a contracted-out public services worker on poverty pay, or a victim of the war on Iraq, or a young person more likely to get an ASBO than an apprenticeship. But Brendan seemed determined to be Gordon’s warm-up act.

There was some criticism – there could hardly not be – but it was all polite, all muted, all timidly whimpering from under the shadow of our gratitude for the plethora of fabulous things that newLabour has done for us. It was part Oliver Twist, part Uriah Heep.

Brendan rightly denounced vulnerable employment as “the dark underbelly of British life”, and described meeting many of its victims – workers who are super-exploited by long hours, poverty pay, insecure employment, workplace bullying and more. It’s a veritable scandal. But isn’t the real scandal that this situation persists ten years into a Labour government? Brendan didn’t mention that.

I watched Gordon Brown’s speech from the balcony, holding aloft ‘End Tube Privatisation’ placards along with several fellow delegates from RMT and TSSA.

Brown pushed all the right buttons to get himself a sympathetic hearing – his former life as a trade union tutor, praise for union learning, name-dropping of Nelson Mandela. He talked about oppression and poverty in other countries.

He also said many of those phrases that trade unionists like to hear, but left them suitably vague and ignored the fact that his own government’s policy contradicted them. How about “dignity and security in retirement” (despite attacks on pensions), “raising standards in the workplace” (despite the ravages of privatisation) and “a better NHS” (that’ll be the one that’s laying off workers as funding rushes into the hands of privateers and away from patient care).

But Brown’s main theme was jobs, and his main message was that British trade unions must help British employers to compete with foreigners. His subtext was that we must accept changes, no doubt meaning giving up important rights and agreements, accepting less secure employment, always feeding our employers’ need for more ‘flexibility’.

He is going to fast-track British workers into British jobs, and asked the unions to enter into partnership with the employers to help oil the wheels. And while he didn’t defend his privatisation policies or his attacks on pensions, he was prepared to defend his public sector pay cuts, justified by the need to “defeat inflation”. As usual, no such restraint is expected from the fat-cat bosses, only from low-paid workers. I shouted “rubbish!”, then fell silent in shock as not a whimper emanated from the public sector unions whose members are being told to accept below-inflation pay rises. To give them credit, PCS had produced some posters demanding decent pay for public servants, which plenty of delegates held up, but I expected at least a few verbal outbursts when Brown positively advocated holding back pay, and my gob was duly smacked.

Brown is trying to shackle the British labour movement to the British ruling class, enlisting us to help our exploiters extract more value from our labour. What is this – The Bridge Over The River Kwai?! To resist this, both the right and sections of the left of the labour movement need to drop their decades-long embrace of nationalism and insist that the workers of the world will not ‘compete’ with each other in a race to the bottom, but unite with each other to end exploitation.

“Some people”, said Brown, “think the 21st century will be a Chinese century. I think it can be a British century.” What about a workers’ century?!