How good it is to see the new TUC General Secretary, Frances, shaping up so well as Leader of Britain’s unions? We badly need that broad-based leadership which has been the distinctive contribution of that body.
Founded in 1868 to coordinate the parliamentary lobbying of the then mainly craft unions, it did much to persuade both Liberal and Conservative governments to reform the far worse anti-union laws of those days. This led to what a later General Secretary,Walter Citrine, described as our Charter of Trade Union Rights of the 1870s – full legal status without incorporation; immunity from prosecution and attack on union funds and many more protections.
Still the emerging general unions preferred to retain total autonomy in pursuing their sectional trade interests until 1921, when they agreed to give the TUC General Council more powers to coordinate the industrial strength of individual unions. After the over-ambitious but well-meaning use of those powers in the ten day General Strike of 1926, it was the General Council under Walter Citrine as General Secretary, together with key union leaders, such as Ernest Bevin of the T&GWU, who then led the entire Labour Movement out of the Great Depression. This achieved impressive results with the restoration of union membership, extension of union recognition and government action against low pay throughout the 1930s. Together with the Labour leadership of Attlee, Morrison and Nye Beavan, the TUC laid the ground in policy terms for the most radical advances of the 1945-51 Labour government.
For a couple of decades afterwards, our generation reaped the fruits of the growing status of workers and trade unions in society. But seduced (perhaps) by the understandable materialistic and (less so) individualistic urges of the ’60s and ’70s, the unions fell back on following those membership urges, rather than exerting any leadership moderation.
This was encouraged by the then influential CPGB and the Left generally in unions – I know, I was part of it. That is not to say that the Right were paragons of wise counsel either. It was often a case of factional contests between the ‘Ins and the Outs’ for the plumbs of union office, rather than the wider interests of the membership. After George Woodcock’s thoughtful but over-cerebral stint, the TUC fell into line and ‘led’ our rear-guard action against (modest) union and industrial relations reform. We threw out ‘In Place of Strife’ and ‘Killed the Bill’ and with it two governments who, all things considered, were not anti-union and a hell of a lot better to deal with than what was to come with Thatcher. The TUC froze, immobilised by our divisions in the build up to the Miners’ syndicalist leadership’s attempt to get the waves to go back. After a time, John [Lord] Monks as General Secretary again ventured to the front with a serious approach to regaining the lost ground of the 1980s and ’90s through the EU Social Chapter and close working with the new Labour Government of 1997. Alas, this time it was the New Labour leadership which moved the goalposts with its distrust of all collective union effort and left him in the lurch.
So, here we are today, with the prospect of another Tory or right-wing Coalition government now a very real prospect in 2015. Admittedly, the latest self-inflicted wound has come from a gauche Labour leadership move over the ‘opt in’ option, on the pretext of bogus allegations in Falkirk. This is the wrong way to ‘reform’ the last collective power of unions (or more correctly of union General Secretaries or Executives of the largest unions) – the political levy. So, to get out of this jam without bringing down a quite good, if poorly advised, Labour leader, we need some stateswoman-like leadership. If the two wings of the movement can get their heads together over this one, it could lead on to better relationships generally.
Enter Frances O’ Grady. In addition to his recent committment to prioritise a statutory National Living Wage, with effective enforcement powers, Miliband should commit to restoring the legitimacy of responsible collective union influence in Labour and government counsels. Review the trade union laws with a view to repealing those which are one-sided and unjustifiably restrictive. We have lived with some of them – individual balloting requirement, for example, which no one now wants to abolish. End the war on the trade unions, in return for rule changes which commit all unions to again coordinate a considered approach through the TUC on political and other such matters.
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