After the TUC Congress 2020

Daragh O’Neill discusses the outcomes of last week’s TUC Congress which was held online for the first time – and the challenges facing the labour movement as we head towards 2021.

This year’s TUC Congress met last week after yet another year of changes and challenges affecting everyone, not only across Britain, but also across the world. In this still rapidly developing situation, and still in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, are they rising to the occasion?

It’s hardly news to say it but 2020 has been a bad year: the Tories scorched earth approach to Brexit, Labour slipping back into centrism, the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic cliff edge we’re currently falling off. Few workers have felt safe returning to workplaces, with the over 65s being the only age group where the majority think workers should return to the office.[1]

It’s been a mixed bag for trade unions especially as trade union membership has grown for the third year in a row, but private sector membership continues to drop. A shift seems to have begun but with the coming economic crisis we will have to fight to protect jobs, especially as the lack of any government investment strategy means there will continue to be no new skilled job creation schemes. This is particularly important as much of the jobs created in the last decade have been insecure, often part time or on low hours, and largely low paid, with more workers than ever now being on minimum wage[2]. These service jobs often have less union membership, and historically less attention has been given to recruitment in the service sector.

Understandably the TUC has made Key Workers the focus on this year’s conference, putting the £10 an hour minimum wage demand at the heart of their agenda, as 4 in 10 Key Workers make less than £10 an hour[3]. Alongside this came the condemnation of austerity and its role in crippling an effective response to COVID-19, and the emphasis on job retention and job creation to stop a 1930s style depression. One of the TUC’s great strength continues to be its research department, and its commissioning of studies.

The unions have had some key successes this year, such as the proposal of the furlough scheme, though credit for this has been missing in most of the media. With this crisis, the TUC and some unions found that they had some influence over a government that normally didn’t listen, including day 1 sick pay[4]. The capacity of the TUC to make itself heard, however, still remains limited. Already it is finding itself returning to being ignored, with junior civil servants taking over the meetings with the TUC instead of their senior colleagues. This leaves the government and its wealthy friends in the position to pick up or discard TUC demands when it suits them, rather than when forced to deal with organised labour. Notably the key successes have been in the public sector where union density is strongest, but this may further increase the gulf between public and private, a division used effectively by the Tories to attack and undermine public sector pensions and other rights.

Making itself heard is a matter of mobilising the resources the TUC has. This means engaging the membership into organised collective activity.  Certainly the motions passed are in this spirit, but they continue to fall short, due to a lack of specific detail. In addition, some sections of the trade union movement seem unable to react to and show their relevance in the context of the neoliberal workplace experience of wage insecurity and bullying.  

Looking at this purely through the lens of the TUC and the trade union movement alone though gives us a false sense of the situation, particularly for younger workers (usually defined as up to 30, though of course this affects all workers). This is due to the wider economic shift across our society with neoliberalism becoming ever more entrenched and the shift to a finance and service based economy in Britain, the latter being the largest area of job growth. As any young person can tell you, new jobs are most likely to be low paid and insecure. For young workers the challenge is not just joining a union, but rebuilding a movement from the ground up. The anti-trade union laws of the British state put many barriers in the way of taking any sort of action, limiting potential for easy grassroots activism. Without having access to the infrastructure, knowledge and resources of trade unions to navigate this, such activity is often sporadic and unsustainable.

This is made more difficult by the long-term impact of the employment shift from industry to services, with what has often been a slow trade union response. The service sector has largely been an area of low trade union membership due to its turnover rate and low wages. This has been compounded by USDAW who represent many shop workers being a union willing to make subservient agreements with employers, including no strike agreements, leaving the workers in this sector with little obvious reason to join. Like many unions USDAW has become focussed on service provision, rather than workplace organisation. This became more common with trade union decline and the mergers of unions, increasing the weight of resources being used on non-workplace matters, which means less of a focus on recruitment and activism of members. The result is that unions become a much less visible part of workplace life.

In turn, this has the effect of creating top-heavy unions quite different to how unions were formed and expanded in the past. While the creation of large general unions has helped rebuild unions it also led to distance between the workplace and remote regional union offices, as well as lots of individual members having no useful regular contact with their union. The incomplete nature of this transformation, with some British trade unions still being effectively craft unions covering one sector, means that any demands from workers must fit into to this landscape and deal with a pre-existing union recognised in their sector.  If there is a dead hand within union leadership – whether at branch or national level –  that shies away from confrontation and workplace organisation, it becomes hard for workers to see the relevance of their union or to change their affiliation if they are dissatisfied . What is more, increasingly workplace problems are individualised, when collective action would be far more effective.

Indeed compare this situation to what is currently happening in the rented sector. Here the issue of private renters’ rights, acknowledged by many trade unionists but never acted upon, has instead been taken up by Acorn, a community union. Due to Acorn not being a trade union it isn’t stepping on any else’s toes. With a plan and a focus on ground activity, it has in a few years won several notably victories in localities and nationally. As a group, it has been able to respond to a demand and need for organisation, without having to go through the existing web of organisations or comply with ill-fitting, pre-existing structures. It has structure that is fit for purpose and is responsive to members’ needs and able to react quickly.

The trade union movement can learn from this in how it’s going to approach the future. What this will require more than anything is taking some risks and shifting resources to invest in training up a new generation to be able to build up union branches, working with them to make action possible and creating an infrastructure to link inter-union members more easily. The TUC is in a unique role to do so and build on the successes of unions like the BFAWU, NEU, and even those from outside the TUC family like Acorn.

While the motions this year continue referencing this sort of thing, the nature of the TUC – emphasising winning broad agreement –  limits the scope of discussion and action, as the incentive becomes less about convincing others and more about protecting consensus. In effect this means little significant discussion has happened for years at the TUC, and little has been done despite the number of issues raised and motions passed. For instance, both ending zero hours contracts and a £10 an-hour minimum wage have been policy for a number of years now. In that time zero-hours contracts rose sharply, with a minor fall in 2018, linked to the BFAWU’s McStrike, not the work of the wider trade union movement. The Labour Party leadership have committed to a £9.30 an hour pay rise this year, but only for key workers. The supposed parliamentary wing of the labour movement won’t even listen to its most senior assembly, something to bear in mind when the TUC makes call on a hostile government, keen on using Covid 19, and a crash-out Brexit to solidify the grip of free market policies.

In part this comes down to the TUC’s own conception of itself, and how trade unions have changed in the face of deindustrialisation and large-scale loss of membership along with it. This has made it much more cautious, with an expectation of mitigating the worst changes rather than having an active role in the changes at work. The TUC is rarely, if ever, bold in the face of attacks, and does little to promote the positive alternatives contained within its motions. It hopes to be listened to by a government hostile to it, and happy to deny it any oxygen, but in response to this has done little to turn to its 5.5 million members into an alternative force, with little engagement with the core membership. Its social media outreach is especially poor yet desperately needed, given the TUC’s largely absence presence on prime-time news and media. It wants to be a partner with industry or the government, but the feeling is not reciprocated.

To change course, and encourage more than the 15% of people under 30 who are already in a union, a bolder course must be plotted by the TUC, hopefully by following up on the CWU led campaign, a New Deal For Workers. Otherwise the TUC may continue to find itself continuing to be an largely irrelevant body in practical terms, until a new generation of union activists can make it the leadership of the movement we need. It should be remembered, however, that the TUC will likely be the last part of the movement to respond to changes in society, changes that most unions are only now getting to grips with. Top down changes are unlikely to resolve this issue and it will take setting up new foundations and training up a new generation from the grassroots to make this possible.

Daragh O’Neill


[1] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/economy/survey-results/daily/2020/08/27/976c5/1

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/83e7e87e-fe64-11e6-96f8-3700c5664d30

[3] https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/general-council-report-2020?page=0

[4] https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/general-council-report-2020?page=0

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