New Statesman & Society leader, 9 September 1994

It would be easy to dismiss this week’s TUC Congress in Blackpool as a complete non-event. There were no giant bust-ups, no gauntlets thrown down before the Labour leadership, no significant changes in TUC policy. The speeches were bland, the debates cursory, the fudges entirely successful.

But, in many ways, the absence of a story is the story. Just a couple of months ago, Black¬pool 1994 was being trailed as the first battle in the trade unions’ autumn offensive to get Labour to embrace specific targets for full employment and for a minimum wage – so the fact that the big unions decided not to fire a single shot to spoil Tony Blair’s honeymoon as Labour leader is extremely significant. The motions on full employment and the minimum wage were carefully composited to produce a lot of vague and unembarrassing flannel, and Blair had nothing to worry about when he arrived for supper with the TUC general council on Tuesday.

Although some in the big unions were hinting this week that they would be doing their utmost to commit Labour to specific targets when they come back to Blackpool in four weeks’ time for the Labour Party conference, it seems that Blair’s overwhelming popularity in the opinion polls has at least temporarily silenced his union critics.

The absence of any argument with Blair is not the only interesting non-story of this Congress. Quite a few commentators were looking forward to rows over the signal workers’ dispute and over the “relaunch” of the TUC by its new general secretary, John Monks. In the event, neither happened. Monks defused potential left criticism of the TUC’s inadequate support for the signal workers, by declaring that he personally supported them unequivocally, and by inviting RMT leader Jimmy Knapp on to the platform at an eve-of-congress rally. Acouple of Trotskyists hoisted a banner demanding that the TUC got off .its knees, but no one took any notice.

Monks’ support for the signal workers also went a long way to silence the critics of the way he’s pointing the TUC. What has grabbed the headlines in the year since Monks took over from Norman Willis has been his moderation: the arguments for partnership with industry, the openness to discussion with political parties other than Labour (even – horror of horrors – the Tories), the emphasis that unions are good for productivity.

Unsurprisingly, none of this has gone down too well with some on the left – and, to make matters worse, there’s a definite touch of dangerous media-friendliness in the Monks regime. He has radically restructured and re-oriented the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Congress House, pruning its useless committees, and using the savings to establish a campaigns department to ensure that all the TUC’s research work is pushed out to MPs, the media and pressure groups, instead of merely being “noted” at general council meetings. To traditionalists, it all seems a little too close to Mandelsonism for comfort.

The moderation and media-friendliness were on display in abundance this week – but so too was Monks’ radicalism. It wasn’t just a matter of the signal workers. Unlike his predecessor and most of the current generation of Labour politicians, Monks does not squirm with embarrassment at the thought of industrial action: he is perfectly at ease with the notion that, sometimes, strikes are essential for unions to do their job. He is equally at ease with the idea that, as the economy recovers, a rise in wage militancy can be expected. Once he’d made all that clear, there was little for the left to get its teeth into.

But if Monks is a breath of fresh air at the TUC, it’s difficult to be entirely optimistic about the state of British trade unionism after this week’s conference. The overwhelming gloom that hung over TUC gatherings in the last years of Willis has lifted, butjthe unions are still facing major problems. Membership is still falling, finances are still dodgy, the

government is still unremittingly hostile. Despite a widespread commitment to organising the increasingly large part of the workforce that is in casual, part-time or temporary work, the reality is that few unions have made significant headway in such recruitment. More and more employers are going for individual contracts with workers; unions are recognised in fewer and fewer workplaces.

Plenty of people in Blackpool were prepared to acknowledge all this – but few had many ideas for reversing the long-term slide in the unions’ fortunes, apart from working for a Labour government, and continuing to improve the unions’ services to their members and their overall image.

Of course, the unions’ position would be improved by a Labour government, which would grant them the same rights enjoyed by their continental European counterparts. And, as many unions have already found, members and would-be members do find such services as cheap insurance and pensions schemes very attractive. But Labour in power and improved services are nothing like enough to cope with the changed conditions of the labour market. The growth in the importance of part-time, temporary and casual work demands nothing less than a transformation of Britain’s trade union culture – a move away from the male domination (still) of most trade unions, a move away from the all-too-prevalent assumption that a workplace cannot be unionised if management won’t co-operate and, most crucial of all, a move away from reliance on passive recruitment to active organising.

However much they have improved their services and their image, British unions, for the most part, still urgently need to improve their ability to get new members to join. This won’t happen overnight – and it won’t happen unless British unions adopt the American practice of employing full-time local union organisers to go into unorganised workplaces and recruit. It’s time to get back to basics.

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