The Fight Facing the TUC

Next week will see a Trades Union Congress like no other. Amid a global pandemic and a wave of redundancies, the labour movement must adapt – or risk further historic decline.

When it gathers next week for its annual conference, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) could scarcely be meeting in more challenging times since it was founded in 1868. The TUC is the annual parliament of the union movement in Britain, with 48 affiliates collectively debating the policy that will guide its actions over the next year.  

When the TUC met last September in Brighton, no one could have predicted that there would be misery poured upon misery over the coming year. This started with the election an increasingly right-wing Tory Party commanding an outright majority at Westminster, and has been added to by the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented recession, the growing prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and the TUC having to meet virtually for the first time ever.

Under the banner of ‘Jobs, Security, Dignity’ as part of its ongoing mission of ‘Changing the World of Work for Good’, the TUC will debate and agree upon policy to demand that key workers are given the pay rises they deserve, a new job protection and upskilling scheme, a radical green ‘new deal’ and action to combat the far-right.

For many years, there has been little by way of significant debate at Congress – with this being taken as indication that there is much common agreement throughout its affiliates. This year will no doubt be similar. But this sense of calm and consensus now belies a storm beneath the surface. Mass unemployment and the disorganisation consequent upon social distancing mean that the ability of the TUC and its affiliates to implement the policy they agree at Congress is going to be more difficult than ever before. 

The key issue, as always, is not whether a particular policy on a subject is agreed, but what resources and leverage the TUC puts in place to implement it in the face of hostility from government, media and employers. Of course, that does not mean the content of the particular policy is unimportant – it has to be credible, popular and, sometimes even, inspiring in its ambition. But that does mean the content of the policy is secondary to questions of power.  

When it comes to resources and leverage, what we’re really taking about is the quantity of members and the quality of their participation as members. In a nutshell, this is about collective mobilisation – everything from e-petitions and creating social media storms to strikes and demonstrations. The quantity aspect concerns the scale of members involved and the quality aspect concerns their degree of involvement in the actions. High levels in both are the best bets to create the power necessary to win meaningful reforms.

Even though the number of workers in Britain who are union members rose in 2019 to 6.44 million after the third year of consecutive growth since a low of 6.23 million in 2016, the proportion of workers in a union remains less than a quarter – just 23.5% in 2019. In the private sector, just 13% of workers are union members. And, since 2016, TUC membership has fallen from 5.65 million to 5.49 million in 2019, with nearly a million union members now outside the family of the TUC. We won’t know until next year what the net effect of the pandemic has been on union growth, when increases like those seen by the National Education Union will be offset by the number of workers who lapsed their membership when made redundant.

The TUC has led some big mobilisations in recent years. For example, at least 250,000 marched against the austerity cuts of the Tory-Liberal Democrat government in March 2011 as part of the TUC’s ‘March for the Alternative,’ in what was billed as the largest protest since those against the Iraq War in 2003. In October 2012, 150,000 marched for similar objectives in London, with further demonstrations held in Glasgow and Belfast. In between these, the November 2011 public sector pensions strike saw the largest number of workers participating in a strike for decades. But, by the following spring, the numbers taking further strike action on public sector pensions had fallen dramatically. Since then, the TUC and its members have not tested their ability to engage in mass mobilisations. 

A conventional reading of the situation would say that recessions always undermine workers’ power in the labour market. But a pandemic is not conventional. And when it comes after a decade of economic stagnation (wages only reached pre-2008 levels again in February of this year), it becomes difficult to predict how workers will respond. The silver lining to the black cloud could be that the ongoing crisis offers organised labour the opportunity to exert heightened leverage over a weakened government. Increasingly, the Tories are falling out of love with Boris Johnson and a new leader will not resolve their deep-seated problems.

With the increased public support for key workers and heightened awareness about the disastrous impacts of austerity in the past decade, the TUC and its affiliates could find that government hostility to their policies lessens considerably. The difficulty will be organising and marshalling the forces of opposition in these times of social distancing and the atomisation that comes with it. Virtual meetings and activities have their benefits – and certainly teachers’ unions used them to great effect – but they cannot easily replicate the power of the force of numbers on the streets and picket lines. 

It will be interesting to see whether having a potentially much greater number of (online) Congress participants this year can make up for missing out on the networking and organising opportunities that the event normally presents. It will be up to these Congress participants to work how to best rise to the challenges of organising the opposition to the government and employers. Along the way, they’ll have to contend with the influence of forthcoming changes in the leadership of the three biggest unions – GMB, Unison and Unite – in the TUC, the outcomes of which will profoundly impact the entire movement for many years to come.