British trade unions in fight against effort to ‘modernize’ Labor Party

By William Pomeroy, People's Weekly World, 28 September 1996

The annual conference of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) was the scene of a sharp battle between a labor movement out to recover ground lost during 17 years of anti- labor Tory rule and a Labor Party leadership headed by Tony Blair that is endeavoring to modernize the party and erase its traditional identification with trade unions, with socialism or as the political voice of the British working class.

Although the TUC sought to focus on jobs, wages and the strengthening of trade union rights, the fact that the conference took place within months of a coming national election gave a political tone to virtually every issue. This was accentuated by Blairite Labor Party figures who tried to prevent militant actions that would rock the boat for Labor's electoral chances.

Blair has worked constantly to demolish what he calls Old Labor, with its working class base and mildly socialist outlook, and projects New Labor by shifting emphasis to searching for middle class support and links with big business. He has scrapped the Labor constitution's Clause IV embodying socialist principles and projected an end to welfare state features. He says a Labor government will retain Thatcherite anti-union legislation and her privatization of the public sector.

Labor Party leaders have shown particular alarm over the growth of union militancy as shown in strikes by postal workers, railroad workers, London underground unions, airline pilots and others. A recent survey by the

Labor Research Department show-ed that three-quarters of all British unions have scheduled strike ballots for industrial action, with that action likely to materialize as a Labor Government takes office next year.

As if to prove the credentials of New Labor, the Blairites intervened at the TUC conference to float the idea that a Labor government would ban strikes in public services and would introduce new anti-labor legislation such as compulsory arbitration.

A major TUC demand is for a national minimum wage, to be set at the sum of half of male median earnings, roughly $6.50 per hour. The Labor Party leadership has insisted that the rate be left to a Labor government's low-pay commission with employers having an equal say. The TUC conference overrode the Blair position and voted for the $6.50 minimum.

The contradiction between the TUC and the Blairites became even sharper when a Blair aide revealed that a Labor government would sever the party's historic ties with the trade unions. (The Labor Party was founded in 1900 by the trade unions.) This would end the role of the trade unions in the Labor Party, where their representatives command 50 percent of votes in the party's conferences and contribute 40 percent of party funds.

This proposal was greeted with outrage by leaders of major unions who reaffirmed their intention to fight to retain links with the party, and a bitter battle was forecast over the issue at the annual Labor Party conference. As Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the railroad unions said, The links between the unions and the Labor Party have their roots in the need to advance the aspirations of working people. We are prepared to fight to retain those links.

TUC delegates were further angered by another Blair aide who called for the Labor Party to throw out all references to socialism in its literature and pronouncements. The proposal drew a sharp response from Tony Benn : I am a socialist. I am a trade unionist. I cannot believe that the politics of the 21st Century will revert to the 19th Century when you had two capitalist parties and working people had no voice in parliament. That is what modernization of Labor is all about, he told the conference.

The mood of many British unions has been influenced by developments in the AFL-CIO. The Transport and General Workers Union, Britain's largest, has expressed particular interest in the AFL-CIO's organizing drive and has begun a recruiting drive along the same lines.

The British trade unions have suffered a membership decline similar to U.S. unions and for some of the same reasons. From a peak of 12 million in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher took power, membership has dropped to about seven million today. Polls show that 38 percent of non-union workers, or 5 million, want unions to negotiate for them on workplace issues.

A highlight of the conference was the speech by Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer who called the unity of the workers in the United States, in Great Britain and Australia, and in China and India and Africa. He said unions everywhere should become a lean, mean political fighting machine, defeating politicians who turn their backs on working men and women and unions. Given the performance of the Blairites, Trumka's message was especially taken to heart and received a prolonged standing ovation.