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    Frances O'Grady of the Trade Union Congress. | Photo: AFP

Published 15 September 2017
The 2017 conference commenced with the remembrance of all the trade union activists and leaders who passed away since 2016.

The Trades Union Congress, TUC, the main trade union confederation of Britain, held its 149th annual conference in Brighton from Sept. 10-13.

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The gathering brought together hundreds of union leaders, organizers, delegates and activists from over 50 different trade unions currently affiliated to the TUC. Also in attendance were a number of legal support organizations and services, as well as international solidarity groups such as Palestine Solidarity Campaign, PSC, Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Justice for Colombia and others.

The 2017 conference commenced with the remembrance of all the trade union activists and leaders who passed away since 2016. It proceeded to discuss and adopt motions of support, solidarity and campaign plans against the austerity measures of the Conservative-DUP government of Theresa May. 

Among the first issues to be debated during the conference was the dire situation in the public housing sector, with UNISON delegate Conroy Lawrence comparing the situation of the lack of public housing to “social cleansing” and pointing out that under the Thatcher-era “right-to-buy” housing policy, the vast majority of public housing units and estates eventually became owned by private landlords and hedge funds registered in tax-free havens. 

His comments were echoed by Unite delegate Jayne Taylor, who called for the suspension of the “right-to-buy” program and called the current situation experienced by private and public tenants “Generation Rent.” Louise Atkinson, from the National Education Union, NEU, further pointed out the growing level of homelessness among the employed population, particularly working professionals such as teachers. She also added that the seven-year-long public sector pay freeze has greatly increased the level of housing and job insecurity among public sector workers. 

On the topic of Brexit and the approach towards U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, a number of disagreements and conflicting proposals were brought forward by the unions, particularly with regards to the topics of U.K. membership in the single market and the free movement of labor. 

Unite Assistant General Secretary, Steve Turner, and the General Secretary, Len McCluskey, explained the significance of recognising the Brexit vote, which was done against “the Tory austerity as much as against the Brussels bureaucracy,” while also opposing the Tory Brexit vision of “a low-wage, deregulated tax haven off the shores of Europe” and supporting the membership of Britain within the single market during an extended “transitional period,” while emphasizing the need to achieve a “jobs-first, workers-first Brexit”. 

On the other hand, Dave Ward, the General Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, criticized the apparent willingness of the TUC to defend the existing provisions of the EU free movement of labor laws, which he pointed out leads to exploitation unless formally covered by strong labor laws.

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Eddie Dempsey, a delegate from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers, RMT, strongly criticised the calls to remain in the single market, pointing out that the EU is an neoliberal institution created by Europe’s industrialist class, while the single market itself was strongly supported by the late right-wing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

He emphasized the need to stand for class interests and build solidarity among workers right across Europe and the world, advocating for the ownership of the means of production by the workers as the way to end the existence of bosses. 

On the issue of wage protection and wage rises, the General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, addressed the conference and outlined the need to scrap the seven-year-long pay cap on public sector wages, reasoning that “giving public servants the pay rise they deserve … would add under two percent on government spending and would boost spending in Britain’s towns and regions that need it most.”

She also called upon the unions to support the Oct. 17 public sector workers rally in London, and emphasized the need to strengthen the trade union movement in the U.K. in the lead up to the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the TUC. 

Her comments were echoed by Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, BFAWU, who emphasised the urgency of bringing to power a Labour government that would legislate a 10 pound/hour minimum wage.

Furthermore, Neil Derrick, a regional secretary of the GMB public sector union, highlighted the alarming rise in the level of job insecurity across U.K.’s workforce, with “seven in 10 workers on insecure contracts experiencing mental health issues, while young workers are three times more like to be on zero hour contracts than their older colleagues”. He also urged the need to ban zero-hour contracts, citing the successful campaign in New Zealand. 

The conference also discussed the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the need to secure funding for public housing, particularly for the safety measures in the buildings, and recognize the work of emergency workers across the public sector by lifting the pay cap. Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the Free Brigades Union, strongly criticized the policies of both Theresa May’s government and the Kensington and Chelsea local councils for allowing the tragedy to occur in “one of the richest boroughs of London, in one of the richest countries in the world.” 

He also praised the work of his fellow trade unionists in the aftermath and mentioned that “the next time we come under attack in the news, we should tell them - this is what a trade unionist looks like.” 

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Among some of the most prominent guest speakers at the TUC conference was Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. In his speech, he praised the actions of various unions and voiced solidarity with a number of ongoing labor struggles across the country, including Unite’s campaign at SportsDirect, the campaign by McDonald’s workers for a fair wage and the Birmingham bins’ workers. 

He also stated that “the next Labour government would seek to take action across the board to help protect people in the workplace” and outlined the Labour vision of a “jobs-first Brexit” that would include the banning of zero hours contracts, raising minimum wage to a real living wage, guaranteeing unions right to access workplaces and defending the labor rights of EU workers and migrants in the country. The speech received standing ovation from all of the conference’s attendees.

Another prominent guest speaker at the conference was Huber Ballesteros, a Colombian trade union leader and a former political prisoner who was released in January of 2017 after a prolonged campaign for his freedom was organised by the TUC and other organisations across the world. 

In his speech, Ballesteros explained that, in the context of the peace agreement signed between the Colombian government and the FARC, the “forces that are not in favour of peace and social justice are those who want war and to continue the assassinations of social activists and trade unionists.”

He also vowed that the Colombian trade union movement will continue fighting for the rights of the workers and issues they continue to face, including subcontracting and precarization, low wages, high unemployment, high levels of corruption in the public  sector, and, of course, the continuous repression  and assassinations by the far-right paramilitary forces.

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