Riding an iceberg
MUCH OF THE TIME, the annual Trades Union Congress get-together is reminiscent of a revivalist meeting - true believers gathered in the certainty of salvation. Nearly every motion is endorsed by unanimous acclaim, the General Council's opinion on each proposition is received with earnest appreciation, and every speaker is generously applauded.
It would be missing the real picture, however, to imagine that naturally disputations trades union officials take their annual sojourn by the sea as an opportunity to rest their argumentative reflexes. Congress' public sessions are but the tip of the iceberg that is the TUC's decision-making process.
Wrangling behind closed doors is intense, with protracted disputes over the wording of composites and the judgements to be expressed on behalf of the General Council. Only occasionally do these spill over into actual debate. Last year, for example, delegates from transport union RMT became inflamed over attempts to redact a call for "generalised strike action" from one of their motions. The railway workers got their way, on that occasion, to their raucously expressed satisfaction.
One might have imagined that Brexit would have sparked impassioned debate. Most British trades unions campaigned for a remain vote and TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady batted impressively for the EU in one of the pre-referendum televised debates. A handful of unions, however, took a diametrically opposed view - although they were a curious appendage to the right wingers and Tory opportunists beside whom they rallied.
When it came, the TUC's debate on two Brexit-related motions appeared no more controversial than those on the sustainability of the NHS or issues of food poverty.
More surprising still, Congress adopted, without opposition, a Unite motion calling for a Universal Basic Income. The essence of this idea is that all existing benefits are abolished and every adult is provided with a flat monthly payment by the state. Taxes would rise, of course, and many basic-income schemes envisage abolishing the entire mechanism of administering benefits. It is an idea that has been doing the rounds for decades, and has won some significant adherents in recent years. For the biggest voluntary movement in the UK to lend its weight to such a proposal might well signal its move into the mainstream.
The only debate to really divide the hall concerned climate change. Some unions - the NUJ among them - have taken up the agenda of a campaign group that styles itself One Million Climate Jobs. According to the motion, Jeremy Corbyn has already committed to its principles.
Its vision is as radical as to some it is challenging. To make Britain a green exemplar it proposes shutting down all UK's carbon-intensive industries - among them mining, oil extraction, power stations and car manufacturers. The government would then plough money into creating a million "climate jobs" to employ those whose industries are gone. It was clear from the outset that its proposers, the Transport and Salaries Staffs' Association and the Communications Workers Union were facing an uphill struggle with a motion that called for, among other things, an end to airport expansion.
Unite and the GMB rolled out their big guns and the pounding began. "Worker would be set against worker, industry against industry", one warned. "Tens of thousands of jobs in west London would be lost", said the next. Tony Kearns, the CWU's deputy general secretary responded with a stark warning: "there will be no jobs on a dead planet", but it was not enough. The motion was emphatically voted down.
The lesson from these two debates, might be this: it is the details that derail. One Million Climate Jobs has made an impressive attempt to imagine how a profoundly greener Britain might be achieved. It is hardly surprising, however, that the prospect of closing down entire industries at a stroke alarms those unions whose members they employ.
Universal Basic income in no less radical, but its proposers provided scant detail. Had there been more, it might have been less rapturously received. Surely someone would have fretted about the extra tax required to fund such a scheme or how "equality" be weighed against the complexities of "fairness"? That Unite's motion avoided negative attention possibly shows that where TUC decision making is concerned, it is as well to keep two thirds of your proposal unseen - call it, the iceberg principle.
The NUJ's two motions - on surveillance and blacklisting, and on the rights of freelances and atypical workers, were passed. Every member of the delegation took a stand at the rostrum and all were persuasive in their eloquence.
The benefits to members of passing these motions will take time to manifest, but the advantages of having the rest of the movement backing our causes will provide dividends in time. The Surveillance Bill, for example, will soon be on the statue books, sadly, but the constituency reigned against it will be growing in size and significance. Likewise the campaign for freelance rights - being able to count the UK's 6m trades unionists as allies will always be an asset.