TUC in Brighton 2017

Stand upright and be strong

PRAISE FOR JEREMY CORBYN and Labour's manifesto rippled through nearly every debate at Congress. When Labour's leader himself made an appearance, it was to wild cheers and the singing in one corner of "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" to the familiar Seven Nation Army tune. In marked contrast to his appearance at Congress two years ago, however, Corbyn used an autocue, delivered a well-written and properly structured speech and wore a suit that some murmured "looked a good deal better than Marks and Spencer".

Jeremy Corbyn; © Tim Dawson

Jeremy Corbyn at the TUC podium

His rousing address (text here) did cause some to reflect on a paradox - notably Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers. Since Corbyn's leadership bid took off, the Labour party has gained as many as 400,000 members. Trades unions, on the other hand, appear to have lost an almost equal number of subscriptions over the same period: aggregate membership is down by 275,000 in the last recorded year.

A film made for Congress illustrated one reason for this in stark terms. The broader labour movement is little-known among young people, many of whom consider it irrelevant to their lives, this suggested. In the UK workforce, 14 per cent are aged between 16 and 24, but only 4.2 per cent of union members are in that range. The Labour party, on the other hand, won more than 60 per cent of the vote from those under 24. It is a curious ask, but the most valuable insight that the 68-year-old Labour party leader could share with the industrial wing of our movement might well be his secret for reaching out to the young.

Union's spadework in fresh Corbyn plot?

Frances O'Grady, the TUC's general secretary is also the movement's most dependable wit. Her opening address to Congress imagined the cabinet as a disruptive class taking advantage of a hapless supply teacher. Theresa May's approach to Brexit was "more like a letter to Santa than a negotiating strategy". And responding to an after-dinner speech she conjured up the prospect of Britain's general secretaries being invited to weekends at Chequers.

Frances O'Grady; © Tim Dawson

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady speaks

The prime ministers' country residence was gifted to the nation in the 1920s precisely to cater for the possibility that our country's highest office might one day be occupied by "the sort of chap who does not own a country home". The trades union movement pulsates with excitement at the prospect that Jeremy Corbyn might be close to getting the keys both to Chequers and Number Ten. I fear if he does, however, that general secretaries' weekend invitations are more likely to be in the expectation of their assisting Corbyn in the cultivation of vegetables around the 16th century pile in Buckinghamshire than the kind of folderol that O'Grady contemplated.

The oldest trade divides unions

Most disputes at Trades Union Congress are thrashed out behind closed doors and see the light of day only in such arcane devices as the General Council's "expression of reservations" at a proposal. When the movement's position on prostitution came up for consideration, however, the wrangling of "composite motions" failed. On one side were the train drivers of Aslef supported by the GMB's boilermakers and allied trades. Their case was that the selling of sex should be decriminalised, thereby allowing the trade to operate like any other business - possibly even being susceptible to trades union organisation. This is known as "the New Zealand model".

Pitted against were the General Council, Unite and Unison, whose proposed antidote to red lights and curb crawling is to decriminalise selling sex, while making its purchase a crime - this goes by the name of the "the Nordic model".

Aslef assistant general secretary Simon Weller explained that the roots of his union's interest in the topic could be traced to the location of railway stations and goods yards in our cities' seamier neighbourhoods. Julie Phipps from Unite argued that selling your body can't be equated with selling your labour. And Penny Smith of Unison demanded that it is "pimps and punters" who should feel the force of the law.

Each side cited conflicting academic research to support its case. In the end, however, it was supporters of the Nordic model who won the movement's support.

I made my excuses and left

Anyone whose interest in this subject goes deeper than the fate of motions could find a working model rather closer to home than the debate suggested. In the mid-1990s, I wrote articles in the Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times and the New Statesman about prostitution in Edinburgh. There, the local police discreetly announced that they would not prosecute operators of brothels who provided decent places of work and enforced the use of condoms. Edinburgh City Council then licensed the "saunas" as "places of entertainment", subject to a regulatory framework and liable to periodic inspection.

This situation continues to this day - indeed, the creation of a Scotland-wide police force three years ago smoked out the secret deal, hatched at the height of Edinburgh's 1980s Aids epidemic - on which this settlement is based.

My time covering this beat, when I interviewed perhaps a score of prostitutes, left me feeling ambivalent about the system. The "working conditions" were clearly clean and safe, there was no compulsion beyond economic need and the work was plentiful and flexible. Nearly all of the women who worked in the saunas, however, told me that "it does your head in" and that they did not tell their families how they earned a living.

Perhaps the TUC should commission its own research? The case for the Nordic model would be more easily made in the UK if it were based on compelling evidence from a city close to home. It might even bring the voices of some actual sex workers into the debate.

Mammoth problems in the gig economy

Horace Trubridge, recently-elected Musicians' Union General Secretary, took to the rostrum with a plea on behalf of his members post-Brexit. Many musical performers are frequent international travellers and Trubridge hoped that special arrangements could be made to facilitate journeying to gigs across Europe. Illustrating his point, he provided an intriguing insight into the variety of issues on which union officials are required to intervene.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Trubridge recently received a call from a member who had been detained at a border crossing. Customs officials were concerned that some of the instruments in transit with the musicians contained pieces of ivory, in clear violation of international agreements on protecting endangered species. Trubridge, who enjoyed many years' chart success in the 70s and 80s as the saxophonist with Darts, was able to reassure the worried border guards. "The inlays and bow handles in question in fact came from the tusks of woolly mammoths - not elephants". While the latter species is endangered, the former is extinct. Fresh supplies of mammoth ivory can, apparently, still be found buried in Siberia and are sought after by instrument makers.

Expertise in beasts of the Pleistocene epoch can't be required of many union bosses - and how much better to to be expert in dinosaurs than to be accused of being one?

Keeping our end up

The NUJ had two motions up for discussion. One, on atypical, or freelance, workers became part of a composite in the name of half-a-dozen unions. Disappointing as it is to lose some of one's carefully crafted words from an order paper, there are also advantages.

Sian Jones; © Tim Dawson

Sian Jones at the podium

The key words that came from our original motion are these: "Congress acknowledges that in some parts of the economy, for example the professional services and media sectors, the flexibility offered by atypical employment can work to the benefit of both workers and engagers, and supports the right of those workers to opt for flexible employment provided it is their genuine and informed choice, and there is no threat of detriment, or denial of engagement, should they refuse."

Vice president Sian Jones spoke powerfully to this, citing the Thomson Reuters case to make the point that freelances should be given the same rights as employees to union representation, welfare benefits and the minimum wage.

I proposed our motion on Qatar, calling on that country to bring its labour laws into the modern age and seeking defence for Al Jazeera against the Saudi-led alliance that is calling for its closure. The text of my speech is below.

Tim Dawson at the podium; © Pennie Quinton

Tim Dawson speaks to an NUJ motion at Congress

Speech by Tim Dawson to the TUC 13 September 2017

Qatar is a slave state - not my words, but those of Sharran Burrows, the general secretary of the ITUC: 1.2 million workers are toiling in Qatar under what is known as the kafala system. Building workers, mostly from Nepal, Pakistan, India and the Philippines, can enter the country and work only there if a Qatari sponsors them. As they enter the country, they surrender their passports, their right to work for anyone else and their right to leave Qatar without their employer's permission.

A great many live in makeshift hovels beside the building sites on which they work, slogging in heat so intense and humid that simply crossing a road is a real challenge - and, as is well known, a shocking number have died. Some estimates suggest that the death toll on World-Cup-related building sites is already close to 12,000 people.

Little wonder then that the International Labour Organization is considering a complaint about Qatar's violation of the Forced Labour Convention of 1930.

Let me be clear: Qatar's medieval human rights record is not much different to that of its neighbours in the Gulf. You will find similarly shocking abuses in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

There is a difference, however, that makes it worth our while to single out Qatar at this moment.

For the past two decades Qatar has been trying to make its presence felt beyond its own shores. That is why they put so much effort into ensuring that they host the 2022 world cup. That is why they established Al Jazeera, a broadcast network that encourages pluralistic, discussion-based programming where divergent views are encouraged.

And it is because that outward-looking strategy has been successful that Qatar's neighbours are feeling so threatened. That is why they have mounted a blockade on the country's ports and issued the extraordinary demand that Al Jazeera be shut down.

What this motion asks of you is that we add our voice to those who are seeking to use Qatar's crisis to encourage it to take bolder steps towards creating a fair, progressive society, where all workers enjoy the rights that we consider a birthright, where trades unions are able to organise and where free speech and freedom of expression are treated as foundational human rights.

The NUJ has a particular interest in this because we have a collective agreement with Al Jazeera's London newsroom, alongside members of Bectu. This is the only collective bargaining agreement that exists with Al Jazeera globally and it was hard fought for. We want the collective efforts and wins for our chapel members here in the UK to be replicated for journalists who work in Al Jazeera newsrooms across the world.

In June, the NUJ took part in an international conference in Doha dedicated to defending freedom of expression. The concluding statement of that conference, organised by the Qatari Human Rights Committee, resolved that respect for ILO conventions is vital to creating a society in which free speech can thrive. That concession, accepted by a body that is a part of the Qatari state, says to me that change is possible in that country.

That is why this is the moment, as trades unionists, as internationalists, as humanitarians we should say in the loudest voice possible to Qatar: when you respect the rights of workers from all over the world, the workers of the world will stand by you when your neighbours threaten your existence.