RMT activist and shop steward, YCL member and former General Secretary George Waterhouse reports back (in a personal capactiy) from the TUC Young Workers Conference 2014. George highlights the political task facing communists within our own unions on key areas such as the EU, nationalisation and even aspects of austerity. George also notes the lack of democracy and rampant careerism at the upper echelons of the TUC which make the struggle all the more difficult, coupled with the reactionary, class collaborationist policies of some major unions such as USDAW. As young communists we must fight as part of rank and file not only against the careerist elements involved simply to pursue a full time union job, but for greater democracy within our own unions and at TUC level and for revolutionary and class politics.
The TUC Young Workers conference 2014 took place on the 22nd and 23rd of March at Congress House in London. I went as a delegate for the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) conference started with a tribute to Bob Crow and Tony Benn, two giants of the movement. A video featuring photos of the pair to the sound of the famous American communist Paul Robeson’s Joe Hill-about a union activist executed for a crime he did not commit. The RMT delegation accepted a book of condolences given to us by the General, Municipal and Boilermakers union (GMB) delegation. Conference honoured the contribution of Bob and Tony and pledged in the spirit of the phrase coined in the days after Joe Hill was murdered, ‘don’t mourn, organise!
Speakers included TUC president Mohammed Taj who spoke about racism and his previous job driving buses. NUS vice-president Dom Anderson who told us about the issues facing students and about how the renewed agreement signed between the TUC and NUS will help strengthen the campaign against low pay, precarious work and for free education. Abdeslam Ouaddou, former Fulham defender, spoke about the ‘Re-run the vote’ campaign against the Qatar World Cup. Abdeslam outlined his experiences in the country ruled by an absolute monarchy and an extremist interpretation of Islam. Migrant workers from South Asia are tricked into becoming essentially slaves working in dangerous conditions and, as foreigners, without any rights under Qatar law.
Workshops included themes of global solidarity, voter registration and rights for apprentices. The global solidarity workshop was in fact a joint International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) and European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) propaganda exercise. The ITUC was founded by elements that had split from the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) to reform in the image of the pre-war yellow Amsterdam international. It’s members include the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) the scab organisation that led the 2002-2003 lock out/coup against the Chavez government. The ETUC is funded by the European Commission (yes the same one devoted to the privatisation of European industry and services!) it functions entirely to secure support for the European Union austerity project among trade unionists.
The ITUC speaker was some corrupt full timer based in Brussels. Much was made of the so-called ‘german model’ of social partnership where unions sit on company boards while wages stagnate and German imperialism destroys the economies of its neighbours for its own profit. When asked about the WFTU-to which the RMT and a number of European unions have recently affiliated-we heard all sorts of anti-red Macarthyite nonsense about the ‘pawns’ of the Cuban ‘dictatorship’. The ETUC speaker was a decent trade unionist who has recently been put on the ETUC youth committee, he clearly had a few reservations and in time might be more critical of that organisation.
The workshop on encouraging young people to vote was full of practical campaigning tips, but was accused of putting the cart before the horse by some delegates. As we know from a dispute at work, when unions are assertive and stand up for their members membership levels shoot up as does attendance at branch meetings and demonstrations. Perhaps if we had a popular socialist alternative to stand up for young people it would have a better impact at encouraging registration and voter turnout than some gimmicky liberal campaign?
The election for the TUC Young Workers Forum vice-chair saw Femi Igbekele put up from the Communication Workers Union (CWU) as the right wing candidate and Anthony Curley from Unite the Union. Anthony is a dedicated trade unionist with an impressive record (when he was elected shop steward his site had 5 members, it now has 280!) Anthony won by a huge majority.
The next day we voted on motions on issues such as pensions, the living wage, freedom from workplace abuse, equal pay and young carers. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) put forward a fantastic motion about the de-skilling of the profession, unachievable targets, stress and long hours. The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) spoke passionately in favour of their motion on fighting austerity proposing a campaign on youth issues, supporting coordinated industrial action and building for a general strike. The only union to vote against I saw was the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) or useless-seven-days-a-week as some of their cynical rank and file dub it! Embarrassingly their (minderless) delegation last year voted in favour of this motion, this year a full timer hatchet man was on hand to restore discipline.
Motion 9 on a European Union in/out referendum was the only motion to involve any real meaningful political debate and it was also the only motion to fall. I had the honour to introduce the motion. I started with a quote from Tony Benn “dare to be a Daniel” and given the level of support for the EU at the TUC I certainly felt like I was in amongst the lions!
I outlined the neoliberal, undemocratic, anti-socialist nature of the European Union. It’s central aim to build one single, privatised European market where the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour is the iron rule that trumps everything. This rule is used against any ‘blocks’ on this movement such as publicly owned services, nationalised industry and effective trade union organisation. I brought up the memory of the 1975 referendum where Labour MPs such as Barbara Castle and Michael Foot campaigned for a no vote alongside Jack Jones and the bulk of the Trade union movement. I spoke of the austerity being enforced on Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy and. Ireland by the EU and the dangers to our NHS and economy represented by the EU-US free trade deal. I even quoted from a 1982 election address of Tony Blair which called for an EEC exit for jobs and in order to pursue a socialist economic programme. All these arguments, I said, are reasons I am introducing this motion.
The motion was about democracy, solidarity and taking back a victory handed to Cameron without a fight. No one our age had a say on the EU and since 1975 there have been significant developments towards a federal superstate. People who would vote to remain members of the European Union MPs such as Keith Vaz or Jon Cruddas and journalists like Owen Jones also support a referendum. Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum, something a majority of the population want, if he wins the next election which has won him support. Labour’s refusal to let Britain decide is unnecessary and self-defeating. I said it is all very well crying crocodile tears for Tony Benn and Bob Crow just to drag their politics through the mud. Talk about emotional blackmail! I guaranteed delegates that if they looked up at the night sky that evening they would see two twinkling stars and that would be Tony and Bob shining down on them for voting in favour of this motion. In the words of Bob Crow “I you fight you might lose, but if you don’t then you have already lost”.
A good debate was had with a little scaremongering and perpetuation of the social Europe myth (where exactly is this magical place?) the Unite delegation wanted to abstain but pressure was applied from above and they, reluctantly, voted against. A school cleaner delegate from Liverpool said his union had fears about the consequences of a referendum but that he personally was in favour. He even brought out a Communist Party pamphlet on the EU and began to quote from it. Walter Citrine would be rolling in his grave! The motion fell but was supported by ASLEF and a number of other individuals, some abstained but the big unions all voted against.
Motion 10 was from the TSSA on reducing the price of railcards and increasing the discount. A noble notion but rather wholly liberal and wishy washy. Given the context of a Mcnulty report that outlines at least 20, 000 job losses on the railway, the motion failed to mention job cuts. It even referred explicitly to the profits of private train operating companies. We support the re-nationalisation of the railway (something that would make tickets cheaper for all) to not mention this is bizarre. RMT delegates argued against for these reasons. The PCS and bakers voted with us but the motion passed.
Motion 13 was introduced by Unite. The delegate spoke movingly about the experience of his brother told not to bother coming back to work the next day after taking a sick day. Recognising that young people often work on short-term contracts in insecure, precarious work in un-unionised workplaces, the motion proposed a young workers organising strategy. Just what we need if we are to build a new generation of trade unionists.
The TUC Young Workers Forum introduced a motion which changed previous qualifying rules. Delegates must qualify as a young member by their own rulebook, however, now where these rules do not exist they must be aged 27 and under.
I enjoyed my first Young Workers conference however I was a little concerned about its democratic process. The event was very stage managed. Many of the larger delegations consisted of apolitical, inexperienced delegated (some of whom admitted to me they had never even been to a branch meeting) being looked after by a older full timer minder-who presumably told them how to think and how to vote. Many of the figures there appeared to be more interested in self-promotion than organising. Many delegates were full time careerists or university students.
I met many great rank and filers such as those from Unite, PCS, NUT, ASLEF and the bakers. Another positive occurred after conference ended, delegates from the North West agreed to reform the TUC North West Young Members committee to provide speakers for schools and colleges and to help support each other’s campaigns. But generally the experience was at times demoralising. It made me proud that my union has elected, experienced rank and file members as organisers. At least Community didn’t do a repeat of last year and introduce a motion supporting workfare, but there’s always next year!
The rot in the TUC is personified by the #askFrances twitter campaign held on the 26th March. This was promoted at conference heavily. When RMT and Unite asked when the TUC would implement motion 75 from TUC13 – we were brushed off. The motion was introduced by Bob Crow and asked for support for trades councils (who founded the TUC in the first place) and the right for them to send delegates to congress. This was passed, but like much that happens at the TUC, democracy hasn’t got that much to do with it!
George Waterhouse is Vice Chair, Manchester South, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the North West Representative, Young Members Advisory Committee, RMT and a member and former General Secretary of the Young Communist League. George is writing in a personal capacity