Common criticisms of the T.UC. are that it spends time on political and foreign policy questions that ought not to concern trade unions; that the block vote can result in decisions being taken that represent little more than the balance of opinion on the executive committees of a few large Unions; and that the General Council can secure the acceptance of policies that do not harmonise with the view of rank and file trade unionists.
The Guardian took up the first criticism after the 1960 Congress, which it said, spent its time mainly on issues “almost irrelevant to all the real problems of the Unions,” and which would not even discuss a Resolution put down by a small Union urging more time for industrial affairs. Some civil service representatives share that view, and it has been argued that Unions of “white collar workers” in particular are reluctant to join the T.U.C. because their members are not predominantly supporters of the Labour Party. It may well be that it is largely this factor that keeps outside two large Unions, the National Union of Teachers and the Local Government Workers Union (NALGO), as well as some others of the four hundred and seventy Unions that are not affiliated, though for the smaller Unions finance is probably a considerable factor. As half of the 184 Unions affiliated to the T.U.C. are not affiliated to the Labour Party, it might be thought that a majority of T.U.C delegates might be prepared to consider altering Congress procedure to make it less like a second Labour Party conference, but Congress votes are dominated by the big Unions and nearly all of these are affiliated to the Labour Party and are apparently opposed to any change of procedure.
The second criticism, concerning the block vote, was heard often in the years when most of the ten largest Unions habitually voted the same way and between them could outvote the remaining 174 Unions. It has been heard less in recent years because the big Unions have been divided, with the largest Union of all, the Transport and General Workers, voting against the the General Council’s recommendations on such issues as armaments. No doubt if votes at Congress were cast by each Union in proportion to majority and minority opinion on Union executives and among their members some decisions would go the other way, though in the main it would show itself only in the form of closer votes and smaller majorities.
The third criticism, that the General Council can disregard the views of rank and file trade unionists, is by far the most fundamental. What does it amount to? Obviously the General Council cannot singly do what it likes. It has to get the endorsement of delegates and at times is defeated, as happened this year on the presence of German troops in Wales and last year on nuclear weapons (a decision which Congress this year reversed). Perhaps the explanation of the advantage possessed by the General Council is that they confront Congress with a formulated policy which they recommend for acceptance, whereas the delegates, like the members who send them there, either have no policy and are willing to follow the lead from the platform or are divided over the several different and contradictory alternative policies: which raises the question what ought to be the broad aim of the trade unions.
Looking at the trade unions in the world today it is astounding to recall that in their infancy they were regarded by the employers and governments with real fear, as revolutionary organizations that threatened property and the social system itself. Now the danger has been largely contained, partly by concessions and legislation, but also through the aims that the Unions set themselves. Instead of thinking of themselves as part of the world working class struggling against the employers and the capitalist system, the aim of the trade union leaders in each country is to be consulted by the employers in the running of the industry, and by the government in the determination of national economic policy. While the rank and file trade unionists cannot be said to be positively opposed to this policy of their leaders they are much more concerned with fighting their own employers over wages and conditions, hence the periodical clashes between what the members feel and what their leaders, including the T.U.C., think ought to be done.There is, of course, a sort of fatal logic about the direction in which the Unions are going. If it is once accepted that world-wide working class action for Socialism is impossible then it can seem to be “realistic” for the Unions to try to help British capitalism against its foreign competitors, by trying to gain markets for exports, by keeping down costs and avoiding strikes, by giving support to armaments, and in the last resort, to wars. All through Congress debates this readiness to think in terms of “British” interests instead of world working class interests comes out, as it did for example in the decision about wage restraint.
Rank and file trade unionists and many of their delegates may think that Congress unconditionally repudiated the idea of a “wage pause” or a restraint on wage claims, and will have paid little heed to the fact that the spokesmen for the General Council put the matter differently. What they did was to offer—on terms—to collaborate with the government in the planning of economic policy: and planning, whether its supporters all realise it or not, necessarily includes the planning of wages and wage increases.
The T.U.C. never has unconditionally excluded wage restraint. In the years 1948 to 1950, in response to the appeal of the Labour government, the majority of the delegates accepted it. Even in 1950, when it was turned down on an E.T.U. resolution, the door was still left open. The E.T.U. resolution rejected wage restraint but only until such time as profits were “reasonably limited,” prices controlled and “a positive planning of our British economy” is introduced. This idea has continued as the speeches at this year’s Congress show.
If the Chancellor was worried why had he not called in the General Council before and put his facts on the table? It had never failed to respond to an appeal for action. Why had not the Chancellor consulted them instead of slapping them in the face? (D. Telegraph 7.9.61).
We say it is not right for a government of this country to make a decision on a wages pause without any consultation with the trade union movement. That is exactly what the Chancellor did.
The speakers went on to say that they are still willing, on terms, to have a hand, with the employers and the government in working out economic plans. A Daily Herald editorial (9/9/61) puts its linger on the double-edged nature of planning. Though chiding critics of the T.U.C. “who believe that the function of trade union leaders is to help the government to hold down wages,” the article went on to admit that planning is “a practical exercise in which all sides have to make painful concessions in the long-term interest.”
And Mr. Charles Timaeus, writing in Reynolds News (10/9/61), interpreted the speeches referred to above as implying “that a wages pause might be acceptable in certain circumstances and in certain conditions”
Whether the government will make concessions in order to secure trade union collaboration remains to be seen, but one thing is made very clear by the anxious comments in various Liberal, Tory and financial journals, that is that they attach a great deal of importance to avoiding a head-on clash with the trade unions in the coming months. They know the losses the employers can suffer in widespread strikes and are not at all happy that the present government should have behaved as if it wanted a show-down at all costs.
It only remains to emphasise again the truism that the trade unions will not usefully change their direction until the members themselves think out their class position in capitalism and see that what is needed is world-wide working class action to establish Socialism. The alternative, collaboration in each country with the government, may end by bringing the unions nearer to being what the so-called trade unions are in Russia, part of the governmental machine of capitalism.