Historic purpose of the TUC

The TUC leadership should not be judged just on its (in)action at major flashpoints of labour movement history. It has also to be appreciated in terms of the daily efforts to shape and articulate working-class interests, and in the importance of bearing witness to workplace exploitation that is manifest at the annual conference.

The TUC appears throughout its 150-year history to be less than the sum of its parts. At many critical moments in the history of the labour movement the TUC has been found wanting, but in so saying it is important to avoid the trap of reification. So TUC decisions are made by delegates to Congress and acted upon by the members of the General Council with advice from its most senior full-time officials (general and deputy general secretaries). Powerful union leaders heading up large and influential unions of trades have deep pockets and large voices. But size is not everything, and policy has been made on other grounds such as political and ideological disposition and alignment. This is in part due to the long-standing contradictions inside the TUC: that it is not powerful enough to lead, and that affiliates are not bound by TUC policies.

Its tendency to concentration and centralisation as large unions increasingly dominate both the wider movement and the TUC is an institutional expression of class unity and solidarity. As such it appears to be more involved in national debates and decisions and appears to have some influence over government. But this appearance is deceptive despite the occasional breakthrough. In reality, its influence over government has waxed and waned, but since the 1980s has been in sharp decline.

The TUC comes into the public eye during major events, usually involving the government of the day, industrial action, and large-scale campaigns backed up with demonstrations. Such events frequently reflect the ebb and flow of the wider class struggle in which the TUC plays a role – neither a leading role nor an irrelevant bystander. In between these events most of the TUC’s work remains educational, research, publicity, some co-ordination, and most frequently referenced by insiders … the unions face to government and the population.

Over many decades the TUC was depicted as a cart horse in political cartoons – steady, large, cumbersome with strong limbs and a weak brain. Its institutional size representing survival of this stubborn breed, but frequently the lampoonists showed a backward looking and shy-of-change animal.

This article is neither a historical account of the TUC in action nor an attempt to denigrate its remarkable achievements. If the TUC is to be judged by its (in)action in terms of working class struggle and key events then it has rarely risen to the occasion, never really sought to challenge the dominant capitalist system, and the dominant pluralist ideology of compromise and conciliation. In part this is due to its own institutional limitations, in part it reflects the majority view of the member unions, and in part it is a creature of the times in which its subsists.

But it can be judged in other ways as a central part of the working-class movement that has survived when others fell away. In this sense, it has been important and successful in two ways: first in terms of defining and refining working class interests at any time – as both facilitating and contributing to the debate; and secondly, that the annual conference itself allows the expression of the views of thousands of workers caught up in desperate workplace struggles and that itself is part of the process of developing class consciousness.

In 1968, on its hundredth birthday, there were celebrations. Lovell and Roberts in their A Short History of the TUC (MacMillan, 1968, p7) noted from a right-wing labour perspective that: ‘the TUC is much more than an annual parliament of labour; it is a great national organisation exercising a powerful and continuous influence on governments, employers and public opinion that has become a vital element in the pluralist system of democracy’. They argued that the 1926 General Strike was a disaster made by the militant left, and that the TUC leaders (Bevin and Citrine) fought to reduce such communist-inspired activity and that the TUC could and should be used to stop any challenge to state power by the organised labour movement. They supported the attacks on trades councils in the 1950s and the witch hunts against communists and fellow travellers. They applauded pluralist consensus in the national interest, and if we fast forward and take on the logic of their arguments the right apologists for TUC policy also backed incomes policies in the 1970s, failed to support the NUM in the 1980s, and retreated in the face of the post-Thatcher onslaught in the 1990s.

In contrast Vic Allen in Socialist Register in 1968 noted with approval that the TUC was the longest surviving union centre in the world, and that ‘the characteristics of the TUC are derived from those of the unions which comprise it’ (p231). This in turn reflects the composition of the working class and its industrial structure. The focus must be on relations with the government for it acts as a pressure group for labour. Most of the time it has campaigned on issues recognisable across the 150 years for all workers – pay and pensions, hours and holidays, health and safety, equality and dignity, worker and union rights, and protection from arbitrary management. It does not challenge property rights, the capitalist system, or the legitimacy of government. It rarely moves on such issues, although in 1967 it did pass a motion at conference for more public ownership and planning. This echoed the radical congress of 1925 preparing the way for the General Strike, but as Allen suggests ‘these moments pass all too quickly into moods of acquiescence or cynicism of false optimism’ (p235). Even in its most radical moments the result tends to be a very British ‘strongly worded letter’. Critically, the TUC leadership has been guilty of both sins of commission (anti-communist witch hunts, support for incomes policies, attacks on trades councils) and the sins of omission (weak support for the miners in the 1980s, and the roaring silences during the New Labour years 1997-2010).

The case for the importance of the TUC is the case for the future role of unions themselves. Former Transport and General Workers’ Union, general secretary, Bill Morris, in 1994 provided a list of ‘the need for trade unions’: low pay and long hours; health and safety; pensions; unfair dismissal; discrimination. And a list of how this is to be done: negotiation and bargaining, representation, benefits, campaigns on laws, and industrial action. He also emphasised the importance of international links and a core centre.

This need to state and restate common working class interests that evolve alongside the composition of the class as capitalism itself changes is part of the creation of a working class identity that transcends artificially constructed divisions on the basis of gender, ethnicity, age, occupation, nationality, sector, and educational attainment. Thus, class interests are fought for through unions at the workplace and then become part of the larger debate on how these are articulated and achieved. The TUC forms part of that necessary re-alignment of class interests with class consciousness, and however imperfect in practice, it nonetheless has a role to play.

Former TUC general secretary, John Monks, for example, in the 1990s recognised the relative weakness of the movement but nonetheless strove to make union issues and working class concerns known to government and the wider population. In that sense the TUC has most of the time sought to make its voice heard above other noises – steadfastly pushing for better pay and conditions across the board. This pragmatism takes several forms: one is acceptance of positions on various state bodies – being embedded in the decision-making process in order to be heard; secondly, that most general secretaries accept knighthoods and peerages on retirement to ensure that their support for the status quo of British society remains intact; and thirdly, that there is no rocking of the boat that conventional wisdom states that capitalism has delivered more for the working class than socialism ever will.

This last point is familiar to those with a broad political paint brush: right-wing labour in theory and practice sides with capitalism and seeks either to re-invent the nature of capitalism into, for example, a more worker-friendly system in which everyone benefits in contrast with the long gone old capitalism that Marx described; or that the role of the labour movement is to be a sword of justice and a shield of hope under the prevailing system but it is not their job to overthrow such a system. At the same time these apologists also redefine and caricature socialist alternatives as unachievable utopian dreams, unworkable, undemocratic, and unattractive.

A further sleight of hand conflates socialism with public ownership and thereby paves the way for the labour movement to support privatisation, reject renationalisation, and become a low level welfare party – endlessly redistributing monies from the poor to the very poor, from the undeserving to the deserving poor, and from workers to capitalists. The Cold War, attacks on militants, diatribes against Marxists and associated critics of capitalism, all make sense through this particular historical lens.

The TUC, for most of its history has played its part in all of this, even going against strong motions at conference. This is neither a bureaucratic conspiracy nor a simple reflection of the wider mood, but a result of the internal contradictions of the organisation itself and an integral part of the dialectics of working class struggle as a whole.

The attacks and effective dismantling of trades councils was one of the lowest points in TUC history. The ban on communists from 1941-1944 from holding office followed by the anti-communist witch hunts in the 1950s weakened grass roots organisations, reduced the capacity of trades councils to operate locally, and stripped them of political debate and as a result set back various causes decades. In London, for example, delegates to the 1946 trades council ‘now showed constant concern lest the policy of wage-freezing while profits and prices were rising, should impose the burden of the crisis on the working people. The Council also expressed alarm at the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union and the increasing dependence of the Government on the United States’.

In this century, the TUC has overseen a decline in union membership and influence, and a loss of resources as a result. Its headquarters remains a fixed point in London down the road from the British Museum and resembles most organisational HQs. It is full of busy people, comings and goings, and earnest discussions. It mimics in many respects the centres of most large unions with endless meetings, visitors, calls, press releases, full white boards, fading décor, and dodgy lifts. Its focus is as a pressure group with maximum attention paid to having its views broadcast and its campaigns noticed. In this regard, the ‘bureaucracy’ does an excellent job, but hardly functions as an assumed alternative centre of power thwarting the wishes of its constituent members. Despite being buffeted by dominate General Council members, the policy direction is not hard to fathom: all the causes of the day faced by workers across the years and all divides.

In recent years it has formed coalitions against public sector cuts, opposition to anti-union laws, championing equality and dignity at work, outing rogue employers, highlighting the need for pay rises, environmental protection, and arguing for decent jobs in the strange world of precarious employment, fake self-employment, agency workers, and the so-called ‘gig economy’ on the fringes of the increasingly fluid labour market. The campaigns have brought together fractious unions, other pressure groups, and increasingly the new deal Labour Party.

Its other focus is the annual set piece conference. A marathon set of meetings and motions fought out in fractious committee rooms and factional local pubs, and practising the dark arts of fighting over amendments, procedures, and agendas. Each year the floor is full of delegates backing core issues based on a series of heart felt tales of working class working lives. It is a wonderful moment when workers across occupations, regions, and sectors as well as generations, genders, abilities, and ethnicities share their common experiences of exploitation and alienation. While media focus is on big name speakers and any ‘controversial’ polices, the real purpose of the congress is to renew vows, restate the importance of unity, and develop cadres – to help the working-class become a class of and for itself. In this regard alone the TUC serves its greater purpose.

Roger Seifert is professor of industrial relations at Wolverhampton University.