Brendan Barber address to Congress 2011

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English

12 September 2011
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'President, Congress.

'Welcome everybody to Congress House to this first ever Congress to be held here in the movement's home.

'Those of us who work here and the many of you who come here regularly might take the building for granted. But it is perhaps worth spending a moment or two reminding ourselves of the significance of this building in the history of the trade union movement.

'The idea of a dedicated home for British trade unionism was conceived in the depths of the Second World War - when London was under constant bombardment and trade unionists were among those fighting at home and abroad for the very survival of our democracy.

'It was financed by contributions from our hard pressed members, many struggling to make ends meet. It was built on the site of a former brewery which we bought for £25,000. That secured a 999-year lease, so we'll be here for a while. And it was intended as a resource for the movement: a conference facility, a research centre, an educational resource, a meeting place.

'But this was never purely a functional building. It was dedicated to work and it contains great works - the Epstein statue in the courtyard above under whose shadow we meet - dedicated to the victims of world wars. The Meadows bronze that you passed on your way in - the Spirit of Trade Unionism - the strong helping the weak.

'Congress House was opened in the mid-1950s - at a time when the country was determined to put behind it the poverty of the thirties and the devastation of the war. It was conceived in hope and dedicated to progress. Sentiments we will echo this week.

'Let us also reflect on the fact that we meet ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As our American colleagues reminded us on the first anniversary of September 11th, over 500 of those who died that day were trade unionists. They included 12 members of the Flight Attendants Association, killed when their planes, their workplaces, were turned into weapons of mass destruction; 43 members of the Hotel Employees Local working in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center; and 343 fire fighters who gave their lives in their heroic attempt to save others.

'Ten years on the world is a very different place. London too has known mass death from terrorism. Far, far too many others too have died in the conflicts around the world since the 9/11 outrage.

'This is the first Annual Congress to be held in the Capital since 1902. When that Congress met in Holborn Town Hall just a mile from here, the Labour Party was just two years old - formed as a result of a Congress resolution, with a mandate to advance the interests of working people, to bring social justice through parliamentary action, and to tackle the gross inequalities that tore Victorian society apart.

'That was a period of momentous change. That generation of trade unionists played a vital role in changing the course of our economic and social history. And we are at such a turning point again, and we face such a challenge again, as our economy continues to be ravaged by the consequences of the gravest global financial crisis any of us have ever seen, and we have a government locked into policies that are making things worse not better.

'Last month, as our cities burned amidst the worst rioting in decades, social divisions in modern Britain were laid bare. The violence and the criminality that we saw shocked us all, and none of us would seek to justify or condone it in any way.

'And the victims were overwhelmingly frightened ordinary people in working class communities - with the police and emergency service workers called on to put their safety on the line to restore order.

'The Prime Minister chose to describe these events as 'criminality pure and simple'. But it isn't so simple and what happened in August actually revealed deep fractures within our society.

'A society that ranks among the most unequal anywhere in the developed world; where a super rich elite have been allowed to float free from the rest of us; where a generation of young people are growing up without work, without prospects, without hope. None harder hit than the black youngsters held back by an unemployment rate approaching 50 per cent.

'And as we make the case for opportunities for all, we cannot and must not allow the riots to be exploited by EDL thugs. So today, let us pledge to fight the Far Right wherever and whenever it peddles its racist poison, and let us take heart from the local elections when the BNP suffered the worst rout in its sorry history.

'Congress, the government's response to the riots has been profoundly wrong. Rather than addressing the complex long-term factors that lie behind the alienation - the poverty, the lack of social mobility, young lives stunted by hope denied - they have instead reached for simplistic clichés about moral decay.

'And yet as they have retreated to Victorian language about the undeserving poor, they have said nothing about moral disintegration among the rich. The financiers with huge assets sneakily channelled through the tax havens. The out-of-control traders and speculators who razed our economy to the ground. The super rich tax cheats whose greed impoverishes our schools and hospitals.

'Let's be clear about this: high moral standards, yes of course, but not just for the poor and the ordinary, they must be for the rich and the privileged too. And in a year when we commemorated the 25th anniversary of Wapping, let us say loud and clear that moral standards must apply to you too Mr Murdoch.

'And let's also resist blatant double standards, so that someone who steals a bottle of water goes to jail while there are second chances aplenty in the corridors of power.

'Congress, what happened in our cities last month has not just raised alarming questions about the country we have become, it has not just exposed the pernicious inequality bequeathed by neoliberalism, but it has also underlined the folly of coalition policy.

'Withdrawing EMA help from disadvantaged teenagers. Cutting youth services by two thirds and more. Abolishing the Future Jobs Fund and the Youth Guarantee that gave new chances to young people previously in utter despair.

'Of course I accept the riots were not caused by the cuts - but as any fair-minded person must see the cuts will undoubtedly make the underlying problems much worse.

'Congress, the coalition has set the cruel and mistaken objective of getting rid the deficit within just four years. This is not is not just austerity - it is austerity on speed, rashly carried out at a time when yields on UK debt are at historic lows.

'The deepest cuts in the UK since the 1920s. Deeper cuts than in any country outside of those with sovereign debt crises. And cuts that would make even Margaret Thatcher look like a spendthrift.

'We were told 'we are all in this together'. But the cuts have hit middle and low income workers in both private and public sectors, and hardly been noticed by those who did so well out of the banking bubble.

'The less you had to do with causing the crash, the bigger the price you are having to pay.

'Public service workers and users may be the most obvious victims, but the private sector is suffering just as much. Don't forget the public sector spends more with private companies than it does on the wages of its own staff.

'But the damage goes deeper. Cuts have hit business and consumer confidence. With living standards facing their most severe fall in almost a century and real wages just about everywhere falling fast, it's no wonder so many companies are in trouble - and even those with healthy balances are failing to invest.

'No-one denies the deficit. But this is a government that has turned the crisis into a major smuggling operation. Contraband policies that were kept from voters before the election are suddenly centre stage.

'Remember 'no top-down NHS reform'? Remember 'I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS'? Yet we have the biggest and most complex health reorganisation ever, a deeply damaging Bill still going through Parliament, big cuts already biting hard with over 50,000 jobs set to go, and the profit motive being injected into the heart of the NHS.

'Congress, let's be 100 per cent clear: our NHS is not for sale. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

'And nor should our education and schools system be broken up and taken out of any genuine local democratic control in the misguided drive for academies and so-called free schools.

'I'm sure there are some ministers who recognise and regret the pain they are causing, who genuinely cannot see the alternative. But what worries me is that those really in the driving seat are pushing forward an agenda to permanently shrink the state.

'For them this isn't temporary pain, but the culmination of a long held dream - a chance to implement policies under cover of the crash that they know that voters have rejected over and over again.

'It's marketisation and privatisation on a huge scale - warmer words when they are wrapped up as localism and the big society - but the same old hard right ideology.

'What is even worse is that it's hurting, but it ain't working.

'It's now clear that the government won't even clear the deficit. The cuts have stamped on growth - and the UK economy is still producing less than before the crash, when other countries have at least recovered that gap.

'And spending is being slashed as the global economy teeters on the brink of a crisis that could dwarf even the financial meltdown of 2008.

'In America the President has now proposed a bold new initiative to encourage growth and jobs, but is being hampered by Republican intransigence. It's high time those Tea Party crazies woke up and smelled the coffee.

'And in Europe, politicians have failed to find a convincing response to the sovereign debt crisis. As Greece has shown, you can't cut your way to financial health - growth is the only answer.

'When even the IMF and World Bank call for more stimulus and less austerity, our own government's nakedly political agenda is revealed as the economic fig leaf slips.

'Economists now openly talk of a double dip. Remember what they said about us when we warned that was exactly what the cuts could lead to.

'Whether we technically go double dip is still open, but unless we change course the best we can look forward to is bumping along the bottom for years.

'And change course we must.

'All of this puts a huge responsibility onto our shoulders. No-one else can claim to speak for so many of those bearing the brunt of austerity. No other part of civil society has the organisation, resources and reach of our trade union movement.

'And that responsibility is one that we have willingly accepted.

'Up and down the country, trade unionists have led the fight again the government's brutal agenda.

'Not just defending the NHS and local libraries, nor just speaking up for our welfare state and a decent benefits system to support the most vulnerable, but representing the interests of all working people.

'And as we will debate on Wednesday nowhere is our fight more urgent than when it comes to public sector pensions.

'All workers deserve decent pensions and security in retirement. But let's be clear: the government's outrageous plans for public service pensions are not about their long-term affordability. They are all about making hard pressed public sector staff sacrifice their long term pensions security to contribute even more to short-term deficit deduction - and that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

'Congress, whether it's fighting cuts to pensions, fighting NHS reforms, or fighting inequality, one thing's for sure: we are at our best when we are united.

'We saw that on March 26th as we staged our magnificent March for the Alternative - the biggest event the TUC has organised in decades.

'Half a million people from every walk of life. Black and white, young and old, men and women. Most union members, but many who were not.

'Proof of how powerfully we can make our case when we reach out beyond the confines of our movement, building a coalition as wide as it is deep.

'And now as I move the General Council statement setting out our campaign plans, I want us to recall the success of that day.

'To recognise what we can achieve when we work together. To hear how loudly our voice is heard when we speak together. And to see the impact when we properly plan and use our resources wisely.

'The statement that we have before us today is based on those insights. It is an ambitious two-year plan, and the General Council will decide in October on whether affiliates, through the affiliation fee, should give us the extra resources needed to win this battle.

'Because in the two years ahead of us we have to go further. We have to take the campaign to where our opponents are strongest.

'They say the cuts are necessary, that we have 'maxed out the nation's credit card' - however fatuous that analogy may be. And too many agree, even if they hate the way they the cuts are being done. That's because the government has succeeded in making the deficit the key problem.

'So we have to shift the terms of the debate. We say that you can't cut the deficit by depressing the economy. That it's only through jobs and growth that we can heal the public finances.

'Of course the deficit is important, but it is just one symptom of what's wrong. The problem is the collapse of the economic model that politicians and policymakers have backed since the 1980s.

'Deregulation, the worship of markets, and suspicion of the state failed to deliver what was promised. Instead this led to an economy run in the interests of banks and finance. Where the super-rich prospered, but wages were held down with many workers resorting to credit to keep up.

'That model has blown up in our faces turning into an angel of destruction.

'The task now is to build a new economy that delivers for all. That pays fair wages so that companies can have customers. That nurtures success stories like our creative industries.

'And it's time to think big.

'Let's exploit new technologies in the fight against climate change and forge a new future for manufacturing. And today let us offer our support and our solidarity to the workers at Bombardier and the people of Derby as they fight to save their jobs, their communities and their industry.

'Let's make the case for tax justice - and let's say loud and clear to the Chancellor that plans to cut tax for the richest one per cent by scrapping the 50p rate are a disgrace and we will fight them tooth and nail.

'And on a day when the Vickers Report fails to deal with what really needs to be done to transform our banks, let's argue for real reform of our financial system, turning the banks from casinos that enrich themselves into utilities that serve us.

'Congress, we have to win the case for an economic alternative. Developing our sophisticated arguments for growth and investment into the straightforward ideas that appear to be the new common sense. Showing we can win the intellectual high ground as well as the industrial battles.

'In other words, we've got to build a mass movement for change.

'This year we had a March for the Alternative; in the year ahead I want us to build a Movement for the Alternative.

'One that cannot be ignored by any politician in any party. One that builds on the great diversity of our cuts campaign. And one that inspires the millions of people out there who believe in social and economic justice.

'We need as many ways to get involved as possible, we need to use the potential of social media, and we need to be armed with the case for change.

'And the TUC has a special role. Just as on March 26th, many look to us for coherence, for arguments, and for campaign leadership.

'That sets a very great challenge in the year ahead. It's one we shouldn't take on lightly. It's not something for you just to mandate Congress House to do. Not an issue where you pass the responsibility.

'Instead it's one where we recognise that the TUC is more than the staff and offices where we meet this year. It's every union, every officer, every activist, every member.

'So please vote for the General Council Statement, but do so in the knowledge that that the vote is just the first step. This is not just a vote, but a commitment - a pledge to work with every ally we can muster as we fight our greatest battle in living memory.

'Out of the ashes of this financial crisis which dragged the world to the edge of the abyss, let's get Britain back to work, let's save our public realm, and let's build that new economy.

'And together let's achieve something of which our generation can be proud.'

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