Congress 2010 General Council Report

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Congress 2010 General Council Report

The 142nd annual Trades Union Congress. 13-16 September 2010, Manchester

Introduction only. For the full General Council Report, including accounts, obituaries, rules and committee memberships, download the full pdf file.

Introduction by the General Secretary

The result of the 2010 general election might have been inconclusive but the effects have been seismic.

The view that a coalition of two parties that had fought the election on very different manifestos would result in a cautious and indecisive government has proved to be very wide of the mark.

No other government in recent history has embarked on such a radical course of action so soon after coming to power.

At the heart of the Government's programme is a commitment to cut the deficit predominantly through expenditure cuts and to do so with the utmost haste.

In our view and that of many eminent economists such action will cause immense damage and will be self defeating. Whilst the money markets might initially welcome an urgent debt reduction strategy, we are certain that the result of savage cuts in public spending will be higher unemployment, greater instability and a stifling of the growth that offers the only real hope of paying off the accumulated debts over the longer term.

One of our main criticisms of the government strategy is that it fails to see that in a modern economy the public and private sectors are totally interdependent. Cuts in public spending, far from creating space for private sector growth, as the Government argues, actually damage the private sector by reducing demand for goods and services.

But, whilst the Government's main focus has been on debt reduction it has started on a path to far wider reforms, in effect redefining the relationship between the state and society. The early summer of 2010 saw a raft of announcements - some of which could result in higher rather than lower spending.

The early years of this century have been characterised by frequent top-down reforms to the delivery of public services. All too often these have been conceived in haste, implemented ineffectively and then torn up long before any benefits have had the chance to emerge. Having been critical of this approach in opposition the new ministers have adopted the same approach in government, but have moved at an even more frantic pace.

In July plans were unveiled for massive changes in education, health and pensions. There were indications of big changes in policy on criminal justice and arts funding too. And this is likely to be just the start. The Prime Minister's talk of the 'big society' for all its imprecision carries the very real threat that communities will be left to fend for themselves with wealthier areas able to organise Victorian style self-help systems whilst poorer areas lose the benefits brought about by the twentieth century redistributive policies based on public services provided by national or local government and funded centrally on the principle that each contributed according to their ability and each benefited according to their needs.

Our response to this onslaught has been one of 'critical engagement'. In effect there have been two strands to our strategy. The first has been to engage with government so that ministers have to address our arguments and are aware of our concerns. The second has been to make public our criticisms and to seek to obtain maximum public support for our case.

Before the election we regarded it as especially important to ensure that MPs of all parties were aware of the valuable work that unions are undertaking, with the support of employers and with government funding, through unionlearn, to bring learning opportunities to people at work. It was significant therefore that when the new Business Secretary Vince Cable addressed the annual conference of unionlearn in July he described unionlearn as a 'powerful model' and said that he wanted unionlearn to build on its achievements.

I also received an assurance from David Cameron, before the election, that a future Conservative government would continue to respect the links between the TUC and government departments built up over time and, in some cases, such as the Public Services Forum, formalised in recent years.

Following the election early meetings were arranged with a number of ministers and there was particularly intense activity in the area of public services, where Francis Maude, the new minister responsible for the civil service, met the Public Services Liaison Group and chaired an early meeting of the Public Services Forum. The new equalities minister Lynne Featherstone addressed the TUC LGBT conference, where delegates subjected her to intense questioning on government policy.

The second strand of the General Council strategy has taken the form of prompt and incisive criticism of government announcements. The Emergency Budget was the subject of intense scrutiny and the pamphlet All Pain, No Gain together with our cutswatch and labour market and economic reports series provided analysis and criticism. Our response to the proposals on pensions in particular generated extensive media coverage.

But whilst the immediate responses are important the General Council has also recognised that this is likely to be a long haul.

It is possible that the coalition will collapse in the near future. Many Lib Dem supporters who have spent their political lives campaigning to save local services must be appalled by the direction of the coalition policies and the collapse in their party's poll rating. But it remains more likely that the Government will remain in office for some time and in late July the opinion polls showed that, whilst Lib Dem support had fallen drastically, the Conservatives were still enjoying a political honeymoon with their poll ratings in the mid-forties.

Whilst the public appear to support the cuts policy in principle it is significant that in the one area where cuts can be seen as directly affecting local services - namely the decision to scrap many individual school building programmes through the Building Schools for the Future programme - local opposition has been fierce with parents, teachers, school governors and even pupils putting severe pressure on local MPs to campaign for a reversal of government policy.

I plan to attend events at each of the party political conferences this autumn to make sure that the party activists know where we stand. Beyond that we expect that the Comprehensive Spending Review, scheduled for October 20, will provide fresh focus on the scale and implication of the Government's plans.

It is with this in mind that the General Council has agreed to organise a major rally in Central Hall Westminster on the eve of the CSR announcement, as part of a major movement-wide campaign and we are looking for campaign events in the regions that week.

It is important that our campaign is seen to have wide support - allowing us to reject criticisms that unions are only interested in their members' jobs - and so we will be seeking to build our own coalition over the autumn, engaging with patients, school governors and service users generally with the aim of gaining maximum support for a major demonstration in the spring.

In addition to the time spent on government relations I have also devoted a lot of time over the past year to assisting unions involved in major disputes that have wider implications for the trade union movement. In the autumn I worked closely with CWU colleagues seeking to resolve the complex dispute with Royal Mail. By the turn of the year we had reached a position where it was agreed that detailed negotiations should be handled by ACAS, with a leading role being played by former UNISON Assistant General Secretary Roger Poole. These discussions eventually led to a settlement covering pay, job security and industrial relations.

In the early part of this year I worked intensively with colleagues from Unite in attempting to resolve the dispute between the union's cabin crew members at BA and the company. Despite a series of meetings with the company it did not prove possible to reach a settlement that was acceptable to the cabin crew members and in July they rejected a 'final offer' from the company. At the time of writing the union is considering its next steps. Other disputes reported to the General Council have included the long-running dispute between PCS and the civil service over redundancy terms. This has now entered a new phase with the Government putting forward legislation that will reduce significantly the redundancy terms and all the civil service unions are considering their response. It was also reported to the General Council in July that unions at the BBC were considering balloting members over the Corporation's plans to introduce major changes to the pension scheme that would have serious implications for pensioners and current staff.

The full range of TUC work, on behalf of the General Council and Congress, is covered in this report.

The impact of rising unemployment and the prospect of major job losses in public services could have a severe effect on union membership. The work with unions on organising and recruitment has therefore assumed greater importance and the partnership with Ruskin College is working particularly well.

Whilst employment law did not feature in the election campaign it is clear that there are some who now have influence in government who would like to see further restrictions on unions' ability to organise industrial action. The trend for employers to rush to the courts seeking injunctions rather than to the bargaining table looking for a settlement whenever a union ballots its members on strike action is one that is causing concern and we are working closely with unions on this issue.

The enactment of the Equality Bill was one of the most important achievements of the Labour Government in its final days and we will be watching closely to see that progress is made in implementing the various provisions.

Our contribution to the pensions debate was recognised by the former government and this clearly will be an important area of work for the coming Congress year as the new government looks to press forward with major changes.

Our international work continues to occupy an important place on the TUC agenda. Last year's Congress adopted a detailed statement on the Middle East and TUC delegates to the International Trade Union Confederation Congress in Vancouver in June took the opportunity to hold detailed discussions with our colleagues from both the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and Histadrut. We have also continued to support colleagues in Colombia and, through the DfID agreement, worked closely with unions both in the UK and internationally on development work.

The role of unionlearn has been widely recognised and the chapter detailing our work on learning and skills provides the evidence of the real difference this area of work is making in workplaces across the country.

Health and safety too continues to be a priority and we have taken the first steps to fend off the attacks that we expect to arise from Lord Young's review which seems to be more inspired by Daily Mail headlines rather than the reality of workplace deaths which still run at more than a hundred a year.

We are, as chapter 7 shows, pursuing our work at regional level and in Wales and looking to a future without the regional development agencies that have done much useful work bringing together employers and union representatives on a common agenda of promoting development at regional level.

Our campaign work has assumed a greater importance in recent months and we are increasingly seeking to use modern methods of communication to ensure that we reach parts of the community that unions have often found it hard to touch.

Next year Congress will take a different form, with a three-day event at Congress House. This was a move that the majority of unions were keen to make and to do so as soon as possible. Our aim is to retain the democratic accountability that is at the heart of Congress, whilst achieving at least as high a profile as we have done in recent years, but at the same time making more effective use of the movement's limited resources.

The past year has seen the death of a number of former colleagues, including the 1985 Congress president Jack Eccles, former GPC stalwart and NUM general secretary Peter Heathfield and former NUJ general secretary, Harry Conroy. Three other colleagues died before they had the opportunity to enjoy a full retirement. Neil Kearney was still working hard for the international trade union movement when he died suddenly in Bangladesh. Graham Goddard, Deputy General Secretary of Unite, was just 51 when he died last year, and Bill Spiers, former general secretary of the Scottish TUC, was 57.

During the Congress year Jerry Bartlett of the NASUWT retired from the General Council after joining us at last year's Congress and both Brian Caton of the POA and Gerry Gallagher of UNISON will be leaving us at this Congress. On behalf of the whole General Council I would like to wish all of them all the best for the future.

Brendan Barber,
TUC General Secretary

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