TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady’s address to Congress 2014

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Monday 8 September 2014
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Frances O'Grady

Watch Frances O'Grady deliver her speech

President, Congress.

Trade unionism, at its heart, is about friendship between working people.

I want to give my sincere thanks to you President, a fellow member of the ‘first ever club’, whose encouragement over twenty-five years has never wavered.

And I also want to place on the Congress record my personal condolences to the family and the RMT union following the loss of our brother, Bob Crow. He may be gone but we will never forget him.

In moving the General Council statement I want to explain why we stand at an important moment in both our Movement’s – and our country’s – history.

But first, let’s celebrate what we’ve achieved together since we last met.

And let's start by paying tribute to our elected workplace reps, dedicated to supporting fellow workers. From winning agreements with employers to give a quarter of a million workers new learning opportunities, saving jobs and making our workplaces safer, to standing up against bigots and bullies, I’m proud of the great work our union reps do.

Secondly, we’ve put the cost of living crisis centre stage on the public agenda in way that no newspaper, no politician can ignore. In the private sector, from the car workers at Cowley, using their strength to support contract cleaners, to the devoted staff of Care UK, and those magnificent young workers at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, when it comes to winning – we’re living proof that solidarity works.

And at rallies and picket lines, from Newcastle to Newquay, we’ve also proved that public service workers won’t take cuts lying down. Fire-fighters, school staff, NHS and council workers.  They do a tough job in tough times. The TUC is proud of all our public service workers. And let me say this: it’s high time this government gave them some respect, as well as the pay rise they deserve.

Last but not least, we saw off some of the worst of that Big Brother lobbying bill that sought to gag not just unions but charities too.

And then there was that much hyped government inquiry into trade unions and so-called ‘extreme’ tactics. You remember, the review that failed even to mention the real scandal of blacklisting.

The brain behind the review was the Cabinet minister, Francis Maude. A man who apparently believed that an inflatable plastic rat posed a threat to public safety. A bigger threat, presumably, than a Conservative minister advising the public to fill up their garages with jerry cans of petrol.

Well, it seems that the review has more or less shut up shop, citing a lack of evidence and a ‘progressively politicised environment’. This followed the Conservative Party announcement that they plan to attack union rights, regardless of the review’s findings. As a consequence, the review Chair, Mr Bruce Carr QC, is now saying he will not make any recommendations. Not one. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that Mr Carr had embarked on his own personal work to rule.

Delegates, today I will be writing to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, to ask how much taxpayers’ hard earned cash has been wasted on this Conservative Party political stunt. And I know you will join me in demanding that they pay back every single penny.

But over the coming weeks and months we can expect plenty more of the same from where that grubby exercise in spin and smear came from.

Because there are just 240 days to go before the general election that is one of the most important at which any of us will have a vote. It‘s a fundamental choice, about the kind of country that we want to be – not just for the next few years but for a generation.

This is the moment when we get the chance to shape our own future.

Ever since the bankers’ crashed the economy, the big question has been what would replace it. We found out the hard way that a let-the-market-rip model can’t deliver decent living standards, homes and public services. It can’t deliver patient capital, productivity or prosperity in which ordinary people share. All it’s fit for is piling yet more riches onto a privileged few.

Economic growth is back but there’s no sign of it in most workers’ pay packets. In fact, the gap has got worse. Top chief executives now earn 175 times the wages of the average worker.

So, come the election, we face a choice. Are we going to settle for a nastier and poorer Britain?

A Downton Abbey-style society, in which the living standards of the vast majority are sacrificed to protect the high living of the well to do? Where the blame is heaped on the most vulnerable – migrants and claimants – while the powerful and the privileged sit pretty.

Or are we going to seize our opportunity, and build a new and fair economy that provides the people of this country with good, skilled, secure jobs? A civilised society, that provides a decent welfare safety net, and the nurseries and adult social care that families need. And a true democracy in which we all enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms, and we have a real say in how our lives are run.

Now the economy is recovering, any reasonable person might think this is the time to help repair household budgets and share the proceeds of growth more fairly. But the jobs that are being created are too often low paid and insecure. And while there’s nothing wrong with being your own boss when it’s a genuine choice, working on the lump for half the pay is no foundation for a strong economy. This is a government that appears intensely relaxed about young people stuck in unpaid internships and low-paid, dead-end jobs that waste their talents and education.

And George Osborne has been clear: he has absolutely no intention of relieving the pressure on public services. We’ve already seen severe cuts, but we literally haven’t seen the half of it. According to IFS, more than half the cuts – £12 billion pounds worth – have yet to come. The NHS is already buckling under the strain, despite the so-called ring-fence. And what's worse, privatisation is corrupting core public service principles and wasting billions.

And then there’s welfare. Of course people get fed up when they hear about the tiny minority who cheat the system, just as they resent the corporations who cheat on taxes. But there is still strong support for a decent benefits system.

And ministers are getting found out – just as we saw with the bedroom tax. The nastiest, most regressive and downright cruel policy since the poll tax.

Delegates, the truth is that three-quarters of welfare cuts have hit families in work. Working parents, who already dread opening every gas and electricity bill that drops through the letterbox, are now losing a thousand pounds a year in child benefit and tax credit cuts. Think about all those children who didn’t get a trip to the seaside this summer – no chill-axing for them.

It’s time the government came clean. They are deliberately hacking away at the welfare safety net.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the five-week benefit wait under Universal Credit. No matter how long you’ve worked, or how much you’ve contributed, if you lose your job you will have to wait five weeks before you get a penny. It’s welfare for Wonga – a policy guaranteed to line the pockets of loan sharks.

This brand of conservatism is the enemy of aspiration. As inequality soars, social mobility has hit reverse.

Silver spoons ever more firmly clamped in the mouths of those who were born with them. Whether it’s the judiciary, the media, business or public life, wearing the old school tie means you’re up to ten times more likely to reach the top.

And under this government, class prejudice is becoming respectable once again. Think about the mixed housing apartment blocks forcing social housing tenants to use a separate entrance, the so-called Poor door. According to the Family and Childcare Trust, private nurseries are refusing to offer publicly subsidised places to children from the wrong side of the tracks because wealthy parents don’t want their children to mix with them.

And while youth unemployment is still too high, the government may boast that record numbers of young people are entering university. But what they don’t tell you is that it’s Brideshead Revisited for the few but decades of debt for the rest.

Think too about that basic principle of democracy: equality before the law.

If a burglar robbed your house – even if that house is a mansion – you wouldn’t be expected to pay upfront for the privilege of seeing him taken to court. So if your boss robs you of holiday pay, why on earth should you have to find more than £1,000 to see justice done in an employment tribunal?

It‘s plain wrong that workers are priced out of justice. So – and let’s demand it – we want those employment tribunal fees scrapped, once and for all.

But the truth is we are witnessing a regeneration of the class society – in new forms for sure, with financiers increasingly dominating the wealthy elite and a growing number of young graduates finding themselves stuck in the ranks of the low-paid. But a class system none the less, one that bears down on working people's voice and aspirations.

The new Conservative Party is a case in point. This summer, the Prime Minister had to abandon plans to rebrand his party as one of “opportunity” when, after searching for MPs of humble origin, he could only find fourteen.

And then there was Baroness Warsi. She resigned in protest at the Prime Minister’s policy on Gaza – a humanitarian disaster we will be debating later this week. But she said something else of interest. She accused the Conservatives of having a problem with brown working class women from the north. In my opinion that’s a little unfair. They don’t seem to much like working class women from the South either.

But it is the sheer snobbery which Baroness Warsi complained of which explains, in part, why the Conservative Party has made a fetish of attacking the only institutions established to be run by and for working people – trade unions.

That and fear. Because, while it may not always feel like it, be in no doubt, they are afraid of us.

Afraid that, while most of us don't care what background you come from and take people as we find them, we do not accept that a public school education makes some people our betters. Afraid that we see through government spin; that we point out when the Emperor is wearing no clothes; and that we have intelligent, credible policy alternatives based on our values of equality and democracy. And, above all, they are afraid that we can mount formidable opposition to the damaging flexible market free-for-all that they want to see.

That’s why we must make the Britain needs a pay rise demonstration on October 18th a brilliant, peaceful, massive show of our strength.

All the more so, because now we know that unions are firmly in their firing line.

Only authoritarian regimes attack union rights. But that is precisely what the Conservative Party has promised to do. After all, how else to defend an undeserving elite than by demonising democratic dissent?

The Conservative Party’s proposals on industrial action are draconian. They set an arbitrary ballot threshold that no other democratic election in Britain is required to meet. Make no mistake, they intend to ban strikes by the back door. And new rules about ballots will give employers new ways to use the courts.

We already have tough public order laws in the UK, but now we face new criminal offences for industrial disputes. That will give authorities licence to snoop on trade unionists, using all the technology and surveillance techniques of which Edward Snowden warned.

This flies in the face of fundamental values of fairness and freedom. These proposals represent a threat, not just to working people and their unions, but to everyone who cares about civil liberties and democracy.

And let me promise you this, delegates: we will fight them every step of the way.

Altogether, this adds up to perhaps the most radical right-wing programme put at an election for a generation. It would make us an even more unequal country where trade agreements like TTIP give multinational corporations free rein to rip our precious public services apart. A country where, not just the lowest paid, but the great working majority struggle to make ends meet. Where millions more are trapped in casual work, never knowing what they will earn each week; and where workers’ rights and liberties are trampled on. And, worst of all, a country that – just like a dictatorship – stops its unions from doing anything about it.

So if there is one message from this Congress it is that the next election matters.

We have to decide who will measure up to the aspirations of working people, as set out in the campaign plan, unanimously endorsed by this Congress.

Who do we trust to deliver a real industrial policy so we rebuild manufacturing, reform the banks, cut carbon and end the North-South divide. Ask yourself, who respects the need not just for a higher minimum wage or even a living wage, but collective bargaining so that we can win a fair wage.

Who will fight for fair taxes and tackle boardroom greed. Who will listen to our case for workers to have a voice, not only on top pay committees but – just like most of Europe – up to and including on company boards. Who will build one million new homes. Who values welfare. Who really cares enough to help the sick, the old and disabled. Who will crack down on zero hours contracts and agency work abuses. And who will give our children a brighter future with genuine apprenticeships and a youth jobs guarantee.

The choice is clear.

If you value our NHS; value our public services; value a decent standard of living; value the right of the many to band together against the power of the mighty few: it’s time to stand up and be counted.

This is the biggest battle of my lifetime. We know they won't give up power without a struggle. We know it won’t be a clean fight.

But let me tell you this.

I believe we’re ready. I believe justice is on our side. I believe working people will win.

And so together, let’s send out a message, let’s tell them loud and clear: bring it on.

NOTES TO EDITORS:
- All TUC press releases can be found at www.tuc.org.uk
- Follow the TUC on Twitter: @tucnews
- Congress 2014 will be held in the BT Convention Centre, Liverpool from Sunday 7 September to Wednesday 10 September 2014. Although it is still possible to apply for media accreditation, every pass now costs £75. If you would like to attend go to www.tuc.org.uk/media-credentials and complete the online form. Anyone now applying will need to collect their pass in Liverpool.

Contacts:
Media enquiries:
Liz Chinchen   T: 020 7467 1248    M: 07778 158175    E: [email protected]
Rob Holdsworth    T: 020 7467 1372    M: 07717 531150     E: [email protected]
Tim Nichols   T: 020 7467 1337   M: 07876 452902   E: [email protected]

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