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A Beginner's Guide to the Annual Trades Union Congress

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Many people who attend Congress are already conference veterans. They know how business is conducted in their own unions. Some might also have been to international gatherings and Party conferences and will know that each organisation has its own way of doing things, its own rules, standing orders and traditions.

So, the newcomer is advised not to rely on following the way they do things in their own union but to start with this guide.

What are we here for?

The formal business is, of course, at the heart of Congress, but you will get the most out of the event if you use it as an opportunity to spend time with other activists from your own union and to take the time to talk to those from others. Fringe meetings and the exhibition areas are as much part of the Congress scene as the conference hall itself.

But it is also important to know how business is conducted and why it is done that way.

The core purposes

Congress does two key jobs.

It receives the Report of the work of the General Council over the previous 12 months and it sets policy for the next year.

The General Council Report
The Report is a bulky document, up to 200 pages long. It shows the range of work that is undertaken by the TUC, on economic issues, on equality, on organising, on public services, employment rights and in the international field.

Each paragraph of the Report is put to Congress for approval.

There is an opportunity for delegates to ask questions or to make a point about the action reported, but such interventions are rare.

Instead, Congress time is predominately spent debating motions submitted by unions.

Detailed questions can best be handled by a union taking them up with the office in writing.

If a union considers it important to speak on a paragraph, to put a point on the record, the delegation leader should notify the General Purposes Committee (GPC) team so that the President is aware that the union wishes to speak.

General Council Statements
In addition to the Report, the General Council often puts statements to Congress for approval. Sometimes these refer to major policy matters and, if agreed in time, can be included in the General Council Report. More often they concern urgent matters and are agreed after the Report has gone to press and are circulated to delegates either immediately before or even during Congress. The statements will be introduced by the General Secretary or a member of the General Council and there will be an opportunity for debate, though again a delegate wishing to speak should clear this with their delegation leader and the union should notify the GPC team.


Most of Congress's time is taken up in debating motions submitted by unions.

Each union is allowed to submit two motions, although unions with more than a million members are allowed one extra motion for each additional half million members or part thereof - thus this year both UNISON and Unite, with between a million and one and a half million members each will be allowed a third motion each.

In addition, in order to see that matters of importance to certain groups of workers and the TUC's work on equalities are given due consideration at Congress, statutory TUC conferences have the right to forward motions carried at their conferences to Congress for debate.

These are the Women's Conference, the Black Workers Conference, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Conference, the Disabled Workers Conference, the Young Workers Conference and the Trades Union Councils Conference.

Motions need to be submitted by mid July (the deadline was July 15 in 2013) and there is a word limit of 250 words, although those motions that have already been debated by the TUC conferences are exempt.

These motions are then printed in a Preliminary Agenda, which is circulated to unions.

Unions then have until early August (August 12 in 2013) to submit amendments. Unions are entitled to two amendments each - though again unions with more than a million members are allowed an additional amendment.

The motions and amendments are then published in a document known as the Final Agenda and this is circulated to all Congress delegates along with the General Council Report, a briefing note and delegates' credentials.

One of the ways in which the TUC differs from many individual unions is in the process known as compositing.

The purpose is to avoid a succession of debates on similar subjects.

The way it works is that where unions have submitted motions or amendments on related subjects, attempts are made to get an agreed text that pulls the motions together. The GPC determines what motions the TUC office should seek to group into composites.

This can sometimes be done by letter. In more complicated cases one or more meeting is necessary to discuss a composite.

Words in the original motions can be lost during compositing but no new words can be added and the composite has to be agreed by all the unions whose motions or amendments have been included.

Thanks to the compositing process and the limits on motions, it is one of the distinctive features of the TUC that almost invariably all matters raised in the motions are dealt with during the course of the Congress.

Emergency Motions
The GPC can allow Emergency Motions onto the Congress Agenda, providing that the issues covered by these motions arise after the deadline for motions and amendments. The text of an Emergency Motion will normally be circulated in the Congress hall, and the President will normally try to indicate when he or she intends to take the Emergency Motion(s).

Most voting at Congress is done by show of hands. In close votes, the President may decide to take a card vote - in this case your delegation leader will cast your union's vote.

Programme of Business

A programme of business indicating the order in which motions and paragraphs of the General Council Report will be debated is printed in the Congress Guide which is circulated to delegates at the beginning of Congress.

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