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Mark Serwotka
Photo: Jess Hurd/

Speech by TUC President Mark Serwotka, Sunday 08 September 2019

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Congress, two weeks ago I passed an important milestone. 1,000 days since my heart transplant. An operation, my 4th life saving one, carried out by the greatest achievement of our labour movement, the National Health Service.

An NHS representing everything we stand for, made up of a team of public sector workers; our doctors, nurses, surgeons, radiographers, cleaners, porters, catering staff, admin staff, paramedics, physiotherapists, and community nurses. All part of a team, all struggling with a lack of resources, underpaid, and many of them privatised. Congress, let’s give all of them a sign of our appreciation.

Congress, I also want to make this point. The workers at Papworth, and across the whole NHS, not only come from all parts of the UK, but from across the world. Some say we have too many migrants, we are full up. I say thank God they came to this country, not just because of their vital role in our public services, but also because of the enrichment to our culture and society that hundreds of years of immigration has brought.

And we need to say loud and clear from this Congress that it’s not migrants who cause our problems, but the greedy bosses and politicians who exploit them. Migrants deserve trade union rates of pay in all industries, our public services must be invested in, not cut, and we must organise to fight for that.

Congress, I want to pay tribute to those who have supported me over 39 years of trade union activity. My family, my mother and father, sadly no longer with us, who adopted me at an early age, and supported me. To my daughter Imogen and my son Rhys who put up with a lot, and have been through so much. And my wife Ruth, not only for the support she has given me, but also for her formidable campaigning for women’s rights.

I also want to thank my union PCS, our fantastic activists and members, and our fabulous staff. PCS is a brilliant union and I am proud to be its General Secretary. I thank all those who I have worked with, particularly our former President Janice Godrich who has been a supporter of mine for many years, and has served our union so well.

Can I also thank Frances and Paul, and all the TUC staff who do a great job.

And a final thank you, to my organ donor and his family. Your gift is why I am standing here, and I urge all of us to raise the need for organ donation. Three people still die every day waiting for a transplant.

Congress, I want to pay tribute to Sally Hunt. Sally gave a brilliant President’s speech at last year’s Congress.

She spoke movingly of our history, how the movement has grown and won important victories. How we can take strength from our movement’s roots. Sally reminded us that we are powerful agents of change. As she put it, “We don’t observe history, we make it.”

I want to take Sally’s conclusion as my starting point and talk today about the unprecedented threats we face, and ask whether we are prepared for them or not.

Will we end up just observing the rise of the far right, including our current government? Will we watch, horrified, the further decimation of our public services? Will we look fearfully at the rise of racism and hate? Will we be passive witnesses of the growth of a climate emergency? How can we step up to face the scale of these challenges? For Congress, I hope you agree – stand up to them we must!

Perhaps the most chilling threat is the rise of the far right. In the 1980s we had Reagan and Thatcher, two right-wing politicians leading the free market attack on the welfare state and trade unions. But Trump and Johnson are even more dangerous. They pretend to be on the side of the ordinary person, leading popular movements. But in reality they are stoking up division and facilitating the rise of the far right.

We’ve seen the nasty spectacle of a Trump rally, 8,000 people, chanting “send her back” at Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Somali American Congresswoman. Trump may not be an out and out fascist, but that was reminiscent of a fascist rally and Trump is encouraging the fascists, stirring up race hatred. It’s a unique moment of danger for our movement.

Congress, let’s send a message of support to the four black Congresswomen vilified by Trump. We stand in solidarity with you.

Trump is leading an international resurgence of the far right and the misogyny and hate that goes with it. I’m glad that this year the TUC has spoken clearly and loudly against their abuses in Brazil, Colombia, Turkey and Palestine.

Here in the UK we have Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Possibly the poshest sounding Prime Minister in British history. Our job is make sure he’s the shortest serving prime minister in our history.

Johnson’s cabal of hard-right, free market fanatics will try to wreak havoc on this country and cause untold damage. His cabinet includes a Home Secretary who believes that capital punishment should be brought back, and another member who believes that women should be denied the right to an abortion even in the case of rape.

In any circumstances a Johnson government would pose a massive threat to workers, unions and public services. But the threat is magnified now by Johnson’s insistence that the UK will leave the EU on October 31st come what may, if necessary without a deal. The prospect of Johnson and his zealous accomplices controlling a no-deal Britain post Brexit – flogging off anything that isn’t nailed down to the highest bidder – is bleak.

Congress, we should all unite and be clear we oppose a no deal Brexit.

What Johnson and Cummings have done in the past few weeks, cancelling weeks of Parliament in order to drive through their agenda, is outrageous. We have to be clear as a trade union movement that we will not let this happen.

I applaud the hundreds of thousands who have demonstrated recently. Let the cry go out: we have no confidence in this rotten government, and we want a general election on our terms now. We will mobilise to campaign for one, and this should include organising a massive national demonstration.

Congress now is the time for those who have been lukewarm to the Labour leadership to stop and think. Do you want five years of Boris Johnson in hock to his mate Trump? If not, we need to unite behind Jeremy Corbyn to deliver a radical alternative based on an end to austerity, a taxation system that stops the billionaires putting their money in the Cayman islands, a government that delivers a New Deal for working people and a social security system we can be proud of again, and one that will repeal the anti-union laws.

Congress, the stakes for the people of this country are high. Our members live in Universal Credit Britain. A Britain where disabled people are committing suicide because of cuts to their benefits. A Britain where 300,000 are officially homeless and 4,000 are sleeping rough every night with a life expectancy of 45 years. Where women have a shorter life expectancy than their mothers.

We cannot afford to allow a Johnson government to inflict further damage. To stop them we need strong unions and a radical Labour government.

Our movement has seen a small rise in membership recently. That’s good. But not enough. If we are going to match up to the huge dangers that we face, there are changes we must make.

We need to be more united and be better at working together. We must stop squabbling amongst ourselves over small numbers of workers in recognition disputes.

We need more joint union campaigning and action. The joint action in 2011 over public sector pensions was our finest hour in recent times. It offered hope to many thousands that we could stop the Tories’ attacks. We need to do that again as once again the Tories are seeking to rob us of our pension rights. We have won some battles in the courts recently thanks to the magnificent work of our brothers and sisters in the Fire Brigades Union, but we need to force this government to take action to repair the damage or make way for one that will.

We need to invest in new digital technology to assist organising, especially in hard to reach parts of the economy where migrant workers predominate.

We need to work together to build a vibrant union presence in every workplace. We need to stop worrying about being seen as fighters for what we believe in.

One dispute involving my union tells a valuable story.

In the Business Department we have members on indefinite strike. Indeed they will be joining us later this week. Cleaners and caterers working for a private company on a government contract. None of them get the London living wage. Mainly black women, many of them migrant workers.

The caterers serve food to some of the richest people in the world who come to meet government ministers. When they go home they’ve been going via the union office to visit a food bank which our branch set up because the workers’ pay had been messed up by the management. Serving luxury food during working hours, then picking up a tin of beans to feed their kids at home – what an example of Tory Austerity Britain.

But whilst they might suffer low pay and discrimination, they are not passive observers. They are brave and determined to win. And union membership there has quadrupled.

This is but one dispute of many in my own union, but we have also seen a range of battles across our movement. From the Glasgow equal pay strike to the RMT rail workers, from the battle to keep open Harland and Wolff shipyard to the young workers trying to unionise McDonalds and Deliveroo, we are witnessing the start of a fightback and this Congress stands with them all in solidarity.

The hope and confidence that these disputes bring, alongside the vibrancy of the new emerging youth movement around the climate emergency, is something to celebrate and build upon. The trade unions need to become again the natural home for young workers, speaking their language, taking up their concerns, fighting and supporting their battles with them. It would be fantastic to see a huge union involvement in the climate emergency day of action on 20 September. If we do this and do it well, we will continue the upward trend in trade union membership that we desperately need.

We need strong unions working with a radical Labour government. John McDonnell said in a speech to my union’s annual conference that Labour will bring the trade unions with them into government. Well, John may have been speaking metaphorically. But in fact there’s an historical precedent for the unions to actually have a seat at the Cabinet table: the Wilson government of the 1960s included the General Secretary of the T&G. So, Frances – perhaps you’d better clear your diary!

One of the most exciting areas to look forward to when we get that Labour government is the return to public ownership of our essential services that should never have been privatised in the first place: the railways; gas, electric and water; an end to the two-tier workforce in the NHS, councils and the rest of the public sector. Union membership will rise, services will improve and we will say goodbye to the people who have milked our public services for profit.

These are the things to fight for whether you voted leave or remain, and we cannot allow the issue of Brexit to divide our movement. Boris Johnson will pretend he stands for the 52 per cent who voted leave, but in fact he stands for the richest 1 per cent.

Labour has its best chance of winning, and winning well, if the party champions the struggles of its friends in the trade union movement, champions the alternative to austerity in all our communities, stands up against discrimination, and builds the confidence of the workers and the young people of this country to hope for a better future. Only Labour can unite all our members whether they voted leave or remain.

Congress, I’ve been proud to serve as TUC President over the last year. We should all be proud of our movement and its history. Now I want to be proud of what we do tomorrow and the day after. Let’s not be observers. Let’s step up, and unite to defeat the Tories.

In that spirit, as we commemorate 200 years since the Peterloo massacre, let us remind ourselves of the words of Shelley: Ye are many – they are few.

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