Saturday, 6 September 2014

The LEAP guide to TUC Congress


This weekend marks the start of the annual meeting of Britain's biggest democratic organisations: the Trade Union Congress. LEAP gives you a guide to the debates taking place among the delegates representing over six million workers.

With over 70 motions from more than 40 trade unions and delegate conferences, Congress is a very different affair from the party conferences with their minimal debates and long list of platform speeches from the over-promoted and under-talented.

This year TUC Congress takes place in Liverpool from Sunday 7 to Wednesday 10 September. Alongside the formal debates on motions in the convention centre, there are also many fringe events taking place in the surrounding area. Congress delegates will also hear speeches from Labour's shadow business minister Chuka Umunna and Bank of England governor Mark Carney.

The debates at Congress are mostly fraternal - a chance for workers from different unions to share experiences of campaigning, taking industrial action and organising, and to give their perspectives on the issues of the day. This culture is reflected in the compositing process in which motions on similar issues are melded together in advance to achieve consensus and avoid repetition of debates. Within this unity, there is still considerable interest and insight on a range of issues, as well as a few issues that are bound to provoke strong debate.

This being an economics blog, the guide to the debates below focuses on the motions relating to economic issues (there are plenty more interesting debates on a variety of other issues).

Pay


Hot on the heels of the 10 July co-ordinated strike action against the public sector pay cap, and at a time when workers' living standards have fallen by an average 8.5% since 2010 (ONS data, see here), pay features prominently on the Congress agenda.

A motion from Unite points out that wages as a share of GDP has fallen from 66% in 1975 to 54% today, and that the proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements has fallen from 83% to 22% over the same period. It calls a return to sectoral wage agreements (the sort that existed before Thatcher scrapped the wage boards, except in agriculture which the coalition government scrapped).

Unison and PCS both call for co-ordinated industrial action against the public sector pay cap, which they call on the government to scrap. PCS also calls for a common dispute too (and their general secretary, Mark Serwotka, is interviewed in the Guardian today).

What will generate an interesting debate is the BFAWU motion that the minimum wage should be raised to £10 per hour. This is a rough equivalent of the $15 advocated by US campaigners against poverty pay. To put it in perspective a 37.5 hour week on £10 an hour equates to £19,500 a year. Well below the median income of £26,000. It will be interesting to hear if there is dissent - perhaps any opposition could explain which jobs don't deserve to earn such a salary?

UCU is also drawing attention to the increase in the gender pay gap - now at 15% between men and women - and calling for mandatory equal pay audits. This call is echoed by Prospect which also calls for "a maximum pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid workers in an organisation" - the BFAWU's call for a £10 minimum wage would help with that!

Meanwhile the RMT highlights that employment law loopholes mean non-UK seafarers are being paid as little as £2.41 an hour while working in the UK.

Austerity


Trade unions are opposed to austerity (no surprise there), but there are still some issues raised in motions that may stir some genuine debate:
  • Will Congress back Unite's call to support the People's Assembly?
  • Or back the RMT's call to consider organising protests in marginal constituencies where MPs do not oppose austerity?
Finally will the affiliated unions who signed up at Labour's national policy forum to Ed Balls' commitment to Tory spending plans for 2015-16 (see here), back the FBU wording that ...
"any government after the 2015 general election immediately scraps the cuts in funding for public services planned by the current coalition government. This should be done by means of an emergency budget immediately following the general election". 
This is almost word-for-word what all affiliated Labour unions voted against to back Ed Balls' austerity. Should be interesting ...

TTIP


We have posted our concerns about the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) - the trade deal being hammeered out between the US and the EU - and it seems there is considerable concern within the trade union movement too, with four motions submitted on the issue (likely to be composited, see above).

The motions call for "outright opposition to TTIP" (Unite) or for "TTIP negotiations to be halted" (GMB) or "work with like-minded organisations, including the ETUC, in opposing all detrimental aspects of TTIP" (UCU).  It will be interesting to see which demands survive the compositing process.

The motions also highlight the threats to further privatisation of the NHS and other public services, as well as concerns about the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, the creation of a transatlantic regulatory council, and the effects of TTIP on workers' rights, environmental protections, consumer rights, and food safety standards. Concern is also expressed about the attack TTIP represents to democracy and also to the economy.

Whatever the outcome, it seems the TUC will be agreeing to oppose TTIP outright or to oppose so many of its key provisions to render it useless to its advocates. Unions including Unite, Unison, GMB, NUT, PCS and UCU (between them representing over 60% of TUC membership) have all voted to oppose TTIP.

Other interesting issues


It is encouraging that UCATT is raising the issue of low quality apprenticeships (as we've raised) - and will the issue of traineeships be raised? The signing of a joint statement by the TUC with the CBI backing the unpaid scheme has raised ire both inside and outside the trade union movement.

PCS is also raising the issue of the attacks on migrants and claimants, and myth-busting the fatuous claims of benefit tourism that have been transferred from gutter politics to mainstream political discourse with the connivance of the main parties quaking at UKIP.

Is Land Value Tax an idea whose time has come? The RMT thinks it deserves consideration. And will Congress back PCS's call for a moratorium on fracking?

The Labour-loyal union USDAW believes Labour's commitments for workers on zero hours contracts should get rights to guaranteed hours after 12 weeks (rather than 12 months) continuous employment - though this still falls some way short of what John Smith committed Labour to in opposition, ""Our charter of employment rights will give all working people basic rights that will come into force from the first day of their employment. We will give the same legal rights to every worker, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent."
  • LEAPeconomics will also be live tweeting from Congress so you can keep up to date with the debates. The official hashtag is #TUC14

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