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TUC: building for a winter of mild petulance

Much in the way that the Community Shield heralds the return of footie after ever-briefer summer lulls, the Trades Union Congress conference traditionally acts as curtain-raiser for the political year ahead.

Truth be told, it has long been a rather dismal dull affair. But this year it has generated some excitement on tabloid right and Trot left alike, with much wide-of-the-mark reporting that the brothers and sisters are gagging at the bit for a general strike.

Things aren’t quite like that, of course. What motion five from the Prison Officers’ Association actually called for was ‘consideration of the practicalities’ of such a stoppage.

This is somewhat akin to the TUC passing a motion in favour of considering the practicalities of armed syndicalist insurrection to smash the bourgeois state.

In neither case would anybody expect the general council to mull the matter over for the morning and then decide: ‘You know what, comrades? We reckon we might just go for it.’

Apart from anything else, a general strike would be illegal. Yes, I know that such considerations did not trouble the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But those Dorset agricultural labourers of yesteryear were made of sterner stuff than Frances O’Grady.

Even so, I’m glad the resolution carried. After decades of quiescence, talking the talk is a prerequisite to the labour movement regaining the confidence to use the weapon of industrial action again. It is high time union leaders started saying boo to gooses again.

The trouble, of course, is that the ruling class knows that our side remains too weak to pull off a meaningful general strike.

Trade union membership in Britain is now at its lowest level since the 1940s. Just 5.8m people now hold a union card, less than half the number that did so in 1982. The forward march of labour seems not just definitively halted, but has been in reverse for a long, long time.

That alone should offer pause for thought to the more excitable comrades, some of whom are predicting a sudden upsurge in working class radicalisation that will sweep away the decades of timidity that have dominated the movement since the defeat of the miners’ strike.

Nor are there many signs that the ordinary membership is straining at the leash to topple capitalism, held back only by the shackles of the bureaucracy. Many branches struggle to attain quorate, and are kept going thanks to the best endeavours of middle aged men who know their union’s rule book off by heart.

Unions have reacted to this situation defensively, with a series of mergers that flow not so much from syndicalist principle as the need to keep the machinery ticking over.

Latest to go down this route are Unison and the GMB, which have confirmed that they are ready to discuss a get together.

The obvious question is what can be done to get things moving again. The unions that do display the most signs of life are those that are the most left wing, notably PCS and RMT, and yes, the POA.

These are the unions that realise that industrial action can actually be a means of rebuilding strength, rather than something to be avoided at all costs.

By all means agitate for a 24 general strike if that floats your boat, but the immediate priority has to the other TUC headline pledge of co-ordinated industrial action against the public sector pay freeze.

I am old enough to remember the Winter of Discontent last time round, and I am not expecting a re-run in the months ahead.

However, I am keeping my fingers crossed for a Winter of Mild Petulance, which would at least be a step forward.

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