Tuesday 11 September 2007

Brown Avoids at the TUC the Central Question of Trade Union Freedom BIll

I didn't witness Gordon Brown's speech to the TUC but heard it on the radio on my way down to the Congress in Brighton. I read it in detail afterwards because I thought I must have missed bits of the speech as a result of radio editting. But no, I hadn't missed anything. By all accounts, to quote Tony Woodley, it was "the most uninspiring speech in years." Others went further in expressing their disappointment in the speech.

People weren't bothered about Brown's rhetorical style. Blair became a superb orator but it was the content of his speeches that was the problem. With Brown there was neither style nor content to inspire TUC delegates. Worse, what was increasingly obvious to even those trade union general secretaries who had manoeuvred their unions into backing Brown for the Labour leadership, was that Brown's speech was vacuous when it came to addressing the real world issues facing the 6 million members they are supposed to represent.

There was no mention of the Trade Union Freedom Bill supported unanimously by the TUC and which is coming before Parliament on 19 October. Tuc delegates know that on the changes in legislation thrown as sops to the TUC on agency workers Brown had been working behind the scenes to render unworkable and that his proposed reforms on anti discrimination were actually taking us backwards.

There was understandable anger and dismay not only at his refusal to offer any way out on public sector pay but also that whilst he was demanding pay discipline for public sector workers he failed to utter a word of condemnation of the obscene bonuses in the city and the grotesque inequality in pay between many private sector chief executives and the average pay of their workers.

Instead delegates received the same lecture from Gordon Brown on globalisation that we have heard in virtually every speech from him for the last five years at least. The speech left the impression of a Prime Minister certainly adrift from the trade union movement but also distant from the day to day experience of life in the real world by most ordinary people.

Some media commentators have referred to the prospect of another "winter of discontent" this year as occurred in 1978 with widespread public sector strikes and disputes. Whatever the outcome of the various public sector union pay campaigns Gordon Brown needs to be concerned about another type of winter of discontent. It is the type of ongoing underlying discontent amongst public and private sector workers who feel that they are working long hours under stressful conditions just financially to keep their head above the water. It is a low morale economy with people feeling totally disempowered, undervalued and at times downright exploited at work, witnessing their companies making on average 16% profit gains over the last year whilst average pay has increased only 3.5%, some are having pay cuts forced upon them and chief executive pay under New Labour has rocketted nearly 300%.

This climate of discontent relates directly to the feeling of powerlessness by employees at work because of the one issue Gordon Brown deliberately avoided in his speech, i.e. the lack of a basic code of trade union rights and rights at work in this country ten years after the election of a Labour government. Making sure Labour MPs turn up to Parliament on 19th October and vote for the Trade Union Freedom Bill is one way of forcing the Government to address the key question avoided by the Prime Minister yesterday.