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New powers for Wales TUC are a welcome development

WALES TUC has finally acquired newly devolved powers which, together with its revamped constitution, will enable trade unions in Wales to effectively respond to the challenges we face in our devolved nation.

Congress this year will be a proud one for Unite Wales as our own Mike Jenkins will chair conference as the culmination of his year as Wales TUC president. 

Mike, who is our regional chair, is a credit to our union and has done a fantastic job in his Wales TUC duties over the past 12 months. 

Like the Welsh devolution settlement, the new Wales TUC constitution should not be viewed as the end of the road. As devolution evolves and the Welsh Assembly becomes the Welsh Parliament, it is important that the Wales TUC continues to acquire new responsibilities as the devolution settlement evolves.

One area in which Unite Wales feels that further devolution of power from the TUC is required is in relation to inter-union disputes. 

At present all disputes are dealt with at a UK level regardless of where the dispute originates. We believe there is a strong argument that there should be a stronger role for the Wales TUC in resolving disputes at a Welsh level. 

A disputes process devolved to Wales would be quicker and could potentially resolve disputes at an early stage, before unions assume the entrenched positions that inevitably develop as time passes.

Wales Trade Union Congress 2018 is set against the backdrop of the UK leaving the EU. Unsurprisingly, Brexit will have plenty of airtime in many of the debates at Congress this week.

One of Unite’s key motions to conference concerns the Brexit process and its impact on Wales. Unite, like virtually the whole of the trade union and labour movement, recommended people vote remain in the referendum. We predicted the dangers that a Leave vote would present and these dangers are now staring Welsh workers directly in the face.

Unite and the Labour Party have been arguing for some time now that the UK must be part of a customs union with the EU after Brexit. 

Without this we run a huge risk of seeing huge economic damage. We know that, with no customs arrangements in place, the future of major employers in Wales and the UK is in serious doubt.

Airbus, a key employer in Wales, has consistently warned of the dangers. Tata steel, which may well soon be facing a tougher economic environment as a result of the Trump tariffs, will also be craving some certainty as to its ability to trade across the EU. The challenges facing the Ford Bridgend plant are well known and are not helped by the uncertainty.
Workers must not pay the price for Brexit and it is clear that employment rights in Wales and the UK face an uncertain future. 

The Westminster government, beholden to the hard right, is making a grab for some of our most fundamental employment rights.  

Despite the obvious weakness of UK employment rights, particularly in comparison to other EU countries, the Tory right sees all employment rights legislation as red tape that has no place in the isolated offshore tax haven they are attempting to turn the UK into.

Never mind their lofty promises that all EU legislation will be transferred over and enshrined into UK law, they are currently constructing the framework that will ensure they are able to do this. 

The Henry VIII clause contained in the Brexit legislation will give ministers the right to strike out any legislation they deem unnecessary without recourse to a vote in the House of Commons. So much for taking back control for “our” Parliament.

It is in these most worrying of times that we need the help of our friends. The best ally the Welsh trade union movement has is our own Labour government in Cardiff Bay. 

The Welsh government supported us in our fight with the Westminster government over the Trade Union Act. Welsh Labour, led by Carwyn Jones, opposed the UK legislation tooth and nail. 

In particular, Mark Drakeford should be praised for the key role he played in supporting the trade union movement as the Trade Union Act (Wales) passed through the Assembly.

Mark has more recently been instrumental in resisting the UK government’s attempt to seize powers away from Wales through the EU Withdrawal Bill. 

Despite predictable criticism from the Welsh nationalists, the settlement that Mark has negotiated with the UK government protects Welsh devolution. 

It ensures that laws and policy in areas which are currently devolved remain devolved. This is fantastic news and a real result against a Tory government that seemed hell-bent on using Brexit to undermine the devolution settlement.

Another key theme that Unite will put to Congress this year relates to automation and the threat it poses to our members’ jobs. 

The question of whether automation can replace workers is of course not a new one, but what is new is the speed at which this new wave of automation is taking place.  

Advances in technology are driving a new wave of automation that could affect up to 15 million jobs in the UK over the next two decades.

As a movement we can’t accept that the inevitable result of automation is mass unemployment. 

The question should not be whether automation can replace workers but rather how future technological developments can complement workers rather than replace them. 

When new technologies are introduced into workplaces, workers’ voices must be heard.  

Trade union members at board level should be involved in all decisions relating to automation and organisations must be obliged to consider the impact it will have on their workforce.

Unite is currently negotiating new technology agreements with employers such as Rolls-Royce and the BMW Group.
Unite will also use Congress to bring the spotlight back onto the Welsh steel industry. 

The future of the Welsh steelmaking industry is still far from secure. There are massive challenges facing the industry and Unite has identified several key areas that demand urgent action, such as action on energy costs, a UK sector deal for steel and action to protect the UK steel industry from the Trump steel tariffs.

Unite Wales has some big issues that it will be bringing to the Congress floor and fringe this year. It’s going to be a busy conference which will set the Wales TUC work programme for the next two years. 

I hope delegates enjoy themselves and that as a trade union movement we use the next couple of days to re-focus and re-energise ourselves to confront the huge challenges that face our movement.

Andy Richards is Unite Wales regional secretary.

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