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LOCAL trades union councils – or “trades councils” for short – have been, for over 150 years, the active rank and file of our trade union movement.
In 1867 and 1868, trades councils in London, Manchester and Salford convened the national gatherings of trades unionists which became the TUC Congress.
Trades councils have been at the heart of all the major confrontations between labour and capital for the last 100 years: the autumn 1920 Councils of Action that prevented Winston Churchill waging war on the fledgling Soviet Union through Poland; the 1926 General Strike, where trades councils in many towns and cities assumed working-class power; the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, where in many, if not most, cases trades councils set up the NUM Support Groups.
In between these rare times of crisis, trades councils are the arms and legs of the TUC: their solidarity work is actually what makes us a working-class movement rather than a standing convention.
Whether it is a May Day or a Workers’ Memorial Day celebration, TUC national demonstrations, Heart Unions Week stalls, or local and national strike support, it is the 150 trades councils in England and Wales, which, together with the councils in Scotland and Ireland, carry out the policies and campaigns of the TUC Congress.
My own trades council, Bridgwater, is the acknowledged leader of our local working-class community: with a local population of less than 60,000, we have 32 union branch affiliations, a total affiliated membership of 17,000 and an average monthly attendance of 26. Yet trades councils remain seriously under-resourced and under-represented by Congress. Many trades councils survive only on the extraordinary contributions of half a dozen activists. If trades unions themselves do not begin to address this crisis, many of our trades councils will disappear over the next 10 years.
At the 2019 National Trades Councils Conference, held in Bournemouth on June 8-9, a Bridgwater TUC motion submitted by the Somerset County Association of Trades Councils, calling for increased participation by trades councils in the TUC, was overwhelmingly passed. The resolution was then voted to be the singleton trades councils conference motion for this year’s TUC Congress in September.
The Congress motion reads: “Congress accepts that trades councils are the voice of the TUC at local level and have a combined affiliated membership of hundreds of thousands. Yet trades councils are seriously under-represented within Congress.
“Currently, they are entitled to a single delegate to Congress and can submit only one motion. Trades councils’ total affiliated membership, if in a single trade union, would mean a far larger delegation. Congress therefore agrees a rule change, so that, at Congress 2020, trades councils shall be entitled to: 1) a Congress delegation of nine; 2) a single seat on the TUC general council, and that the trades councils’ Congress delegation shall be entitled to speak and vote on any motion, amendment or other Congress business, in addition to its own single motion.”
If this motion is passed, it will mean that trades councils in England and Wales will enjoy greatly increased recognition and respect, similar and comparable, if not the same as, that already granted to us in regional TUCs, the Wales TUC and the Scottish TUC.
If passed, trades councils will have achieved the biggest breakthrough, in respect of TUC participation, since that infamous TUC Congress way back in 1895 when trades councils were excluded for the first time. It took 121 years for us to be able to move even a single motion! The trades councils’ delegate – or “representative” – still cannot speak or vote on any other motion or business for the whole Congress!
Of course, increased participation and rights for trades councils at TUC Congress will not sort out overnight the crisis that many councils face, with reduced union branch affiliations and delegates. This will only happen when all TUC unions encourage their activists to take part in the trades council movement as well as their own union.
In particular, when trades unions start to include trades councils’ purpose, history, and solidarity work, uniting different unions and the wider working-class community, in every one of their reps’ training courses, then we can really celebrate!
Our impending crisis is one we share, surely, with the whole trade-union movement. This is why we should be proud that our Congress motion, win or lose, will at least entail a real debate on our future, during a Congress week full of motions likely to be passed unanimously – a crucial debate long overdue.
I was elected the 2019 Trades Councils Conference representative to TUC Congress, and will be the mover of our motion. Trade Union delegations: please support us!
Dave Chapple is available to speak to any trade union bodies to put the case for the trades councils motion: he can be contacted on 07707 869 144 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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