Ed Miliband’s first set-piece speech since the worsening disagreement over trade union financing of the Labour Party – and then the House of Commons’ “no” vote to military action against Syria – is likely to dominate news coverage of the annual TUC conference in Bournemouth.
But while the prospect of Miliband having to fraternise with union leaders like Len McCluskey (Unite) and Paul Kenny (GMB) will command the attention of reporters, photographers and television crews, those journalists with an interest in business and union affairs should not lose sight of looming industrial confrontation in two key public services.
News media coverage will portray the trade unionists’ annual get together (September 8-11), and Miliband’s speech (at 11.30am on September 10), as a dress rehearsal for what some commentators are predicting will be an even sterner test of his leadership later in the month at the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton.
A focus on party politics rather than employment issues will disappoint officials at Congress House. Nonetheless the TUC conference will be an important rallying point for both the Fire Brigades Union and the Communication Workers Union which are both gearing up for industrial disputes which will be fought out via a propaganda blitz in the news media and not just on the industrial front line.
Possible strike action by the FBU is always headlines news and the looming confrontation over the proposal to increase the retirement age of fire fighters to 60 has already been backed by a four-to-one majority.
A ballot of 125,000 Royal Mail workers is to be held later in September and if industrial action is approved strikes could disrupt postal services in the run-up to Christmas. Stoppages are being considered by the CWU over pay and changes to the postal workers’ pension scheme but the underlying target is the union’s opposition to government plans to privatise the Royal Mail.
Both the FBU and the CWU have demonstrated considerable expertise in the past in rallying public opinion through astute use of the news media. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher pulled back from privatising the Post Office after a slick campaign which warned that the Queen’s head might longer appear on UK postage stamps.
If a strike by the FBU went ahead it would be the first nationwide walkout by fire fighters in a decade. The prospect of industrial action has already prompted considerable contingency planning by fire authorities across the country.
In some areas volunteers have been undergoing training in limited fire fighting duties; 27 fire engines have been assembled at a Territorial Army headquarters for possible deployment across London, in place of the so-called Army Green Goddesses which were sold off some years ago.
The FBU believes it will win popular support for its argument that the public could be at risk if the retirement age for fire fighters was increased to 60. Expecting men in their late 50s to be fighting fires and rescuing families from dangerous buildings was an unnecessary risk. Older workers might also lose their jobs if they failed fitness tests.
Contingency planning by fire authorities includes not only the use of the Army to drive surplus fire engines but also the use of volunteers who could help at the scene of outbreaks but who would not be asked to enter blazing buildings.
The FBU is seeking further talks with fire service employers and government ministers but if there is no agreement walkouts could start before the end of September. In previous disputes, the union has always done all it can to co-operate with the news media.
Burning braziers outside fire stations, around which striking fire fighters stand holding placards, make compelling images in television and the press and also provide the ideal background for a piece to camera. The FBU has learned from experience that a picture can reinforce the message and often achieve far more than a picket line in winning over public opinion.
Similarly with the Communication Workers Union and its opposition to the privatisation of the Royal Mail, postal workers will be deployed to warn of the danger a sell off might pose to universal next day delivery.
Union activists will identify remote rural areas which depend heavily on postal deliveries that are sometimes made by post buses which can also take local parcels and passengers. We can expect to hear more of threats like this to vital lifelines and the need to find way to subsidise loss-making services.
So far the government has not gone on the offensive, either on its insistence that despite proposed changes the fire fighters’ pension scheme remains one of the most generous in the public sector or over its case that privatising the Royal Mail and attracting commercial investment is the only long-term route to preserving postal services.
If privatisation of the Royal Mail goes ahead – and the government could dispose of a majority of its shares through a flotation on the London Stock Exchange – there might be free shares for postmen and women; the Royal Mail has suggested up to ten per cent of the shares might be given to eligible employees, the largest free share distribution in any major UK privatisation.
The importance of this year’s TUC conference – both for union delegates and for journalists – is that it is a sounding board and an opportunity to assess potential support from within the union movement for these two imminent public sector disputes.
Other critical debates for the TUC will focus on the mounting protests against zero-hours contracts and the widening campaign for a living wage, or at least a significant increase in the national minimum wage.
The TUC estimates that 250,000 workers are not being paid the minimum wage and it hopes new rules which taken effect in October will result in the naming and shaming of employers who break the laws.
One possible pledge in a future Conservative Party manifesto is that the government might give a tax break to companies which pay more than the minimum rate, currently £6.19 an hour.
A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimated that 1 million people were employed on contracts which guarantee no set hours.
As in previous years the great problem for the TUC is the difficulty in recruiting casual workers who without full-time employment cannot afford union subscriptions and who perhaps see little value in union representation.
It is a failing which the Unite general secretary Len McCluskey hopes his union can address. If the UK’s largest union could present itself to the public in similar way to super-brands such as Tesco or Asda, he thinks young people might be attracted to sign up.
“I want to say, ‘Do you know what Unite is?’ ‘They’re a trade union. They fight for working people’.”
McCluskey’s message is one the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady must be hoping will attract the news media’s attention but the likelihood is that Ed Miliband’s body language with union “barons” will present a far more appealing story line.
Illustrations: Sun on Sunday, 14.7.2013; Sun, 16.8.2013; Daily Express, 11.7.2013.