Watching the TUC Congress gives the audience a glimpse of machine politics in action. With not unimpressive smoothness, all but one of the motions passed unanimously. This should not come as a surprise: the hard work of negotiating and debating is not done on the congress floor but behind closed doors in the months running up to Congress. 

This might seem confusing to people who don’t follow trade unions closely; the purpose of a motion going to the congress floor is for it to officially enter TUC policy. In this sense, the passing of such motions serves more as a public affirmation of unity from the trade union movement. To some it is not ideal for the movement to have too many public disagreements, particularly with a government passing more hostile trade union laws and an increasing number of industrial disputes. 

The potential danger of public debate was demonstrated by the motions about energy policy and defence spending. Despite the best efforts of the TUC, debate did eventually break out over Composite 02, discussing an expansion in defence spending. Amongst other lobbying efforts, the motion called for affirmation that TUC policy would:

Support affiliates’ campaigns for immediate increases in defence spending in the UK including GMB’s ’Making It’ campaign, for defence contracts to be placed in the UK where possible and shipbuilding orders to be placed with UK yards…  [and] demand a 30-year pipeline of defence work across sectors, including delivery in full of the Astute and Dreadnought programmes that are essential to jobs at BAE Systems in Barrow and Rolls-Royce in Derby. 

This motion was brought by GMB, (and seconded by the Prison Officers Association – well, why not?), partly as a response to the TUC’s 2017 endorsement of supporting moves away from defence spending and onto renewables. The union likely knew it would be controversial. In an effort to keep the peace before the start of the debate, Frances O’Grady set out that the TUC General Council was in favour of the motion; the general council still supported de-escalation of conflict and moving away from defence spending, but this needed to be done in a considered way. The General Council’s position –  ‘Make me pure, but not yet’ – did not totally prevent hostilities. The debate that unfolded highlighted the number of potential divides between unions.

Unite ‘reluctantly’ spoke in favour of the motion. It is likely that Unite felt bounced into supporting the motion by GMB, as failure to speak in favour would have resulted in a loss of manufacturing members to GMB. Indeed, it is understood that GMB and Unite still have substantially different approaches to representing their members in defence, with Unite feeling an expansion is not necessary (instead they think more existing contracts could be given to British firms) while GMB are convinced that it is. 

There were impassioned speeches against the motion. Some unions – who coincidentally did not have members in the industry – expressed strong moral views on creating weapons. One NEU speaker said that these weapons would be “Sold to Saudi Arabia to kill kids in Yemen”. These unions called for diversification instead, and a just transition away from defence spending. 

An interesting philosophical disagreement was evident between the GMB and the CWU. Both unions agreed that the world was increasingly violent and dangerous; the CWU felt that the best response to this was de-escalation, GMB felt that the best response was to sell many cloaks and buy many swords.

UNISON (the largest union in the country) voted against the motion: their argument went along the lines that extra money spent on defence could instead be spent on other public sector workers. With a show of hands not sufficing, congress moved to a card vote, an unusual occurrence. 

In the end, the motion narrowly passed by 2,556 thousand to 2,469 thousand. Fundamentally, a lot of the commotion had to do with the primary functions of a union: representing the interests of their members. As the GMB speaker said, unions must “Recognise that we all bring our mandates to congress” while stating that there had been 2 million job losses in manufacturing in the last thirty years. There will be cause to believe that GMB are happy that a disconnect between their members and TUC no longer exists.

While the motion was much more exciting to watch than the unanimously supported ones, and many of the delegates seemed invigorated by disagreement, the episode also demonstrated why too much public debate specifically at Congress is not necessarily ideal for the movement from the perspective of the TUC. Aside from anything else, it takes time and Congress is finite; because of the time spent debating an expansion of defence spending other important motions had to be pushed back to the next day. The argument being that too much debate over a small number of motions means that other issues do not get the attention they deserve.

The nature and shape of work is that unions will have different interests when representing their members, but the trade union movement is, ultimately, united. The risk of too much public disagreement is that it undermines that and fractures bonds of industrial solidarity. It is for this reason that a controversial climate motion (Motion 19) submitted by the Artists Union of England was, at the request of the TUC’s general council, remitted. The motion called for the TUC to lobby for an end of reliance on gas for electricity generation, rule out further expansion of North Sea drilling, and continue the ban on fracking. Once again, GMB (or any other unions in the energy sector) would not have been appreciative of such a motion; only last year, it threatened to ‘consider’ their future in the TUC if it passed a motion on just transition. In this case, the TUC proved its commitment to de-escalation. The AEU spokesperson, reading a hastily drafted speech from their phone, essentially said that though the motion was important, they had reluctantly agreed to remit; two terse debates in one Congress may have been too testing for even the most steadfast industrial solidarity.