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Britain: Brown gets Frosty Reception at TUC Congress


Alex Miller

Delegates at Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Brighton gave Prime Minister Gordon Brown a frosty reception during his first speech to the TUC as Prime Minister on September 10. The September 11 Morning Star reported that Brown used the speech to underline his demand that pay rises in the public sector be limited to at most 2%, below the rate of inflation.

Brown’s speech differed little from those of his predecessor Tony Blair, and continued Blair’s themes of “embracing change rather than resisting it” and the need to “meet and master the realities of globalisation”. In addition to stating his determination to impose a de facto pay cut on public sector workers, Brown also pledged to continue Britain’s role as junior partner to the US in the so-called “war on terror”, and insisted that his government would introduce mandatory English tests for all skilled workers entering the UK from outside the European Union (EU).

The Star reported that during the speech members of the public service workers union PCS, and rail and maritime workers union RMT held up placards demanding fair treatment on pay. Brown’s speech received a muted reception from delegates, with no standing ovation and tepid applause lasting just 30 seconds.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the general union GMB said that GMB members could “walk away” from Labour if there was no improvement: “Members are wondering why we sign a cheque every year for £2 million when we cannot get basic rights for agency workers”.

On the same day as Brown made his speech, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, announced that Brown’s government faces a ballot for national industrial action unless it begins meaningful negotiations on pay. PCS members in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) overwhelmingly rejected a below inflation offer: “In a ballot, 76% of DWP members threw out the three-year deal which offered longer-serving staff a two per cent increase this year, nothing next year and just one per cent in 2009”.

According to the September 15 Socialist Worker, Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of Britain’s largest union, Unite, described Brown’s speech as “the worst and most uninspiring speech by a Labour leader for years”. Colin Moses of the Prison Officers Association POA, which recently took strike action as part of a bitter pay dispute with the government stated, “I wish the prime minister would listen rather than lecture. I never thought I would hear such a speech from a Labour prime minister.” Socialist Worker quoted Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, as saying “Brown’s messages on pay restraint for public sector workers effectively means pay cuts for millions of people. I believe there will be political as well as industrial and economic consequences of imposing staged below-inflation pay settlements.”

The TUC Congress also voted to oppose Brown’s plan to impose the EU constitution on Britain without a referendum. The September 13 Morning Star reported that “delegates, led by general union GMB, overwhelmingly backed calls for the government to give the people a say on the treaty, which is widely regarded as virtually identical to the rejected EU constitution”. Leading trade unionists believe that the EU “reform treaty” that Brown is planning to sign is little different from the EU constitution that French and Dutch voters rejected in 2005, and which Labour’s 2005 general election manifesto pledged not to sign without a referendum.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow told the Congress that it should actively campaign for a “No” vote in any referendum. According to the Star, Crow stated “We’re delusional if we think this treaty will defend workers. “The agreement on free trade in services is a race to the bottom for jobs and workers’ rights.”

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