As trade unionists gather in Manchester for the (still as yet) Annual Congress, there’s a keen sense of anticipation in the air writes Carolyn Jones.

The TUC is the ruling body of the labour movement. That ruling body is made up of unions representing over 6.5 million workers. Every sector of the economy is represented in the TUC and resolutions discussed at Congress reflect both the concerns and the demands of working families. That’s a very powerful force.

So, why the anticipation? Because the economic and political backdrop to this year’s Congress offer a unique opportunity for challenge and change. People want an alternative. They want a voice. And the TUC –  the largest, most democratic, voluntary organisation in the country – can offer both. The question is – will it?

Unity is strength

The motions to Congress offer hope. The analysis of the problems – social, economic, and industrial – reflect the harsh realities of working life and place unions at the forefront of struggle. Whether it's GMB and UNISON on pensions, PCS and FBU on public services or UNITE and RMT on employment rights and trade union freedoms – the words are in the right order and there is an unprecedented consensus on the need to resist.   

Calls for “coordinated campaigns” and  “support and solidarity to all workers in struggle” ; for “mobilising ongoing broad based campaigns” or “coordinating the closest possible collaboration between affiliates” feature large in every section of the agenda. Plus there is a widespread recognition that the campaigns must reach out beyond the TUC and individual unions to wider community groups – creating a space for the People’s Charter and the Coalition of Resistance to add their campaigning vigour to the class struggle.

But the consensus on the page must be met with unity and conviction in action. The movement is strongest when it’s united. So unions big or small, affiliated or non-affiliated, public sector or private sector need to focus on the task in hand - offering the working class an alternative vision of a successful economy through collective agitation and education.

There is an alternative

And there’s much to agitate about. Economically, the capitalists have dumped us in a big financial hole….. and they’re still digging! Austerity is their answer. It’s not ours. History shows us cuts, job losses and high unemployment don’t work. Fair taxes (including on financial transactions of banks), job creation through public works (schools, hospitals, transport and homes) and an end to expenditure on wars and weapons of mass destruction offer our best hope.

Politically, the Tories are commonly seen as the nasty party and the Liberals are looked on as traitors – an attitude that will harden the longer they remain in coalition. Labour remains tainted by its recent history and remains reluctant to shake off its heaviest burden - its new labour stigma.

Unions can help by forging political campaigns that demand a more combative approach from MPs. That can start at TUC when all 5 leadership contestors attend a public hustings. Each and every candidiate should be asked where they stand on leading issues starting with whether they support John McDonnell’s Bill aimed at reforming the anti union laws to ensure that democratic decisions of workers can’t be over ruled by forensic examination by judges of ballot and notices procedures. 

But the TUC and unions must go beyond polite public questioning of would-be labour leaders. This first, post general-election Trade Union Congress has to show that it knows what it wants and that it is determined to fight for it.