HR Hartley

New look trade unionism lacks fire in the

Personnel Today bundled me
off last week to "get in touch with the real people" at the TUC
conference in Brighton. "Just pick up the
flavour," my editor ordered.

Flavour? I began by gossiping with some seasoned hacks.
"You don’t," reported one in the coffee queue, "come to the TUC
conference any more for inspiration or hot spice."

day three, I had to agree. Of course, there was the odd frisson of excitement –
MP Alan Johnson’s first speech as secretary of state for work and pensions, for
example. But the real sparks mainly came from the overseas speakers.

Hernandez, president of the Colombian oil workers’ union took to the stage,
newly released after 14 months under house arrest, to deliver the shocking
claim that 4,000 unionists have been killed in his country – among them 137
union leaders – by a government apparently totally dismissive of opposition to
privatisation. Hernandez won a standing ovation.

the other extreme, Tony Blair’s speech was functional but lacked showmanship,
and Gordon Brown couldn’t take to the stage as he had to rush to his sick
mother’s bedside. So the congress sported speaker after speaker, supporting
motion, after motion, after motion…

seemed to protest about anything much at all. Even the first total smoking ban
failed to produce the usual clutch of committed addicts putting the world to
rights outside the venue. A handful of radicals were as clean and shiny as the
leaflets they handed to passers by, while smooth-talking press officers were
always close at hand. It was all, well, a tad flat.

could argue that was because attendance was dominated by the over-40s. But I
suspect this is the face of trade unionism today – mature, business-like, keen to deliver a message of willingness to work in
partnership with employers. It’s positive stuff. It just lacks passion and that
old ‘fire in the belly’.

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