The TUC: Old horse eludes the knacker: Barrie Clement ponders the fate of a declining institution

THERE is more scope than ever this year for predicting that the ageing Trades Union Congress quadruped will be finally led away to the glue factory.

It seems barely credible that in the Sixties and Seventies the TUC had a critical influence on the policies of both Labour and Conservative governments. A speech by a union leader could move the markets. TUC general secretaries had the ear of prime ministers; union leaders regularly trooped into 10 Downing Street.

After Parliament, the tripartite National Economic Development Council was probably the most important political forum, where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer listened with equal attentiveness to both TUC and CBI representatives.

More often than not it was the union leaders who carried the most weight.

A decade of Margaret Thatcher, who was responsible for what one union leader described as 'the drip-feed of hatred from Downing Street', put paid to all that. Membership of unions affiliated to the TUC has slumped from 12 million when Baroness Thatcher took office in 1979 to near 7.5 million now. Despite the removal of Lady Thatcher, the TUC has never faced a bleaker future.

Having emasculated the TUC as a political pressure group, a new round of legislation planned for this autumn will hit at a critical remaining function. A Bill will give workers the right to belong to the union of their choice. However, under the TUC's Bridlington procedures, Congress House officials can force unions to hand over members it has poached from another TUC affiliate.

At the very least, the law will severely undermine that function, which some regard as the TUC's raison d'etre.

Attacks on the TUC have also come from within. The Transport & General on the left, and the engineers and electricians on the right, will demand at the Blackpool conference this week that Congress House refocuses its energies.

The proposition recognises the 'lack of discrimination in the ever-growing list of campaigns with which the TUC is burdened'. It calls for a concentration on promoting the unions in general and providing services for affiliates in areas such as health and safety, education, the environment and international union relationships.

The sub-text is that the TUC should cease forthwith the ecologically unsound production of screeds of paper on issues such as the economy, where Congress House has no influence - even with the Labour Party.

There are other reasons for supposing the TUC has had its day. The era of the 'mega-union' has arrived. Such organisations will have their own agendas and the resources to further them. What need, then, for a central body such as the TUC, which in many cases might simply be duplicating their efforts? Some on the radical right of the movement remain unconvinced about the need for TUC affiliation.

The case for the prosecution then is formidable. However, the hapless Mr Willis and his lieutenants can marshal at least one point for the defence - if the TUC did not exist, it would have to be invented. Experience on the Continent shows the dangers of a divided union movement with more than one centre.

Even the leaders of the super-unions realise that a labour movement in which three or four large organisations compete with each other for the public ear is a recipe for chaos. So the answer is that the old TUC carthorse is not going to the knacker's yard just yet. It is, however, re-emerging as something of a Shetland pony.

(Photograph omitted)

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