Challenges facing our trade union leaders
by Blake Baker
WHEN Mr. Wilson received the Trades Union Congress' economic committee on Tuesday, business had been resumed as usual for Mr. George Woodc o c k , the T.U.C.'s Catholic general secretary.
True, the meeting, first of the T.U.C.'s centenary year, resembled the first encounter of a married couple after a really serious row. However affable the exchanges, both sides know that differences have occurred, and things been said, which will long not be forgotten.
But disillusioned as much of the trade union movement is with the Labour Government, Mr. Woodcock remains one of the country's realists. Governments come, and Governments go, but the T.U.C. remains, with its duty of protecting the interests of its nearly 9 million affiliated members, and their families, by patient compromise and negotiation.
As Mr. Woodcock made only too plain at the Brighton conference last week, he sees the real role of the T.U.C. as lying in constant consultation, exchange and co-operation with the Government. Not the annual conference, with its debates and decisions, but the weighty annual report of a year's detailed work on many issues is important, he believes.
Committee work, not composite motions, achieves results, he feels. Mr. Woodcock is undoubtedly right.
Delegates have now dispersed, having vented their anger and frustration over the creation by a Labour Government of hundreds of thousands of workless, its failure to relieve poverty and check rising prices, particularly its own fuel prices.
Government economic policy has been "deplored," despite strenuous efforts by loyalists to avert the condemnation, and "restrictive and negative incomes policies" criticised. A final verdict on Common Market entry was postponed, and
George Woodcock on Vietnam, Congress opposed Government support for American policy.
Yet, as Mr. Woodcock brutally reminded delegates, none of these decisions will really make any difference to the T.U.C., although Mr. Wilson might well trim his sails in face of such squally gusts of indignation from traditional supporters.
Essentially, last week's debates were a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the Government, particularly over unemployment and prices, rather than changes of policy
on important issues.
But voluntary wage restraint, for which the T.U.C. has largely assumed the onus from the Government. will continue to be operated. Basic support for British entry into Europe remains. Above all, the T.U.C. apparatus has resumed its business, and while the General Council will note Congress decisions, it will regard them as guidelines not binding briefs.
Some highlights linger. Mr. Woodcock, as ever, dominated, not by ebullience of personality, but by his long, sober exposition of a grey reality on economic difficulties. Almost wearily academic and objective, more a don than an advocate, he destroyed most of the passion before it ignited.
It is difficult to think of anyone in modern Britain who has done more to change the thinking of so large a section of the population, to accept a more responsible role in society instead of anarchic self-interest. Mr. Woodcock has done so by vision, realism and persistent pushing, with none of the dishonest gimmickry of politicians.
After Mr. Woodcock, the most prominent, and certainly the most controversial figure at this year's Congress was another Catholic, Lord Carron, retiring president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Indeed, a new phrase has entered the language, "Carron's law," as a result of his dogged insistence on casting the union's 1,055,000 votes for the Government.
Lord Carron's interpretation of previous A.E.U. policy decisions was legitimate and defensible, But it showed again the steely purpose which has made him a great trade union leader and archenemy of the Communists. Particularly galling for them was his twinkling enjoyment of protests and abuse.
Memorable also was the passionate protest against the Government's abandonment of its union supporters by another Catholic, Mr. Danny McGarvey, president of the Boilermakers' Society.
Almost inarticulate with indignation at Mr. Wilson, Mr. McGarvey hit the headlines in another industrial issue last week. He was a member of the Cameron Court of Inquiry which so trenchantly condemned Communist subversion on London building sites and the cynical engineering of a strike for its own purposes by big business.
So much for Congress. What, it might be asked, is the
Danny McGarvey T.U.C.'s and its component unions' future role?
Apart from incomes policy, I believe the great challenge increasingly facing the unions is education and adaptation of Britain's workers to meet growing technological changes. Already, container transport services, natural gas and, soon, computers are causing sweeping changes in the employment of hundreds of thousands of workers.
On one hand, they threaten unemployment; on the other, offer new skills and higher earnings. If Britain enters the Common Market, the tempo of change will be even more dynamic. Only enlightened union leadership can avoid disruption of industry. The alternative is illustrated by the recurring trouble among railwaymen.
These developments have, of course, not escaped Mr. Woodcock. An immediate task is streamlining of the T.U.C.'s own structure to make the General Council more representative of modern industry.
A looming problem is future leadership. If the new course of responsible cooperation in the formation and execution of incomes and other policies set by Mr. Woodcock is to continue, thought will have to be overt to T.U.C. leadership over the next two decades.
The burden is already far too much for Mr. Woodcock and his small hand of lieutenants. Here, in the leadership of Britain's 23 million workers into a second industrial revolution, there is opportunity and responsibility enough for Catholic trade unionists.
Blake Baker is Industrial Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.