After delegates carried a motion from the Prison Officers’ Association urging trade unions to mount campaigns and consider the “practicalities of a general strike”, general secretary Paul Noon said:
“This was congress rhetoric, not the reality of defending members against government policy.
“The way to change policies and governments is at the ballot box and not by industrial action. Our members would not support a general strike and I do not believe the majority of trade unionists would do so either.”
In the debate, the POA’s Stephen Gillan urged a robust response to government attacks on working people and the most vulnerable in society. He cited job losses, child poverty, food banks, the Beecroft report, pay freezes, dismantling public services, youth unemployment and the higher state pension age.
Gillan said the motion did not commit unions to a general strike, but to considering its practicalities. He called on unions to “take the fight to the coalition government.”
But Noon said the motion was “a distraction” from the great work the TUC had done and was doing in the Future That Works campaign. This had already won support from delegates in an earlier motion that committed unions to co-ordinate strike action against austerity policies.
“A general strike does not reflect the reality of where we are, either as a union or a movement. That’s not to say we won’t support industrial action where appropriate and where we have a legitimate trade dispute.
“We are not going to pretend that we are anywhere near a generalised public sector and private sector strike call. And there are profound doubts about whether a legitimate trade dispute even exists.
“Far from making our enemies and opponents tremble in their shoes, a call like this will be seen as a welcome stick to beat us with – a diversion from their failings.”
Unions representing teachers (NASUWT), airline pilots (BALPA), university lecturers (ATL) and shop workers (USDAW) backed Prospect in the debate.
They warned that a general strike would not be supported by the great majority of private sector workers, who are not in a union; would provoke government to pass new anti-trade union laws; and would present huge practical difficulties to organise.
Mary Bousted (ATL) argued that George Osborne had been booed at the Paralympics. Just as unions were gaining the ear of the public “we go and change the message.”
John Hannett (USDAW) said a general strike call would fall flat when the real challenge was to educate members about the failings of government policy. “A general strike does not reflect the mood of the country or of working people.”
But the combined vote of the biggest TUC unions, including Unite, PCS, UCATT, CWU and RMT, ensured the motion was carried.