This year's TUC Congress was a serious affair. “We were discussing in depth the great difficulties and the anger and the concerns that were out there,” Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, told Central Lobby.
“There is a lot of anger from reps - we are representing a lot of people who are fearful and deeply worried.”
While the headlines from the TUC gathering in Brighton concentrated on a motion calling for preparations to begin for a general strike, Ms Holland said there was more emphasis on finding solutions to the problems faced by those in work, and those who cannot find employment.
“As well as outlining all of the problems we did have a big discussion – we need an alternative, austerity is not working and we have got to find some solutions,” she explained.
“We started to put some flesh on the bones of what an alternative looks like. Practical things like increasing the minimum wage, putting a cap on energy prices, investment in housing and transport, a proper strategy for manufacturing armed with procurement measures, all of that was really positive.
“We were not saying we have everything worked out but we were saying we have a direction to go in and a number of practical things we can put into that debate in terms of moving things forward.”
Congress is the policy making body of the TUC, and meets each year during September. Each affiliated union can send delegates to Congress. Unite is Britain's biggest union with 1.5 million members in every type of workplace.
The TUC gathered in Brighton this week just as the Paralympics brought to a close a summer of sport in the UK.
Ms Holland said that delegates highlighted the contrast between “the very positive celebration of achievement and people coming together and how people are being treated at work”.
“We want to be part of that spirit of rebuilding, but there is such a contrast between celebrating the Paralympics at the very same time as Remploy is being closed and disabled people are having their benefits cuts and taken away from them and are being incorrectly assessed.”
The TUC discussed disability hate crimes and the hardening of attitudes towards people with disabilities highlighted by organisations such as Scope.
“Financial programmes and support that helps disabled people be in work is being undermined and suggesting they are taking money they are not entitled to. People were really horrified by that and it was a theme throughout the week as well.”
The Prison Officers’ Association, one of the 53 unions that are members of the TUC, proposed a motion at Congress calling on it to “consider the practicalities of a general strike and coordinate industrial action”.
Ms Holland said Unite supported the motion because “it reflects the very serious situation we are in”.
“I am sure everybody wishes we were not in the situation we are, and therefore wouldn’t be having to talk in such serious terms, but we are,” she added.
“There would have been a feeling that if it had been ruled out it that might have suggested things aren’t as serious as they are, but on the other hand because it is very clearly worded, nothing can take place unless members support it.
“The discussion was a very serious one and those will continue.”
Ms Holland said that while most of the press coverage concentrated on the strike motion, others deserve equal attention.
“The first was about austerity and the things that are happening to the members of trade unions but also broader than that, to communities as well. In our campaigns we are not just standing up for those currently in work; we also want to tackle the fact of youth unemployment; that we have got over a million women unemployed. There are really serious divides opening up.
“The trade union movement is not just closing ranks it is looking to support everyone in the community who is under attack at the moment.”
The first course of action is a march in London on October 20 called ‘A Future That Works’.
“We have agreed on a major event to say there is an alternative and we are standing up for the future. It is a broad alliance of everybody who is affected.”
Long gone are the ‘beer and sandwiches’ days of the TUC Congress, broadcast live on TV as invariably male firebrand speakers urged on the workers.
Ms Holland said “the moment” for her this week that showed how far it had changed was the election of the first woman as TUC General Secretary.
“In a way it should not be surprising because there are slightly more women in trade unions, but it is still a huge and really important change,” she said.
“There has been a gradual change with more women BME, younger, disabled, LGBT - that has grown over the years.
“But it has not just happened - there has been positive action to make it happen.
“We represent all working people but we are coming up against a government that is attacking and cutting back on all the important equality measures that have been put in place. The role of unions is needed even more.”