9 Sep 2012

TUC Conference 2012: a mix of new and old

As the Trades Union Congress meets for its annual conference, Channel 4 News looks at the issues it faces and profiles the woman who will lead it as the impact of austerity measures take effect.

TUC branded pebbles at the organisation's 2011 conference (Getty)

As the government’s austerity measures are set to bite more deeply over the coming year, the TUC’s conference agenda is unsurprisingly focusing on how it plans to fight cuts. It is also due to welcome its first female general secretary as Brendan Barber steps down after ten years in the job to be replaced by Frances O’Grady at the end of the year.

War cries have already begun to ring out even before the delegates have boarded their Brighton-bound charabancs. Unite’s vocal General Secretary Len McLuskey has warned there is a strong likelihood of more walkouts over public sector pay.

The strike call comes after the National Union of Teachers said it is to strike over pay and conditions following a ballot in which there was a 82.7 per cent turn out according to the union.

In November 2011, the union was one of many which took part in a co-ordinated mass strike which saw an estimated several hundred thousand public sector workers staying away from work.

In a speech to conference, Mr McLuskey will call on the government to raise the national minimum wage by £1 to £7.19 per hour.

Later in the week the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls will also address the conference and make a keynote address.

Male, pale and stale

The conference will be the last for the TUC’s long-serving leader, Brendan Barber. The general secretary elect, Frances O’Grady, comes from a strong union background and may prove to be a moderate presence.

She has worked for the union movement for more than twenty years, following in the footsteps of her father who was a shop steward at the Cowley car plant outside Oxford in the 1970s.

Ms O’Grady was elected unopposed and her appointment marks a move away from what has been called the “male, pale and stale” era of union politics.

She will preside over an organisation battling to retain members as jobs are lost from the public sector and union membership in the private sector stands at an estimated one in seven.

Congress will discuss how it can extend its influence in this sector which unions say is one of the key challenges facing the trade union movement at a challenging time for the British economy when it might expect to be attracting members.