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TUC Women's Conference ’21 Covid-19 and the potential democratic deficit

This year the TUC Women’s Conference is entirely online, presenting advantages for participation and accessibility — but only if the movement embraces this new paradigm and fully trains our members for it, writes ANITA HALPIN

THE 2020 TUC Women’s Conference was the last face-to-face trade union conference before the first lockdown. Delegates tried to act normally, everyone was a bit edgy, but the sisters got on with the business and got the job done.

This week’s conference is very different. It is online and there are no delegates. Voting on motions and for the new committee will be taken in closed sessions by the Women’s Committee, where additionally one nominee from each union not represented on the committee can take part.

There is little debate, motions being moved formally and speakers only be allowed if there is opposition. All voting will be weighted according to a union’s delegate entitlement.

On the plus side, the open sessions and fringe events are available online too. There will be discussion during the open sessions around themes which reflect key aspects of the motions: the unequal impact of Covid-19 on women, ending gender-based violence and harassment and strengthening women’s rights and representation at work.

The downside is that the spontaneity of conference will be lost as the deadline was February 10 for unions to indicate they wished to contribute to the debate and “it may not be possible for every union to speak in every debate.”

A great pity because the Women’s Conference is traditionally one of the best for letting most of those, who have indicated they wish to, speak.

Unions have been encouraged to consult their “networks” which I assume means the elected delegates and women’s committee; only you will know if your union is likely to have actually done this.

Last year’s TUC was organised in a similar way and was, I believe, the first union policy-making conference — albeit without delegates — since March 2020.

The use of online platforms has opened exciting new arenas for debate and I’m confident that union executives and committees and many branches have been meeting online, yet I have heard of one union (no names, no pack drill) which has refused to acknowledge a Zoom branch meeting as a “proper” meeting. More importantly, other unions have not encouraged the maintaining of the best levels of democracy by assisting and proposing options.

Online fringe meetings draw many more attendees than could ever be crammed into an average meeting room. For instance, the Morning Star’s TUC fringe had 239 registrations with around 10,000 just dropping in; the numbers for last year’s Labour Party Conference rose to 329 and around 12,000. By time of this paper’s Red Xmas Rally registration had risen to 466.

But the record for turnout at online events must go to the NEU when 400,000 members tuned into a briefing meeting earlier this year; surely the largest mass meeting in trade union history. In recent weeks the NEU has been growing, with well over 16,000 new recruits including 6,000 in the second weekend of February this year alone.

Unions which have stood up for their members during lockdown have all been making recruits. Recruitment is always more likely when workers are in crisis, but the crucial thing has always been how to retain them and grow the union.

Trade union membership brings with it both rights and responsibilities and both are aspects of democracy. Firstly, the democratic right to a voice in framing policy and holding the leadership to account and second, the democratic responsibility to work ethically within the context of the union’s rules and within all the structures of the union.

It is difficult enough for new recruits to get involved and interested in branch life in real meetings, even more difficult when virtual meetings may be deemed ultra vires — lacking proper authority.

Virtual meetings will be much more interesting, especially when people are isolated and lonely, but won’t necessarily develop involvement in the union. And without “proper” branch meetings new members will never get involved in union democracy — and union democracy will only be as effective as its members are.

We already know that the TUC’s other equality conferences will follow the model of the Women’s Conference.

As the annual union conference season begins, all unions and the TUC itself will be planning how best to hold annual (or biennial) delegate policy and sector conferences.

Each will arrive at different solutions but the problem of how, post pandemic, to restore full democratic rights to all members must be solved.

New platforms open up new possibilities — wider accessibility and larger numbers are able to participate, but the lack of computer expertise or access should not become a hidden disability in the 21st century.

This year’s Women’s Conference is also providing a number of online interactive evening workshops.

It may well be that some similar hybrid model will be adopted by the unions. All in all it will be a unique conference year.

Anita Halpin is a former chair of the TUC women’s committee.

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