by Richie Venton
With 630,000 members, the Scottish trade union movement makes up a huge slice of the population, both when it comes to fighting attacks on our lives and conditions right now, and in shaping Scotland’s future.
So it’s encouraging that the recent STUC conference in Perth agreed a whole raft of progressive policies which, if implemented, would offer stiff resistance to the plunder of our communities by Westminster, and help shape a fairer, less unequal and more secure future for the next generation.
But this also raises the issue of where the unions stand on the Referendum – an issue which the same conference smothered in fudge.
One of the central battles facing workers and their communities is the mind-boggling savagery of cuts to jobs, services, benefits, pay, pensions – the things people rely on to survive – by a class of politicians who might as well live on Mars, they are so removed from the lives of ordinary people.
The Cuts Coalition’s weapons of choice are fear, and divide-and-conquer tactics.
And the biggest advantage Cameron and Clegg have in waging class war is the feeble Labour opposition – and many union leaders, themselves prisoners of their blind Labour loyalty.
So it was a tremendous boost that the Scottish Trades Union Congress overwhelmingly voted for “coordinated industrial action, including a Scotland-wide one day strike” against the government’s austerity measures.
Now they need to act on this, a demand already widely raised in workplaces and union branches in the public sector. But this needs to be fought for in the private sector too, as our jobs, pay and workplace rights are sacrificed to fund the £107,000 a year ‘pay’ rise issued to all 13,000 UK millionaires through top-rate tax cuts.
Workers need a lead, a focus for their fury, and a boost to their confidence in fighting back, by the STUC and each union leadership rallying people for a combined day of general strike action, linking all the workplace issues with the fight to scrap the Bedroom Tax – and the overall demand to evict the Tories. This needs doing at May Day rallies and at every possible workplace.
This month sees an escalation in the class war by the Twin Tories of Westminster: the theft of £500million a year through their Bedroom Tax; cuts to unions’ facilities in representing members at work; a doubling to two years in the job before workers get full legal protection; charges of up to nearly £2,000 for taking a case to Employment Tribunals.
And they are being egged on to plunge the knife even deeper.
Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson is demanding harsher laws to outlaw strikes while Labour-linked ‘intellectuals’ in the Fabian Society demand vastly increased taxes on pensioners.
The combined power of workers in both public and private sector jobs, linked to the growing fury of communities against the Bedroom Tax and young people rejecting the greed and corruption of the entire system, needs to be harnessed in a showdown with the Tories and the employers.
A one-day national general strike would be a powerful start in a battle to topple the Tories.
The STUC conference called for numerous progressive measures that would enhance the lives of millions at work and home. And they endorsed an overall economic goal of “common ownership, investment in public services and full employment”.
But when it came to the issue of where the STUC stands on the Scottish Referendum just 17 months hence, they baulked at linking their laudable social and economic goals to a clear analysis of how best to get them.
The fact the STUC has point blank refused to be part of the Tory-Labour-LibDem ‘Better Together ‘ campaign against Scottish self government is a welcome stance of absolutely historic proportions. In past decades the big Labour-affiliated unions like UNITE, UNISON, GMB and USDAW could have been guaranteed to join the ranks of the unashamed Unionists, mostly on the basis of the Labour Party’s involvement, but also couched in the language of ‘workers’ unity across the UK’.
Not now because the experience of the past 30 years has proven Westminster governments of all political stripes to be married to big business and ruthlessly anti-working class, and therefore anathema to many rank and file trade unionists.
Break from Labour
Workers’ loyalty to Labour is crumbling.
For instance, UNITE did a survey of its own Scottish members in 2011 to find over 40 per cent of them had voted SNP. It’s no accident that UNITE’s Scottish regional secretary Pat Rafferty warned last week’s Scottish Labour party conference “workers won’t be bounced into voting No just because the Labour leadership is opposed.”
So the STUC has rightly distanced itself from ‘Better Together’, and rightly demanded answers of both camps on what they offer workers in terms of workplace rights, greater equality, social justice. As UNITE’s Pat Rafferty put it, “The decision should be based on how independence would affect issues like public services, the tax system and welfare benefits – we want to know who will support our fight for our welfare system and the principle of universalism.”
Panic stricken Scottish Labour leaders meeting in Inverness made an attempt to distance themselves from their Tory allies by promising ‘a distinct Labour campaign for devolution’, which the STUC leadership has welcomed, with talk of “opportunities to develop thinking of further devolution of powers in the event of a No vote.”
But mindful of the opinions of their ranks, the STUC leadership hastily added, “the STUC will engage in this discussion, just as we are prepared to consider the shape of an independent Scotland if Yes is the outcome”.
How to win STUC aims?
The STUC’s emphasis on ‘a just Scotland’, and their criticism that “both sides remain particularly quiet on the central role which fair employment, decent pay and collective bargaining can play in achieving better economic justice”, are both justified.
But instead of acting like neutral observers, the STUC and individual unions should be making their own analysis of not only the kind of Scotland they want, but the most realistic prospects of achieving that under either independence or devolution.
Surely the 30 years of ‘Thatcherism’ under successive Labour as well as Tory governments – are proof enough that continued centralised capitalist rule from Westminster means growing poverty, inequality, insecurity, privatisation and war for the working class?
A post-No vote Scottish government being granted a few extra powers by Westminster is an extremely debatable scenario, given that Westminster would be emboldened by the failure of the Scottish people to seize the chance of self-rule, and given that Ed Miliband is against even granting Scotland control over income tax.
Even if it was, it would still be incapable of meeting the core aims of the trade union movement, such as repeal of the anti-union laws; progressive taxation of the rich and big business; a Living Wage for all; universal benefits; reversal of privatisation; reversal of cuts; public ownership of transport, energy and services; public ownership of the banks; scrapping of Trident; refusal to join the USA in imperialist wars. None of those are possible under devolution – even a ‘distinctively Labour’ devolution.
And when figures on the ‘left’ of Scottish Labour try to claim staying in the UK would help redistribute wealth, which particular planet have they occupied for the past 30 years?
Anas Sarwar declared “Redistribtion is one of the strongest arguments in favour of the UK. From the richest parts to the poorest.” One of the strangest arguments more like!
Britain, including under Labour, has suffered massive redistribution of wealth and power from the poorest regions to the City of London, from the millions to the millionaires.
When left-wing Labour MSP Neil Findlay speaks at the Better Together STUC fringe meeting, in favour of ‘a federal Britain’, and decries socialists who fight for independence by claiming we ‘lack political representation within the YES campaign, which is dominated by the pro-market SNP”, he misses several points.
Instead of the myth of a ‘redistributive’ Britain he should face facts from the past 30 years.
He should face up to the growth of UKIP – currently at 19% in polls – and the real and present danger of a Tory/UKIP Coalition in Westminster.
He should recognise that Labour in power has absolutely no intention of reversing the Tory cuts, nor of repealing the Thatcher anti-union laws, nor of extending public ownership.
He should accept that a vote for independence is NOT a vote for indefinite rule by ‘the pro-market SNP’ but actually a huge opportunity to have a Tory-free Scotland, and for working class people to have the chance of electing a government of the left capable and willing to carry out the aims reiterated at the STUC.
These people should join and assist campaigns like Trade Unionists for Independence [TUFI] which recognises independence is not only the most democratic, but the only realistic option in fighting for workers’ rights and redistribution of wealth and power.
Whilst rightly encouraging debate around the idea of ‘a just Scotland’, the STUC needs to climb off the fence, assess the balance of political forces in Scotland and the UK, and use its resources and membership to defeat the pro-market forces in the independence movement, and win a future that transforms the lives of Scottish workers, acting as a beacon to workers in other countries.