Challenges facing the trade union movement in Scotland

Professor Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire

(This is the text of a talk given to the annual general meeting of the Glasgow Trades Council, 29 February 2012).

The challenges facing the trade union movement in Scotland are pretty much the same as anywhere else in Britain and further afield. But the opportunities and ability to respond to them are in some ways different. Let me first deal with the challenges:

When socialists talk of the ‘class war’, it should now be easier than ever before to see what they mean. Since 2008 when the economic crisis began, despite protestations to the contrary, workers in both the private and public sectors have been paying for a crisis not of their own making – paying with their jobs, pensions, wage levels and general standard of living. The beneficiaries of this have been the rich and powerful, the ruling class. So the class war has seen – and is continuing to see – not only the ruling class not pay for their mistakes and the mistakes of their system but also a further transferral of wealth from the poor to the rich.

In other words, the inequality gap is rising further and faster than it did even before the onset of the crisis. Here, one can see the purchase of Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ thesis of the ruling class using the opportunity of a crisis to further cement its wealth and control. In workplaces, managerial control has been extended as job insecurity, short-time working, pay freezes and pay cuts have become more and more widespread. This not only poses a grave challenge to the worth of the union movement to workers but an opportunity as well if it can be grasped and used wisely.

But this will take nothing less than the rebuilding and revitalisation of the union movement – back to where it was in the early 1970s – for unions to be able to push back these attacks and advance workers’ interests as a class. It will require massive collective mobilisation of a militant kind, and not just in the traditional ways either. The pensions struggle in the public sector and the electricians struggle against the BESNA (Building Engineering Services National Agreement) are but two swallows here. The pensions struggle has shown the strength and weakness of the union movement in the public sector. The strength has been that the government was – for a time – put on the defensive and made to offer concessions by huge political mobilisations.

The weakness has been that the government’s proposals remain pretty much intact. The lesson of N30 seems to be being lost – the concessions at the bargaining table came before the actual strike so it should at least be worth threatening another mass strike again. We await to see how many unions and how many strikers there are for the 28 March action. Time is running out given the 1 April 2012 deadline for the increased contributions to come into force.

The grassroots driven revolt against BESNA has shown what can be done. The success is a tribute to militant mobilisation even though it is not entirely clear why the companies caved in at the moment given that little work was stopped. However, the tactic of blockading the sites from the outside has been a good innovation. But while this battle is over, the war is far from yet won and it will sorely test the grassroots to stop any attack on their terms and conditions of employment. Whether Unite will learn lessons here remains to be seen.

But two swallows do not make a summer. Although the level of strikes last year increased markedly from 2010, this is still small fry compared to what is needed because 2010 was an all time low. In 2010, there were just 92 strikes in 2010 with a mere 132,000 workers involved and 365,000 days not worked. In 2011, the number of strikes doubled to 184 and the number of workers involved and days not worked rise to 1,536,000 and 1,387,000 respectively.

While this represents the highest number of workers involved in strikes since 1982 and the largest number of days not worked since 1990, it is small fry compared to the height of workers’ power in the early 1970s when the number of strikes was between 2,000 and 3,000 per annum and well in excess of 10m days were not worked.

Alongside a sense of heightened oppositional consciousness, the basis of the ability to take widespread strike action is ultimately one of union organisation and this can be roughly measured by union density. In the private sector, density has fallen from 21% in 1995 to 14% in 2010 while in the public sector density has fallen from 61% in 1995 to 56% in 2010.

And while it is true that recent strikes have resulted in considerable numbers of new members, the PCS union, for example, recently reported that although 10,000 extra new members joined because of the strike on 30 June and 30 November, it is still losing about 2000 members every month because of job cuts.  In this sense, unions are like revolving doors – as some come in, others leave with not net gain. What this points to is that the turn to ‘union organising’, best epitomised by the establishment of the TUC Organising Academy in 1998 and the employment of hundreds of full-time union organisers, has been woefully inadequate.

Sure it may have prevented things from getting worse, but it has not been up to the task of making things manifestly better. Maybe, it has stood in the way of something better. Certainly, it has not revitalised the grassroots of the movement and its presence in workplaces in the way that is desperately needed. It shows that despite the best will in the world that a top-down approach cannot revitalise the roots.

All this must be seen as rightly dispiriting because, on the one hand, the economy grew from 1995 to 2007 so it should have been ‘easy street’ for unions to grow and then, on the other hand, there is a manifest need for union to act as protectors of workers so again they should be growing. It seems to me that one of the reasons that the union movement is not making hay in a way it should it because it does not have a convincing, coherent and comprehensive narrative – a narrative of how we got to where we are, what is wrong with the system and what needs to be done to put it right for working people.

You get a snatch here and a snatch there but never the whole thing. Without this, it is hard to see how the union movement can act as a movement to tackle the systemic nature of the crisis because it needs to motivate people into action (and sustained action at that). 26 March 2010 was a glimpse of what might be but it is a fading one. The ideology for the narrative could be social justice, social democracy or socialism. At the very least, it must be saying there is a pressing need and right for the state to intervene in the market – or facilitate others like unions to do so – in order to ameliorate its processes and outcomes of the market. Only this way can we hope to achieve some equality of outcome and stop the destruction of the environment.

The new dimension, given the contemporary atrophy of the union movement, must be to develop alliances with the users of the public services so that union members as the producers of these services unite with their users to protect and advance these services. There are really no organisations in Scotland (or Britain) that are capable of doing any of this other than unions. Witness the spectacular rise and fall of Occupy! , which itself was not dissimilar to the global justice movement of 1999 to the early 2000s. Unions may be the proverbial carthorses but they are a permanent feature of society with more social weight than any other NGO.

This brings me to the independence question and what makes Scotland different – different especially as the left of centre of gravity should more easily be expressed within a devolved situation (notwithstanding reserved business). Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on (pro-independence, devo-max, devo-plus), there is an opportunity to advance an agenda of social justice. This is because there is no point having a referendum that is solely about political and constitutional question unless there is an opportunity to improve the living standards and life chances of the majority of citizens in Scotland.

The SNP cannot be relied upon to deliver the outcomes of a radical social justice agenda because despite some reflexes to this agenda, these are heavily outweighed bits economics of neo-liberalism, trickledown economics and gaining new jobs at any price. Its attitude to Amazon is a good example of this as is its view on corporation tax. But neither can Labour either. So here is the opportunity for the union movement to push and shove for this agenda and say to the political parties ‘If you want our vote in the coming referendum, these are our terms for it.’  Then unions will need to mobilise afterwards to make sure any promises gained were not just those of an election time.

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