The following two articles examines the role of the nationalist right in trying to undermine workers’ struggles in Scotland. The first by posted by bella caledonia. The second is letter to The National by Simon Barrow of the SNP trade union group.
1. CONFLICT NOT CONSPIRACIES: WHY WORKERS STRIKE
Picket lines of largely middle-aged working-class women are outside the two schools just down the road from my home in the Gorbals today (Thursday 27 September) and that’s true of schools which lie closed across Glasgow. It was the same yesterday, and it will be tomorrow. Unison, the public sector union, has called over twenty thousand local government workers out on strike in response to what it regards as an inadequate pay offer from the employers’ organisation, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). In Glasgow, the strike is against an SNP-led council, but Labour-led South Lanarkshire will also be affected and so are the Orkney and Shetland Islands Councils which are each led by independents.
Striking workers have good reason to demand more. In the short-term, pay has been eroded by inflation over the last couple of years. Scottish local government workers are far from alone in that respect. I’m writing this article whilst on strike myself, taking part in industrial action called by my union, the University and Colleges Union as part of a UK-wide dispute. It coincides with a three day walkout by my colleagues in the University of Glasgow’s Unison branch. Last week, we were also joined by worker from the institution’s Unite branch in demanding a better pay offer.
From a longer-term perspective, lower to middle-income wage earners, particularly in the public sector, have lost out to almost two decades of wage restraint. British workers are now typically earning pay packets worth the same real-terms value as they were when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. In the meantime, the cost of essential items has shot up in recent years whilst housing has spiralled to unsustainable levels. These are the reasons workers are striking. They’re not difficult to understand given common experiences of the so-called ‘cost-of-living
Nevertheless, if you made the mistake of glancing at Twitter, you’d find a very different conspiratorial interpretation: workers have been ‘duped’. They’re being used as pawns in a political game motivated by supporting the Labour Party and undermining the Scottish Government, the SNP and the cause of independence. These allegations centre on the role of Johanna Baxter, a Unison Scotland official who has been responsible for the COSLA negotiations but who is also a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and a supporter of Keir Starmer.
These conspiracy theories fall into a long standing pattern when it comes to nationalist explanations for trade union action in Scotland in recent years. Since an uptick in strikes by public sector workers in 2021, industrial action been explained through party political motivations. A range of different unions have been blamed as different groups of workers have taken action. When the convener of GMB’s Glasgow cleansing workers, Chris Mitchell, gained a public profile as the leader of the bin strikes in the autumn of 2021 he was vilified as a politically motivated member of a union which had backed a ‘No’ vote at the 2014 independence referendum. Since then, other unions which aren’t even Labour affiliated have faced similar condemnation, such as the Educational Institute for Scotland and the National Union of Rail and Maritime Transport Workers (RMT) during disputes in education and at Scotrail.
These allegations though were not just the preserve of Twitter ‘cybernats’. They have been stoked by the traditional media too, particularly The National newspaper. In 2021, the paper published commentator Stuart Cosgrove on the cleansing workers’ dispute, alleging that the ‘GMB strike is a wholly political move from Better Together funders’. The more recent attack on Unison has ratcheted up this approach. Hamish Morrison, the newspaper’s Political Reporter, published an ‘exclusive’ on Friday 22nd September, the end of the week before Unison’s strike began. Morrison’s exclusive news was that Baxter is a Unison official and a Labour Party activist: hardly Water Gate levels of revelation. Such information is publicly available and far from surprising as Stephen Smellie, the Unison convener for South Lanarkshire Council and a member of Unison’s National Executive Committee, pointed out in a column replying to the story published by the paper a few day later. Nevertheless, The National saw fit to put the exclusive on its front page on 23rd September.
This manner of gutter press reporting damages the Scottish public sphere as well as serving to delegitimise trade unionism and the relatively low-paid women taking strike action this week. When challenged on the legitimacy of claims that Unison members have been duped into taking action, believers in the conspiracy have pointed out that two other unions, the GMB and Unite, stood down their members and advised them to accept COSLA’s offer in a ballot. Accordingly, Unison’s refusal to do the same is cited as proof of their political motivations to undermine the SNP ahead of next week’s byelection in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
There are a number of reasons why unions may opt to take different courses of actions. Typically, they represent distinct groups of workers who may be affected differently by an offer of the nature of the one put forward by COSLA. They may also feel their members are more motivated or that they have more resources when it comes to paying strike pay and sustaining action. These factors all seem likely to have impacted the ongoing local government dispute.
Chris Mitchell, the former villain of the anti-union conspiracy worldview, emerged as an unlikely oracle for its advocates when he urged Unison to abandon their strike action and take the deal. Mitchell argued that COSLA’s deal was good for lower paid workers, a position broadly shared by Unite. The political economy of the strike from this reading isn’t so much party political as more traditionally industrial: Unison tends to represent slightly better paid workers who were not as well rewarded by the deal. They have also though underlined that this deal doesn’t ensure a minimum flooring of £15 per hour for workers providing essential services.
One of the more informed comments on the dispute came from Chris Stephens, the former Glasgow City Council Unison branch official and SNP MP for Glasgow South West. Over the weekend, Stephens pointed out that the idea the Scottish Labour Party was in a position to call on tens of thousands of workers to give up days of wages, and accordingly mobilise them, was laughable. Workers in Lerwick and Stromness probably have other things on their minds. Furthermore, Stephens underlined that it was Unison members who voted to take strike action. Whatever their political creed, Unison officials are highly constrained in this respect.
This is the third autumn in a row that COSLA negotiations have resulted in strike action. Unfortunately, the responses to it haven’t shown any growth in maturity when it comes to reporting and understanding from large swathes of independence supporters. In a context of increased inflation, but also of increased worker confidence, there will likely be more strike action to come in years to follow. Anyone who claims to want a more social democratic economy (never mind a socialist one), or even just one where workers can expect a decent return for their labour, should be supporting workers in struggle no matter who is in power.
2. TRADE UNIONS ARE KEY REASONS FOR WANTING SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE
Is a new and stronger relationship needed, bridging all those struggling for Scottish self-government and working people demanding transformation of our economy and public services through trade unions?
I would answer a strong “yes” to that second question, and part of the reason why is the lingering question mark around the first, which it is now time to tackle head-on.
It is certainly true that whenever accusations are made about unions somehow being in the pocket of Labour, or when the Scottish Government and local authorities are under pressure from demands over pay, conditions and funding, a vocal minority claiming to speak for independence appear on social media claiming that strikes are some sort of Unionist plot.
More recently, an anonymous “SNP source” made an outrageous accusation of manipulating union sentiment for political ends against a senior Unison figure who also happens to hold a senior position in Scottish Labour.
But as both depute convener of Unison Scotland Stephen Smellie and SNP Trade Union Group convener Bill Ramsay have amply demonstrated, this conspiracy outlook is manifestly untrue.
Trade unions are democratic organisations, the threshold for industrial action is very high under Tory anti-strike laws and it costs workers a lot to withdraw their labour. In the face of cutbacks and the cost of living crisis, they do so collectively (and with a significant majority) only when pushed to the brink personally and economically.
There has been some debate about whether the original unfounded allegation should have been published in The National.
But the deeper issue is whether it does indeed represent an unpalatable anti-union tendency within the SNP and the independence movement, and if so, what can be done about that?
My own experience as an active trade unionist is of broad sympathy towards trade unions within the party and the grassroots movement, but also a degree of ignorance or confusion about how they work and take decisions.
The irony here is that, with nearly 13,000 members, the SNP Trade Union Group is the party’s largest affiliate, and vocal within its counsels. It organised the only independent husting for the SNP leadership election, partnering with The National.
Indeed, at last year’s SNP national conference, STUC general secretary Roz Foyer and a panel of senior trade union officials were cheered to the rafters by delegates at a packed fringe meeting. Yet none of those speakers held back from legitimate criticism of the way devolved powers are currently being used, or from calls for a more radical approach to tax and economic issues.
The fact is that trade unionists within the SNP believe that the full powers of independence needed to transform Scotland must be prefigured by bolder, more redistributive action by an SNP-led Scottish Government, starting now.
This is because any winning political case for independence is inseparable from the case for a transformation of the Scottish economy in favour of working people, families and communities.
That must go alongside high-quality jobs and well-funded local and public services, a strong NHS free of the threat of privatisation and a just transition towards a sustainable green future for us and our children in the face of climate catastrophe.
The role of trade unions is absolutely central and crucial in achieving all of that.
At present, the SNP as a whole do not seem sufficiently conscious of that, and education within the party about the importance of solidarity with and among working people as the means of building a new Scotland is insufficient.
With more focus and resources on this, the kind of ignorant, kneejerk responses to trade union action for better pay, conditions, services and public investment could be addressed far more thoroughly.
We also need to understand that the workplaces, communities and industries where trade union membership is highest in Scotland are among those where many people still need to be persuaded of the case for independence in relation to their own need for economic as well as political leverage.
An “are you Yes or No?” approach will not work. That is like a tired game of chess in which many players will make their moves almost without thinking, and in which a larger number have become disinterested because it does not seem to connect with the material realities of their lives.
Instead, the whole conversation about Scotland’s future needs to be transformed.
If we are to achieve the better nation we all need, where do specific powers need to lie, who should decide, and if not independence, what?
Those are the three crucial questions.
Trade unions already favour the Scottish people deciding our own future. They are therefore one of the key places where that different approach can be developed.
Crucially, this means that independence voices need to be seen to stand in solidarity with union demands for change that starts now (not just “jam tomorrow”), and a far greater engagement with the sources of scepticism among some working people towards the case for Scotland deciding its own future outside the crumbling wreck of the UK.
Collaboration and persuasion go together.