In the months since the independence referendum, the SNP Trade Union Group (TUG) has grown from essentially a large branch of 800 members to the second largest political organisation in Scotland at just shy of 16,000 members. For any organisation this would be a huge game changer and it is no less true for the SNP TUG.
Long-time members would remember meetings being the same half a dozen folk but these days are long gone, with demands now for meetings across the country. There have been growing pains. It’s not an easy transition going from a small group where everyone knows each other to a situation where walking into meetings and there is hardly a recognisable face to be seen such is the influx of new blood. It’s a welcome problem to have, but hardly an easy one to tackle.
So what now for the SNP TUG? Well that’s a question largely for the membership. Discussions in recent months have been both simultaneously interesting and illuminating. But first, before we can answer what lies ahead for the group, we must first ask who the new members of the SNP TUG are and where did they come from?
Many of them are simply members of unions, who identify politically with the SNP. Whether they are active or not in their union many describe feeling alienated and unable to contribute to their union due to strong links with Labour. Others who have made themselves known are activists, office bearers, full-time union officers and in growing numbers organisers, secretaries and chairs of some of the largest unions in Scotland.
Time and time again our new membership has contacted us, describing itself as coming from a ‘traditional Labour movement background’. Many of those who have joined have been card carrying members of Labour, either in the past or have left to join the SNP. They have grown weary of being asked to support a party that took us into war in Iraq, axed the 10p rate of tax, raided pensions and kept their unions at arms’ length until they were needed for another cash injection or a leadership contest. And, at worst they have grown tired of feeling like they are a secondary consideration to their union which puts the prospects of Labour over their needs.
So what now? There are many ideas on what the SNP TUG should be now with its increased size. Many have expressed the wish that the SNP TUG should become a union itself so they can leave their current unions. Their desire to leave is often down to the stance by their union taken in the referendum. Alternatively, it’s the links of some unions to the Labour party, a party that they no longer share any identification with.
While I can understand that desire it would be completely counterproductive to have an SNP ‘members only’ union. Ultimately, if union members are unhappy they can utilise democracy to change their union, but that requires being active and not being simply a passenger unhappy with the route being taken. We have already seen that within Unite – it remains to be seen what the outcome will be there regarding greater autonomy for the Scottish organisation and breaking links with Labour.
In light of all this, there have been times where I have felt in the past few months like a recruitment officer for every union in Scotland, having to convince people to remain members of their unions, to not give up that vital protection. In many cases, I have been successful but unfortunately not always. This is something that cannot be ignored any longer and must be acknowledged. It will be the one of the main hurdles facing the SNP TUG in its discussions with unions. The union movement can ill afford to continue to haemorrhage members. There can no longer be any denial that affiliation to Labour is damaging both to the movement as a whole and as well as the affiliated unions themselves. The labour movement has survived in spite of ‘new’ Labour, not because of it.
One of the major tasks for the SNP TUG is convincing these members not only to stick with their unions but also to become active in them. We have always encouraged union membership, both within the SNP and beyond, as well as actively encouraging members to work within the broader union movement. The answer is not having Labour affiliated unions switch their allegiance to the SNP, as some SNP TUG members have suggested.
Rather, we believe that unions should not be affiliated to a political party and instead should support candidates and policies on a case-by-case basis. There should be no push forward to try to get unions affiliating to the SNP because the same problems that affiliation causes will still be present.
The SNP TUG has to work with unions and their members, of all party affiliations and of none, in order to achieve our aims. Others wish the TUG to step forward, to move outwith the shadow of the main party, and become a major campaigning arm against austerity. What they want is a group that is willing to fight within the party and within the union movement for them and for the policies that they believe in.
Many of these people have come from the training grounds of the ‘Yes’ campaign and groups such as the Radical Independence ¬Campaign. There are, of course, others who would perhaps prefer the TUG to stay in the background, carry on its work in reaching out to trade unionists and remain fairly enigmatic.
The answer is that the SNP TUG will need to do a combination of all of these. We will continue to help trade unionists who want to seek ways of opting out from their dues going to Labour. We will support members who want to be active and organise to be in the vanguard of the fight against austerity and a Tory government is waging war on unions and working people.
We will also have to build further links with unions as our membership demand greater involvement and intervention into disputes. Previously, the SNP TUG would assist if asked but now we are expected by our members to be the organisation that reaches out to striking workers which will be a tough one to get to grips with ¬as not all will appreciate another organisation wading into existing or new disputes ¬ but it is one we will need to broach.
In the past the SNP TUG was simply an affiliate of the SNP that managed to punch well above its weight with a small pool of people and resources. We secured notable policies such as the SNP’s support for the abolishment of anti-union legislation brought in by Thatcher and continued by Blair. We’ve secured support for better employment rights, health and safety legislation and maternity and paternity rights. That will continue but now with 16,000 members we will have to up the ante considerably.
After our first conference in late June this year, we heard the demands from our membership who made it clear they want us to help get justice for blacklisted workers. We will fight as a group for an inquiry into blacklisting and there may be times where the desires of our members will not neatly match the current policy of the main party. There will be debates and there may be disagreements which will undoubtedly be tough to get through, but as a group of union members the direction of the SNP TUG will be entirely down to its members – and that is what matters.
Kirsteen Fraser is the SNP Trade Union Group Acting Secretary and a Unison shop steward.