Between Union and union

Any review of the Scottish trade union movement in the run up to the 2013 Congress must surely address two key issues, the implications of the 2014 referendum campaign.

There are other issues, such as the trade union movement’s relationship with the Scottish Government that are of course important. However what I intend to do in this article is to focus upon how the Scottish trade unionists might choose to intervene, institutionally and individually, in the referendum campaign.

We live in a UK where there is no appetite within it’s mainstream political community to fight the necessary battles, far less win the battles, to make the UK a fairer place to live and work. Every year UK political culture drifts further and further from the European “norm”, taking on more and more US characteristics. The neoliberal agenda is of course everywhere, even in Scotland, but in the Northern hemisphere it dominates the United States and grows from strength to strength in the UK and almost all who describe themselves as Scottish progressives have had enough of it.

Despite institutional relationships with progressive British political centres, the British trade union movement has no effective allies amongst the British political class. What allies they have are on the fringes of influence and power even within these progressive institutions. In other words, the British trade union movement is politically isolated.

This is not the case in Scotland. Here the Scottish trade union movement is at the heart of Scottish civic life rather than on its fringes. It is treated with a degree of respect by Scottish Government both at national and local level.

So the basic question that the Scottish trade union movement is being asked from a Yes Scotland perspective is this; does the Scottish trade union movement join the Stalag UK escape committee? Put another way, is it an interested bystander or does it even actively collaborate with the prison guards?

The answer of course is all of the above, depending on the union, sometimes even depending on the union branch. Where Scottish trade union’s stand on the referendum is significantly, though not wholly, influenced by their relationship with the Labour Party. Clearly some unions have never had a formal link with Labour though in many cases most of their full time officials have been or are members of the Labour Party. It is true that some unions have seen their link with Labour erode and even break, but more of this later.

However the union links to the Labour Party and the Labour Party link to Better Together, or as a Labour trade union activist put it to me recently, ‘Better Together With The Tories’, means that union funding may play a significant part in the financing of the No campaign. However this will itself be further complicated by the inconvenient truth of the recent voting behaviour of ordinary Scottish trade union members.

Of course the actual people who make up union memberships in Scotland already have a political view, they have a vote and they often use that vote. Gone are the days when the default position of Scottish trade unionists was to vote Labour. There is some evidence to suggest that in recent elections Scottish trade unionists have voted for the SNP in very large numbers, moreover amongst this group of voters, although they have still to make up their minds on the referendum, the prospect of Independence does not fill them with horror. Some union leaderships are very well aware of this and seem to be factoring this into their thinking about the politics around the referendum campaign. Indeed, although Devo Max is no longer on the table, some union leadership are pretending it is.

In some instances scoping where unions stand is quite straightforward. USDAW for instance, the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers, because of the industry it operates in, has a large membership with a huge turnover in members. For USDAW’s overall membership figures to stand still, its recruitment levels, compared to other unions is, in a relative sense, have to be huge. Inevitably, with such a churn in membership it will have a relatively low activist base. Inevitably therefor it is run politically as well as industrially by its full time officials. As it is affiliated to the Labour Party its links, in terms of its political decision making processes with Labour, can be described as intimate.

Other, politically more high profile unions have a similar relationship with Labour. This is more likely to be the case where they organise out with the public sector. The classic example of this is in the engineering sections of Unite, particularly in former AMICUS branches, particularly branches in the arms industry. However because significant sections of Unite organise in the public sector the picture there is more complicated. In some sections of Unite, on the ground at least, loyalty to Labour and the UK cannot be taken for granted. Indeed in a poll of its own members Unite discovered more of its members voted for the SNP in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections than for Labour. However as is the case in many unions, formal political decisions are made at a fairly high level where the influence of the union bureaucracies are strongest. A recent visitor to a UNITE office told me that No materials, everything from leaflets to tabards, was much in evidence. However whether or not UNITE can mobilise the members to distribute the leaflets and to wear the tabards is another matter.

As I suggest amongst unions that organise in the public sector the situation is quite different. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the members of these public sector unions have experience of the cuts, not only in relation to their own terms and conditions but also on the level of the services that they deliver to the public. Secondly many of these unions have a significant activist base who in recent years have developed a much more sophisticated relationship with political parties.

The PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union is easily the Civil Service union with the highest political profile. It is a union that is squarely on the left and quite prepared to stand up to Government attacks whether they be Labour or the current Coalition Government attacks. As the Scottish Government has not sought to pick a fight with its civil servants, the way previous Labour and current Coalition Governments have and are doing, PCS has had, in a relative sense, a fairly positive relationship with the Scottish Government. Indeed in a Question Time event the PCS Generall Secretary made it crystal clear that the creation of a Scottish state would not be the end of the world. Culturally therefore PCS’s activists and branches seem free to pursue positions as they see fit, as evinced by the presence of some prominent PCS activists on some Yes platforms.

Unison is in a very interesting position. It well understand’s that its members get a much better deal from the Scottish Government than from Westminster Governments of whatever hue. Indeed a prominent Unison activist recently explained to me that sending Unison Health Sector Activists to UK wide Unison Health events was a very effective recruiter for the Yes campaign.

However it has its political funds, one non-party and the other linked to Labour. Unison Labour Link people play an influential role within the Scottish Labour Party, both at national level and in many constituencies. The strains and tensions between the experiences and political views of Unison’s rank and file will be, to say the least, interesting to watch. Given that some of its branches are large and influential with a degree of political autonomy it will be interesting to see how the politics of the referendum campaign play out in Unison.

As I have already stated, each union has its own distinctive culture and heritage and it would be a mistake to see the Scottish trade Union Movement as a monolithic pro-Labour, pro-No bloc. My own union, the EIS, is a good example of this. Although it is the oldest teachers trade union in the world, it only affiliated to the STUC in the nineteen seventies. It has political fund but has never affiliated to Labour; apparently an attempt to do this in the nineteen seventies was seen off, with many Labour members engaged in the seeing-off process. Needless to say however membership of the Labour Party was, and to some extent remains, common amongst full time officials though there are some very significant exceptions.

Amongst the layity of the Institute however, party affiliation of various types exist. However this does not feed through in any overt way in the Institute’s deliberations. Although happy to be associated in STUC campaigns the Institute has not sought a high profile in a more general political sense outwith the area of Scottish education. Not surprisingly then it is only now that the Institute is starting to consider its role in any debates around the 2014 referendum.

As far as I aware the only union with demonstrably overt positive links, though informal, with the SNP is the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland. In a sense its leadership in Scotland has been free to pursue political relationships that reflect the views of its members, unlike say Unite. Indeed the structures of the FBU allow a significant degree of politically autonomy. What position the FBU will take in 2014, as with other STUC affiliates, remains to be seen. However unless there is some sort of political revolution within its Scottish leadership I cannot imagine it developing a positive relationship with Better Together, or whatever union-friendly front Anas Sarwar, Johann Lamont’s Deputy, eventually cobbles together.

Which brings me on to the role of the STUC in all of this. Since the advent of the Scottish Parliament the STUC has to some extent been cursed by its own success. It played a key role in the Scottish devolutionary movement in the eighties and nineties. It’s pre-devolutionary General Secretaries were key spokespersons for progressive Scotland. But with the advent of the parliament this function is much diluted. However the STUC still plays an important facilitating role in important campaigns. Indeed at the time of writing it is hosting a meeting to try and coordinate the campaigning response to the Bedroom Tax which may, or may not, turn out to be as significant as the anti-poll tax campaigns of the eighties.

In relation to 2014 the STUC is in a very interesting position. Ideologically elements within the STUC are close to the CPGB (probably the only overtly pro-unionist institution on the Scottish left) and what I often describe as the CPGB wing within the Labour Party. The removal of a third question from the ballot paper is a real blow, not only to the STUC but many within the Scottish trade union movement. I remind you, it was not me who came up with the sobriquet “Better Together With The Tories” but a Labour trade union activist.

At the time of writing many within the trade union movement are still acting as if there is a Devo Max option on the ballot paper. I believe some STUC affiliates are even organising meetings inviting three speakers – I assume in the hope that the Better Together representative get held up in the traffic. This raises some interesting questions for Yes trade unionists. For how long will they be prepared to share platforms which will be in effect, whether by design or accident, two Better Together speakers.