Beyond usual boundaries

Stephen Smellie argues that trade unions must run a political campaign and not just seek to protect member interests, which means reaching out beyond the unions. But he warns that this may not be as easy as it seems.

All across Scotland Councils, Health Boards, non-departmental public bodies and community and voluntary sector organisations are making cuts to jobs and their workers terms and conditions. In every one of these organisations there are trade unionists trying to resist the worst-case scenarios.

Negotiating to avoid compulsory redundancies and cuts in pay has now become a target that, in some cases, unions are pessimistic about achieving. In Aberdeen City unions were told pay cuts or compulsories – what do you want to agree to?

Those who consider industrial action find themselves attacked as unrealistic, lucky-to-have-a-job-and gold-plated-pension bureaucrats who need to get real. Sometimes that is the membership reaction, never mind the employers and press. So there is a difficulty. Assuming we want to resist the cuts and attacks on jobs, how do we overcome these difficulties? Public sector trade union leaders, at local and national level, have spent so long negotiating for small improvements within a context of increasing budgets. Now the tide has turned and budgets are being slashed it presents a whole different context for trade unions. As a colleague in UNISON put it; “If we fight to save this library and its jobs, we might win, but they’ll just go and shut another one”.

Cuts in budgets from Westminster mean cuts in jobs, says the consensus. So how do we resist and what is it we are hoping to achieve? Part of the answer is to recognise that cuts to jobs will mean cuts to services for the public. However instead of trying to invoke the threat to services as simply an argument for protecting jobs and hoping service users will support our jobs we need to focus on the services themselves. We need to think about campaigns to save services first and think how our fight to save jobs can support the campaign to save the services. In other words try to get it the right way round. Services, and then jobs.

If campaigns are successful in saving schools, day centres, libraries, etc. then the jobs of the trade unionists will be better protected. Trade unions don’t need to lead these campaigns but they need to support them. Trade unions have resources, funding, staff, contacts in the media and political circles. We need to put these towards building an anti-cuts movement. That means supporting campaigns regardless of the party affiliations of the people involved – not demanding a veto over tactics with the threat to withdraw financial, practical and moral support. (It is helpful that there was not a rush to condemn the students over a few incidents, unlike in the past when violence was the excuse for some politicians running a mile from supporting Poll Tax campaigners or striking miners.) Branches and Regional and National Committees of unions should encourage any community or group which opposes any cut in public services. A thousand little campaigns against local cuts adds up to tens of thousands of campaigners against public sector cuts. An army of anti-cuts campaigners.

Trade union leaders will also need to be relaxed about the possibility of ‘illegal’ industrial action. If workers in a council walk out over the threat of compulsory redundancies without taking a month to go through the legal procedures so be it. Wherever and whenever workers or students or service users decide to protest it should be supported. We need to think out how to support quickly and we need to take initiatives and even risks to do so. The point is to build and encourage resistance, not control it.

Some people have referred to the example of the mass campaign that defeated the Poll Tax. These include some who played no part in the campaign other than refusing to pay and some who actively opposed the central tactic of non-payment. They remember the mass demonstrations and riot in Trafalgar Square but they forget about the hundreds of thousands of leaflets stuck through letter boxes, the thousands of public meetings held in community centres and village halls and the hundreds of anti-Poll Tax Unions set up across the country that built the movement from the bottom up. The building of an anti-cuts movement rooted in the communities is an essential part of the answer.

Of course for the unions, this is a new world. Most unions are used to running their own specific campaigns to defend or promote the interests of their members. They often do not even work with other unions never mind community and service user groups. The Scottish Parliament’s existence has encouraged this insularity with trade union lobbyists being able to have direct access to Civil Servants, MSPs of all parties and Ministers. With such direct access, with generally a supportive response expected, there was seldom a need to build an alliance of supporters to persuade politicians. Now, building those alliances has become essential. This means reaching out beyond the trade union perimeter.

UNISON made a start by organising a ‘Strategy Conference’ in September where they invited voluntary, community and service user groups. It was a good conference and encouraged UNISON members in their efforts to resist but there were only a small number from out-with the unions and leftish groups in attendance. Community the Union in Lanarkshire wrote to 300 community groups and invited then to attend a meeting. The meeting went well but it was a trade union activist audience with few if any community representatives turning up. The October STUC demo in Edinburgh was positive but again it was a largely trade union affair with only small representation from out-with the union movement.

As anyone who has tried to establish a local anti-cuts group or hold a public meeting will know, the community is not well organised. The tenants movement is a shadow of its former self. Community Councils tend to be moribund. Older and disabled peoples, parents and youth groups are few in number and the ‘activists’ among them are often overwhelmed with running their own groups affairs that they are unable to take on much more. The organisations that frequently seek to represent the ‘voluntary’ sector, ‘service users’ and ‘consumers,’ with one or two notable exceptions, are professionally led and compromised by their ties to the ‘third contracting-to-provide-services-on-behalf-of-the-state sector’ and more likely to be implementing cuts in their own services and workforces than forging ‘ant-cuts’ alliances with service users, never mind trade unions.

The STUC is fond of talking up the role of ‘Civic Scotland’. The reality is that Civic Scotland is a shadowy creature not much in evidence on the streets. If trade unions are to build alliances across a broad spectrum then they will need to assist in building not only an alliance but the organisations to be allies with. The STUC is organising a conference in Lanarkshire in January on Social Justice and Equality and efforts have been made to ensure that as well as trade unionists, representatives from faith groups, student associations and other community groups are in attendance and helping to shape the agenda and outcomes of the conference.

Local Trade Union Councils, where these exist, have a key role to play in reaching out to their communities and building links, offering support and building confidence that the trade union movement is not just about preserving its own interests, jobs, terms and conditions and pensions. We are about a fair and more equal society that provides services not only to those who need them but to the community as a whole to enhance all of our lives. This, ultimately, is what we want to achieve and it is therefore appropriate that the STUC has not launched a ‘defend public sector jobs’ or even ‘public sector services’ campaign but a political campaign ‘There is a better way’. From small campaigns to save a local day centre to the large demonstration that will hopefully fill the streets of London in March, the ideas and activists will come to campaign for and deliver that ‘better way’.

is Secretary of Unison South Lanarkshire Local Government Branch