Editorial: A Labour Movement for Freedom

As sure as the world turns, people move from place to place seeking freedom and fair pay for the work they find to do. When workers arrive in a new country, the conditions of work there are partly shaped by the strength and success of the local trade union struggle. The labour movement is for every worker, irrespective of where they come from, who they are, or the road they have taken.

‘Sae, come aa ye at hame wi freedom’: Hamish Henderson issued this invitation hoping that Scotland would be a place where everyone can find freedom, a decent income, and a comfortable home. But this year UK migration laws described in this edition are coming into force, preventing many workers from living with their families. The next UK government looks unwilling to devolve employment law along lines demanded by the STUC that would allow the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation that empowers workers and their trade unions. Henderson’s invitation is ringing emptier than it has for many years.

From our latest cover artwork by Jennie Bates.

Today, freedom is not a word that always figures large in the language of the labour movement. It plays a bigger part in the liturgy of liberal capitalism than the wordcraft of working class organising. Those who lay claim to it in Scotland – leaving aside nationalists with a Braveheart bent – often tend to have intentions directly opposed to those of workers. In this issue, three authors confront one of these intentions: the introduction of Green Freeports in Scotland. In this formulation, ‘free’ describes the privileges enjoyed by companies: freedom from taxes, duties, and potentially from the provision of workers’ rights and ordinary rules of labour. Most analysts suggests that the jobs created will simply displace people from elsewhere in Scotland, or employ workers from abroad on conditions below the standards elsewhere in Scotland. Maggie Chapman spells out the damage this will do to workers, environment, and the communities and wider society. Peter Henderson draws on his experience as director of revenues at Prestwick freeport in the 1980s to list unanswered questions that should make us wary. Ryan Morrison explains why the Green prefix is just a signpost stuck on the ramparts of these neoliberal citadels. Their name fools no-one that what goes on in these ‘special zones’ will benefit people or planet. With the introduction of freeports, a part of Scotland becomes prey to a rawer, more rapacious capitalism, that permits corporations to take advantage of the increasing movement of people and the potential cheapening of labour in the pursuit of profit.

The Development of Humankind

The work of unions is to resist those efforts and realise the promise of freedom. “It’s the development of humankind: that’s what unions are trying to do”. The words are Alex Baird’s, union convenor at Wallacetown Engineering in Ayr, who tells the story in this issue of how workers defeated General Electric in 1982. He recalls:

“It was a long hard painful strike. Eight weeks is a long time to have a family who are no getting what they should get. But we were successful, that was the main thing.”

There have been many hard strikes this past year. But now delegates to the annual STUC Congress gather in a place of strength. As STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer reminds us, workers in Scotland have won many billions in wage campaigns. Now momentum is building around issues beyond pay. Firefighters are fighting to protect their own health in the line of service. School staff are organising to resist cuts to pupil support and training that are the cause of rising violence in schools. Standing by for all these struggles trades union councils, as Mike Arnott illustrates, continue to play the radical role they always did, rooting the movement in anti-racism and class-wide solidarity.

The union movement’s greatest gains come not from congresses and offices but streets and shop floors. The movement is one of contradictions as well as common cause between workers of different genders, ethnicities, skills, and ideals: Siobhan Tolland explores how Mary Brooksbank gave voice to issues facing women working in Dundee that were often overlooked by union men, and Henry Bell’s survey of the centenary commemorations for John Maclean’s death is a reminder of how communists often make the establishment uneasy, yet strengthen left culture through education and action. Maclean and Brooksbank gave Scottish voice to the same cause against the tendencies of imperialism, capitalism, exploitation and war that stirred Henderson to write his defiant ‘Freedom Come Aa Ye’.

A Home for Anyone

Today, these same tendencies are having horrific consequences. Several corporations have factories in Scotland producing weapons and components used in the massacre of Palestinians. The Leonardo factory in Edinburgh produces parts of the F-35 fighter jets, which Israel is using to kill civilians in the Gaza Strip. The Electro Optical, Infra-red, and other sensor systems developed by Leonardo have facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Recently, Workers for a Free Palestine shut down its production, with the support of rank-and-file members of Unite working in the factory. A few weeks earlier, on the picket outside BAE systems in Govan that brought production to a halt, many workers voiced support for the protest. Beyond Scotland, dockworkers have refused to unload ships carrying weapons destined for Israel, and tech workers have refused to create tools for the Israeli military.

As people who survive the ethnic cleansing of Palestine are displaced from their homes and forced to find another place to live and work, they meet hostility and scorn from western powers that supply the arms used to kill their families. The promises of work and security extended to Ukrainians are denied to Palestinians. How can the labour movement make Scotland a home for anyone who seeks freedom in the world? How can it use its power to stop the flow of weapons that make Scotland complicit in what is happening in Palestine? Scotland can be a place filled with the music of Palestinian resistance, the steadfast collectivity described by Becky Minio-Paluello in our review section. Scotland can become a haven of freedom during what Maura Finkelstein calls a very hard time to live. With concerted solidarity from the Scottish labour movement, then perhaps one day soon:

Broken faimilies in launs we’ve hairriet
Will curse ‘Scotlan the Brave’ nae mair, nae mair.