Roz Foyer, STUC general secretary, gave the eight Jimmy Reid Foundation lecture on Thursday 7 October 2021 in Glasgow. Here we print an edited version of her lecture.
As a lifelong union activist and organiser, I’m deeply honoured to be invited to deliver the lecture this year because it has particular resonance following the recent 50th anniversary of the UCS work-in. It was one of the most inspiring and well executed industrial union campaigns, ever fought and won.
I will focus on why now is the time for our movement to take inspiration from that struggle and apply its lessons to the struggles we face today on building a fair economic recovery from the pandemic, and transitioning to a net zero economy based upon the STUC’s ‘People’s Recovery’ programme of ensuring ordinary working people can get a fairer share, of the nation’s wealth and power.
If we are to do this successfully, we’ll need to build our movement into an angry, strong, and diverse, mass movement for change, by organising the fightback in our workplaces, and on our streets, and by focussing in on key issues that unite us, and make a material difference to our class, and our communities.
My family background has taught be valuable lessons about fighting for social justice. I recall my dad, Walter, a former train driver and proud ASLEF member, was born in 1932 in the midst of the Depression when the infant mortality rate in Glasgow was on the rise. As a new born baby, he was given away to the Parish, we think, probably because his birth family, simply couldn’t afford to feed another mouth. He was lucky to be adopted into another local family, who’d just lost a child, and were in a position to care for him. Whenever I try to imagine what it must have been like to live through those times, I’m always reminded of the Manic Street Preachers’ song, ‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next’.
I guess that’s why that generation, our forebearers, fought not only to stop fascism but for a better life for themselves and their children. Coming out of the Great Depression, they’d had enough, and they knew, there was a better way, and after WW2, they demanded change and a fairer share of the wealth. They collectivised, organised and won a new deal for workers: massive council house building, nationalisation of key services like energy and transport, an NHS free at point of need, access to free education, and jobs for everyone that offered a decent standard of living, with pensions that would allow folk comfort and dignity, in their old age.
That’s where the UCS struggle comes in because 1971 represented the start of the neo-liberal attack, on working people’s power but the shop stewards involved in the UCS work-in stopped them for a while at least. It was a fantastic campaign. One of the most powerful attributes in it was those that fought here weren’t union general secretaries or paid union officers. The work-in’s leaders were the authentic shopfloor voices.
The demand, put by STUC general secretary Jimmy Jack, was for a Scottish Parliament – one could protect the real wealth of the Scottish people, as represented by the embattled stewards of organised labour. For him, the Parliament should be a workers’ parliament! This was a massive moment, for both the labour movement and Scotland as it fused together the cause of labour and democracy, and played no small part in both defining the STUC’s commitment towards creating and sustaining a Scottish Parliament. We still have a long way to go in creating that workers’ parliament – one that has the transformative effect on our economy. But the key point is: it’s now upon us to deliver it.
We need to achieve this because the economy has failed working people – it is not serving the needs of the many. The post-war generation rightly expected, because of their efforts and sacrifices, things would keep getting better for each generation. Instead, we’re slipping backwards with alarming speed.
We face the biggest global economic crisis in living memory and while the immediate superficial cause is COVID-19, the virus has drawn its strength from generations of injustices. It does not discriminate on the lines of class – but its effects are clearly exacerbated, by imbalances of income, wealth and power. So, while we’re all riding the same storm, we are most certainly not all doing so in the same boat.
Scotland has shamefully high poverty levels. Prior to the pandemic, over a million people were living in poverty, and over half of those had a working adult in their household, highlighting Scotland’s poverty levels are increasingly driven by in-work poverty due to a prevalence of low wage, insecure jobs. Privatisation, short-term investment, and corporate dominance have placed workers in a position of weakness, made worse by state driven attacks on unions. This has led to the growth of precarious work, through bogus self-employment, zero hours contracts, and unwanted part-time working. Added to other factors, hundreds of thousands of Scottish workers experience a toxic mix of low wages, insecure contracts, rising fuel and food costs, high rents, and poor housing. These outcomes are not accounted for by a shortage of wealth – what we have is inequality in how that wealth is shared.
Even before the pandemic but starkly highlighted by it, the people that have kept our society going, are the cleaners, carers, nurses, supermarket workers, cleansing workers, delivery workers, public transport workers, and many, many more. They’re low-paid, predominantly women, frontline key workers, who have now risked their own health to keep us all safe. So, when we speak of recovery, it’s not about going back to the pre-pandemic period. By recovery, we mean recovering for working- class people, recovering from the income, wealth and sense of collective purpose stolen from us by decades of political bias towards the rich and powerful.
This is where we take issue, with the government responses. For all the welcome rhetoric – the well-being economy, levelling up, building back better etcetera – there is as yet no plan to abolish the built-up conditions that made society so damaging to so many in the first place. Neither the Scottish Government nor any others will be able to deliver on their warm words without fundamental state intervention to reset the rules of the game and deliver a more level playing field for workers.
So, the STUC launched its ‘People’s Recovery’, subtitled: ‘For a different track for Scotland’s economy’. Our demands combine short-term measures to rebuild our economy with medium and longer-term measures to create a democratic and green economy, and a society in which workers and their families have fair work, decent housing, and a proper safety net. We called for a fundamental rethink, on the purposes of growth, and the introduction of a number of urgent measures, that, if implemented, would deliver the sort of economic transformation required, to support greater economic justice for all our citizens.
It’s important to note from the outset that not all of the required actions sit within the current powers of the Scottish Government. Many of our demands still rest within the jurisdiction of Westminster.
So, given the Scottish Government’s democratic mandate, and stated intention to hold another independence referendum within the life of the current Parliament, it will be important for us to establish to what degree the constitutional proposals that will eventually be offered to the people, will be able to meet our demands for our People’s Recovery.
This should be the key question asked by trade unionists in Scotland in determining any position we might chose to take in the run up to any further independence referendum. The context is that neither the Growth Commission version of independence in the EU, offered by the SNP, nor the current status quo offered by the Tory-led Westminster Government – or even models of Federalism, if they lack the appropriate powers – will deliver manifest change for a fairer share of the wealth for Scotland’s workers. For that, we need to secure a very different approach to rebuilding Scotland’s economy – one that will involve us gaining powers at a local, a national and UK level to counter the neo-liberal economic system that has failed working-class people.
So, the forthcoming constitutional debate will give us an opportunity to start talking about the powers we need to effect real change. But to get the decision-makers, law-makers and politicians to offer us viable options for that, we’ll need to movement build from the bottom up. That means educating, agitating and organising, workplace-by-workplace and street-by-street, in order to harness the anger of what our people have been through and channel it into demanding that change. That is what I mean by people power and by collective people power. In this, we’ll need to use the lessons from our past successes.
The UCS work-in was not just a fine example of how to run an industrial dispute – it was also a fine example of how to escalate political pressure and create leverage over decision-makers, even when those decision-maker comprised an anti-union Tory government. It was also a great example of how a union centre like the STUC can use its position to support workers in struggle, and help them achieve victory. This is something the STUC has a proud tradition of delivering upon, and which we’re developing once again. Because given the tough times working people are facing, we as a whole movement need to become a well-oiled fighting machine.
What advice would our forbearers give us here? I think they’d tell us to have more hope, to have more confidence, and to remember what they achieved, and the odds they were fighting against. I think they’d tell us that ‘enough is enough’, it’s time to stand up, and start fighting back and that we are more powerful than we think and can dare to imagine. They’d tell us to embrace the technology now available to us, and they’d point to the tens of thousands of participants in digital organised events, spanning the globe, encouraging us to act local but think global.
They’d tell us to be bolder, more militant, have more urgency and to devote every ounce of our resources and efforts to educating people about the changes required, building up collectives and developing strong leaders at a local level. They’d tell us this because our power is rooted, in our workplaces and our communities!
And they’d warn us, that if we don’t act now, if we leave it too late, then the right will split the progressive forces in society again, using the old tactic of ‘divide and rule’. Finally, they’d tell us that after all our people have been through, they are ready now to fight for a better future. They’d tell us we must not just ride out the storm of this pandemic, but we have to be the storm. Because if we tolerate this then our children will be next!
The video of the full lecture is available at https://reidfoundation.scot/2021/10/video-of-2021-reid-foundation-annual-lecture-by-roz-foyer-stuc-general-secretary-now-available/