Coming out stronger – coming out fighting

Mike Kirby reports that UNISON Scotland is meeting the challenge of organising online.

Over the last year, UNISON branches across Scotland have adapted to the radically changed circumstances in which we have been operating. We have expanded and developed our range of organising and campaigning techniques, and we have grown in number.

The vast bulk of UNISON members have been working throughout the pandemic, very many of them either in, or in a very similar setting, to previously before the pandemic (like offices and depots). As a result, we have made a real effort to maintain our presence in the workplace, with due regard to public health and safety measures. However, we have had to adapt how we do things. Branches and networks have put more emphasis on organising and communicating through social media and inevitably, the ‘zoom call’. Virtual rallies, webinars and symbolic demonstrations at workplaces, pictured and hashtagged are now all core campaigning activities. This hasn’t lacked challenges, but has illustrated innovation in organising. Our training programme for activists has both moved online and developed to meet the needs of the moment – most recently we have been delivering a widespread programme to train up activists to participate in COVID-related workplace safety inspection. With some groups, such as women working in social care, the shift to more online organising has made participation easier. Meetings are generally a bit shorter and more focussed too – no bad thing.

All of this will remain necessary as, regardless of the efficacy of any vaccine programme, the impact of the pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future, as can be seen from the Scottish Government’s Budget. There are welcome elements to the budget. The lack of a pay freeze being the most obvious one. This is not to say that the announced public sector policy is sufficient to reward the variety of public service workforces who have had a difficult year, without precedent. It does though allow scope for negotiation.

There are also serious concerns, gaps and deficiencies. In particular local government, bearing the brunt of community demands, continues to be the poor relative for Holyrood. The budget as announced sees local government set to receive a cash increase that only matched inflation. Audit Scotland estimated the cost of COVID to councils as over £760m with only 70% of being covered by the Scottish Government. This comes after years of settlements where the Scottish Government has passed on disproportionate cuts to local government and inadequate settlements to deliver Scottish Government priorities. UNISON’s concern in all this has been primarily the impact it has on local services to depressed local economies, communities and those who deliver them. There are increasingly urgent questions concerning the undermining of capacity and autonomy of a tier of democracy which should concern everyone.

Many of the issues which the pandemic will leave us with will take longer to tackle than the timeframe of any single budget. The next Scottish Government must take the opportunity that this rebuilding process represents as an occasion to do things differently. Too many parts of our society and economy were in crisis before the pandemic – there should be no going back to this as ‘normal’. We will be making the case that a sustainable recovery has to be service led, focussed on community wealth building and the foundational economy.

By this we mean prioritising essential goods and services like housing, utility supply, health, transport education and care. This foundational economy of branches and networks provides the infrastructure of everyday life. They serve our essential daily household needs, keeping us safe and civilised. These can and should be at the centre of any future economic strategy. Investing in these sectors provides both longer term economic benefit and increased social resilience. Investing in these sectors can provide reliable incomes for workers, with returns that go into the community rather than offshore bank accounts. They are sectors less vulnerable to economic shocks and more reliable over the medium and long term.

The care sector is a good example of this – as we have argued for years, and the recent Feeley Review report acknowledged. The contribution of adult social care to the Scottish economy extends beyond the care sector. For every £1 spent on social care, more than £2 is generated in others. Care could and should be a source of stable long term decent employment – and the more reforms of the sector focus on shifting to different ownership models based on public and community ownership, the more it will be delivering for local economies rather than shareholders.

These urgent issues of economic and social reconstruction will not, of course, be the only items likely to feature post-election. The constitution, specifically another referendum on independence, is also likely to be a matter of contention. As a union we do not have a position on independence. However, the decision as to whether or not another independence referendum is held is a matter for the Scottish Parliament to decide.

The last year has seen union members, particularly those in the public services, facing and rising to the unexpected challenges of a pandemic. The years ahead will see us facing a more familiar challenge – to prevent ‘economic recovery’ becoming a euphemism for attacks on the social provision, and wages of working people. Our enhanced organising capacity equips us for that challenge.

Mike Kirby is the regional secretary for UNISON Scotland