Rebuilding collective prosperity

Dave Moxham looks at the agenda for the STUC Congress and shows that in a space between an economic collapse and the election of a new government the influence of the trade unions has never been more important

As Scotland’s trade unions prepare to gather in the Caird Hall, Dundee for the 113th Annual Congress on 19/21 April the ongoing economic crisis will dominate discussion and debate both inside and outside the conference hall Despite the concerted effort of many in the business community to talk up the so-called green shoots of recovery, the reality for our members is the threat of ongoing cuts to jobs in both private and public sector and a level of attacks on public services which will impact on the most vulnerable in society whilst risking a return to recession. The Congress also takes place just weeks before a General Election which many believe is too close to call but of which one potential outcome is the return of a Tory Government committed to deeper and far more vicious cuts which will scar a generation in the way that characterised previous Conservative responses to economic downturns in the early 1980s and early 1990s.

In this context it can be expected that Congress will receive significant attention from politicians and media and whilst manifestos have obviously long since been written and political approaches agreed, the opportunity to influence the nature of the political discourse in the final weeks of the election must not be missed. There will, no doubt, also be media focus on Congress searching for any evidence of the political stance of affiliates to the parties in the lead up to the election.

As related in my article for Left Review last year, STUC’s 2009 Congress by-line was “Rebuilding Collective Prosperity” a theme which reflects its view that notwithstanding the immediate responsibility of the policies of governments and the actions of financial institutions for the crisis in commodities and finance which sparked descent into recession, a more fundamental failure of politics and economics lies at the root of our current difficulties. The demise of the key equalising institutions such as democratically-owned industry and public services, a strong manufacturing sector, progressive taxation, secure employment and strong trade unions, council housing and community organisations, has rendered a situation in which there is little to put a brake on the tendency of a laissez faire economy to produce an income distribution of extremes. In particular, deregulation of labour and product markets cannot be reconciled with aspirations for broadly-shared prosperity launched its Rebuilding Collective Prosperity campaign under five main themes; rebalancing the economy, prioritising jobs as a response to the recession, tackling income inequality, investing in public services and tackling climate change through just transition.

The General Council will address these challenges in its three major motions to Congress which pick up many of the themes of the STUC’s Manifesto for Rebuilding Collective Prosperity, which will be published towards the end of March. The Manifesto outlines a number of social and economic policies which can help to repair the damage of the economic recession and, in so doing, create the conditions for a fairer and more sustainable future. The focus is on policies which move towards a fundamental rebalancing of the economy through investing in people, redistributing income and ensuring that our banks and industries are accountable and properly regulated. The General Council motion to Congress therefore calls for policies committed to:

  • maintaining public spending to ensure that the recovery becomes embedded and that support is provided to those hardest hit by recession;
  • paying a national living wage as set by the Scottish Living Wage Campaign and promoting the Living Wage through public contracts;
  • reforming the financial sector;
  • supporting manufacturing investment in emerging environmental industries to create jobs; and
  • overhauling the taxation framework to ensure genuine progressivity.

Despite the current understandable cynicism about the political process, there has also never been a more important time for civic Scotland and its communities to be engaged in the formation of a new vision for collective prosperity in Scotland and across the UK

In immediate response to the current crisis, the General Council is also calling for the UK and Scottish Governments to work with the STUC and employers’ organisations to limit the impact of the recession on workers, industries and communities by:

  • maintaining support for apprenticeships;
  • protecting education, skills and economic development budgets;
  • extending the Future Jobs Fund, with a focus on unemployment hotspots;
  • introducing specific measures to tackle persistent long-term youth unemployment;
  • introducing a wage and training subsidy to support workers faced with short-time working, as a means of saving jobs; and
  • increasing out of work and in work benefits, assisting those on low incomes and boosting economic demand.

Despite the current understandable cynicism about the political process, there has also never been a more important time for civic Scotland and its communities to be engaged in the formation of a new vision for collective prosperity in Scotland and across the UK. So we also need a major clean-up and reinvigoration of our politics. STUC’s Manifesto calls for a referendum on proportional representation; votes at 16; a fully elected second chamber; and a commitment to the immediate implementation of the Calman Commission proposals. But reform politics is only part of the picture and a root and branch examination of the way civil society relates and applies itself to the political process is also required.

In a special session on the first morning of Congress, STUC will hear from colleagues in the ICTU who will outline the massive challenges faced in Ireland and the swingeing attacks being meted out to public sector workers’ pay and pensions. IT will serve as a stark reminder that major threats exist in Scotland and the UK.

A key element of the Manifesto for Rebuilding Collective Prosperity, the STUC also launched ‘PEOPLE FIRST’ – A charter for public services in Scotland. At its core is the view that public services are at the heart of a democratic society, are essential in supporting individuals and families, developing strong, cohesive communities, ensuring social and economic justice and promoting economic growth.

One key message of the charter is that governments at every level, local, Scottish and Westminster have the duty and capacity to assert itself in defence of the services they have a responsibility to deliver for those they represent. It is vital that the Westminster Government is prepared to stand up to big business interests and the global financial institutions in plotting a public services-centred response to the economic downturn but it is also important that Scottish local authorities and the Scottish Government recognise their own duties and recognise that the Concordat and lost revenue from its attendant Council Tax Freeze, not to mention the Small Business Bonus Scheme, are seriously impacting upon public services.

In its Tackling Income Inequality motion, the General Council will propose a major programme of income redistribution based on an overhaul of the tax and benefits system and action on wage inequality. Real wages have fallen as a proportion of output. Because pay did not grow fast enough to underpin final demand, excessive borrowing by earners was encouraged. The increased concentration of wealth and income raised returns on some forms of financial investment. In this way, wage inequality was a direct contributor to the economic crisis. Tackling wage inequality requires a multi-layered strategy including investigating the potential for maximum wages, raising the minimum wage and supporting the Scottish Living Wage Campaign. STUC has called on government at all levels to become Living Wage employers, both in relation to its direct employees and those employed through services it procures. A joined-up and simplified approach to the tax and benefits systems, including an increase in Job Seeker’s Allowance rates to pre-1997 levels and an increase in earnings disregards to reduce barriers to employment are proposed with significant and progressive increases in the rate of the Minimum Wage and increased punishment of those companies found to be in breach of Minimum Wage legislation.

One key message of the charter is that governments at every level, local, Scottish and Westminster have the duty and capacity to assert itself in defence of the services they have a responsibility to deliver for those they represent

To address these issues the General Council is calling on congress to endorse reform of the tax system including measures to:

  • limit tax relief claimed by those earning more than £100,000 a year;
  • introduce a financial transaction tax;
  • introduce a new law called a ‘general anti-avoidance principle’ that treats all tax avoidance as unacceptable and therefore open to challenge;
  • tackle income shifting by reforming the way in which small companies are taxed; and
  • reverse HMRC staff cuts.

In addition to the focus on the economy, public services and tackling economic injustice, the Congress agenda will focus on the defence of workers and trade union rights, continuing to fight the threat of the BNP, international justice and peace.

If, as predicted, the Congress closes two weeks before a General Election, these debates will take place before we know the future direction of an incoming UK government. We may well be facing the very real threat of a Tory Prime Minister. But irrespective of outcome, a united approach amongst Scotland’s trade unions and wider civil society to delivering on a shared agenda for change will not disappear.