Unions work: planning for growth to tackle pressing problems

It won’t be ‘business as usual’ as Rozanne Foyer leads the STUC to get its ‘business’ done

I begin my role as General Secretary in challenging times. The rise of right-wing populism across the developed world is terrifying. But it is a symptom of the distrust that many people have in our economic and political institutions. The growing sense of exclusion that so many of us feel is not just a consequence of the most recent financial crisis but of the past four decades of deindustrialisation and free market, neo-liberal, economic policy. There is an urgent need for change in how our economy and society is shaped and how wealth and power is distributed.

Across the country, and in every community, poverty and inequality is rising. We know the reasons only too well. Brutal cuts in national and local services; fundamental changes to social security; the rising cost of living, with wages lagging far behind; and the growth of insecure and precarious work. While we know ‘austerity’ was just a smokescreen for reconfiguring and slashing the support and services we can expect from the state, it doesn’t ease any of the cruel hardship for those who are losing out: workers in poverty; single mothers struggling against mighty odds; disabled people who are already marginalised; and the hundreds of thousands of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.

We are also facing a climate emergency – another clear consequence of the excesses of neo-liberalism – which passes the costs on to working people, with no offer of better jobs or services, and lets the big polluters off the hook. As unions we must get to grips with this agenda, build collective campaigns and find solutions to the climate emergency that protect and empower the working class. It is a disgrace that Scotland has one of the largest wind resources in the world but next to no manufacturing jobs in renewables.

It is also a disgrace that the Scottish Government talks grandly of a climate emergency while failing to take the radical action needed. Where is the commitment to transform our public transport system to provide free services for everyone? Where is the commitment to local sourcing across all sectors of the economy? We need to address the uncomfortable reality that we haven’t been reducing CO2 but outsourcing it by producing what we consume in the global south?

With the UN’s international climate conference, COP26, taking place in Glasgow later this year, the STUC has a responsibility to set a clear vision of what a just transition truly means for workers and the Scottish economy. It is crucial workers get organised, stand up and fight back together for a greener, fairer world.

As a movement we have a lot to say. We are, and has always been, brimming with ideas about the society we want to build and the steps we need to take to do this. With 540,000 members across Scotland, 37 affiliated unions and 20 trades councils, we cannot be dismissed as an irrelevant or dying movement. We are bigger than the membership of all the political parties in Scotland put together and already have a presence in every community. I want the STUC to build on this strength so we can engage up and down the country and defend our class.

Growing our movement has to be at the core of everything that we do. Even an optimist like me recognises we need all the strength we can muster to meet the scale of the challenges facing us. Alongside rising poverty and inequality, and tackling climate change, we are dealing with the most draconian anti-union legislation in our lifetime. We need to organise in every sector of the economy, and we must reach out to a new generation of workers and show them the strength and empowerment that comes with being in the union. And we aren’t short of ideas on how to do it. Let’s start with reinvigorating our trades councils.

I’m encouraged. We don’t need to rely on the tales of grand mobilisations of old to demonstrate we can win. 30,000 teachers marched through Glasgow in 2018 on their way to secure a 13.5% pay rise and improved conditions. 10,000 women home carers, caterers, cleaners and school workers took industrial action over equal pay last year, after years of fighting for equality. Having taken eight days of industrial action in 2019, university lecturers are continuing their fight with a further 14 days of action right now.

Unions work. We are the most effective vehicle to advance working class interests and tackle the tough questions of our day. I want us to learn, listen and adapt but also have confidence in our movement’s tried and tested methods to build worker power. Our priority must be building our collective strength, empowering workers in every community through our trade councils and union branches, and creating the space for workers to organise, collectivise and fight – to win.

Rozanne Foyer is the General Secretary Designate of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)