The Strength of Our Unions

This year’s victories are testament to the success of strike campaigns and the deepening of effective political arguments. Roz Foyer, STUC General Secretary, reviews the state of the unions.

When trade union delegates gathered in Dundee for the STUC’s 126th Annual Congress this month, we were not short of challenges, but neither were we short on ideas about how to achieve economic justice for our class. We remain in a cost-of-living crisis which represents the biggest fall in living standards since records began in 1956. We are facing drastic cuts to public services, caused by the UK Government but enabled by the Scottish Government. Our right to strike is being attacked by a Tory government that is rotten to the core, and whose only interest seems to be deciding who its next scapegoat might be. Policy makers, across the board, appear unwilling to countenance the kind of public intervention needed to ensure a just transition to net zero.

It is easy to feel despondent and powerless. But there are cracks of light that offer hope to working-class people and the collective action that workers have taken in recent years is the brightest light of all. Across Scotland, we’ve seen more than 450 strikes, involving more than 165,000 workers, in the last 12 months. Workers in schools, colleges, universities, councils, on our railways and buses, and across the private sector, have all taken the difficult decision to go on strike, just to get a decent pay rise on the table, or get cuts to services taken off it. And while it is a scandal that already struggling workers have had to take strike action to protect their pay and protect their jobs, the fact remains that taking strike action works.

Roz Foyer addresses an EIS FELA picket line in Glasgow.

Don’t just take my word for it. Look at our Council workers winning over £600m more than the initial COSLA pay offer following strike action in schools, early years and waste. Look at EIS-FELA union members winning no compulsory redundancies for lecturers at the City of Glasgow College following three months of strike action. Look at UCU members winning a historic pensions victory following 69 days of strike action in a five-year battle to fully restore their pensions. 

Look at Unite, GMB and UNISON members at Scottish Water winning an improved pay offer and a reduction in the working week following strike action. Look at unions in South Lanarkshire winning more than £20 million in back pay for 1,000 care workers who were underpaid by £3 per hour by South Lanarkshire Council. Look at ASLEF defeating the first test of the Tory’s anti-union minimum service levels legislation, after LNER withdrew their minimum services levels notice in response to ASLEF announcing five extra days of strikes. And don’t forget the firefighters in the FBU who delivered a resounding vote for strike action and secured a long overdue pay deal.

Roz Foyer at the 126th annual STUC Congress in Dundee.

It isn’t just in the public sector that unions have been winning. In recent months, Unite have won a 17.4% pay rise for thousands of construction workers and new recognition agreements for contractors at Saint Fergus gas terminal, following strike action. GMB have won £125,000 owed to members who worked for the public sector contractor McTears. EIS and NASUWT members have won enhanced pay and pensions, alongside official recognition at the private Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow following four days of strike action.

Taking industrial action is never easy. For the workers involved it takes courage and sacrificse, and I want to pay tribute to every single worker across Scotland who has taken action to defend their pay, their services, and their communities. Our research shows that in the last two years workers in Scotland have won more than £4 billion pounds through industrial action. More than £3 billion of that is money that the bosses and government ministers claimed wasn’t available. That money would not have been in the hands of working people if unionised workers had not acted collectively and fought back. Trade unions are Scotland’s most progressive force: a beacon for those struggling to redistribute wealth and close the gender pay gap.

The STUC has unashamedly taken those arguments for redistribution into the political sphere. Be in no doubt, the Scottish Government would not have introduced a new tax rate for those earning between £75,000-125,000 in the most recent Budget, had it not been for the STUC. But it’s not enough. We need politicians across all parties to commit to using the full powers of the Scottish Parliament to deliver tax reforms focused on wealth and property, which could raise £3.7 billion extra each year. And whilst it might be easier, or more beneficial at the ballot box, to call for lower taxes on the one hand but more investment in public services on the other, our politicians need to be honest with the people they represent. We can’t have Scandinavian quality public services, and American levels of taxes. It just doesn’t add up.

As well as progressive tax reform, with more than 100,000 workers in Scotland on zero-hour contracts, the need for improved workers’ rights has never been clearer. That is why we welcome Labour’s New Deal for Working People and their commitment to implement this within the first hundred days of a Labour government. A ban on zero-hour contracts; employment rights from day one; Fair Pay Agreements to reverse the decades-long decline in collective bargaining; and repeal of the Tories pernicious anti- strike laws: these measures represent the biggest expansion of workers’ rights in a generation and they cannot come a moment too soon. But as crucial as the New Deal is, I also want an incoming UK Labour government to devolve employment law to Scotland, in line with the calls from the STUC, the Scottish Labour Party and, as of last year, the TUC. Devolution of employment law has long been the settled will of Scotland’s workers. It is now the settled will of UK workers too, and we will continue to push this issue up the political agenda. 

Alongside policy changes to redistribute income and wealth, and extend workers’ rights, we need an extension of public ownership in social care, energy and transport. These are all sectors of the economy that are crucial to how we live our lives, but which see huge profits leak out of our hands through outsourcing, corporate financial engineering, and tax avoidance.

These political arguments – and the methods that can help bring change about – need to be at the fingertips of our people. That is why, in recent months, we have delivered cost-of-living political education courses to hundreds of members. It is why we have hosted events looking at how we leverage employers and how we organise against cuts. It is why we have hosted an online meeting with legendary American trade union organiser Jane McAlevey. It is why we have supported weekend training sessions for social care workers, where union members from different sectors and unions work together on campaigns to improve their terms and conditions. This programme of organising, learning and political education brings together members, reps, organisers and officers from across Scotland’s trade unions. It is crucial if we are to produce a new generation of trade union activists and leaders. If we fail to plant the seeds of worker education, we fail to grow our movement.

In my experience, few politicians lead. Most follow. It is incumbent upon us as trade unionists – working together in the largest institutions of the organised working class – to force them to follow us. That requires organising at workplace and community level, campaigning at a national level, and renewing worker education within our movement. It isn’t an easy task, but little worth doing ever is.

Roz Foyer is the General Secretary of the Scottish Trads Union Congress.