Trades Councils Guard the Flame

Trades union councils give strength and focus to the domestic and international struggles of Scotland’s labour movement, writes Mike Arnott, President of the STUC.

Historians among you will be aware that at the 1895 TUC Congress in Cardiff, trades councils were expelled from the TUC, in essence for being too radical and rubbing the affiliated unions up the wrong way. At the end of that year, Dundee and ten other Scottish trades councils met in Mathers (now the Malmaison) Hotel in Dundee to discuss how to respond to the expulsion. Proposed tactics differed, but efforts were focussed on attempting to get the decision reversed at the 1896 Congress in Edinburgh. This strategy was unsuccessful and, in 1897, as a direct result, the Scottish TUC was born.

April 15th will see the 127th STUC Congress open in Dundee’s Caird Hall. I’m particularly proud to be this year’s STUC President, not only as the first President representing Dundee TUC since 1899, but also as a Trades Union Council representative on the General Council in what has been a signal year for Trades Union Councils in Scotland.

The constant solidarity of Dundee TUC and other Trades Union Councils is second to none.

As the far right saw political capital to be made from scapegoating asylum seekers and refugees, particularly at soft targets like Home Office-funded hotels, we saw an amazing campaign of solidarity led by Paisley TUC at the Muthu Hotel in Erskine. For over a year, a weekly far-right Homeland Party presence outside the venue was faced down every Sunday by local trade unionists, regularly supported by contingents from Clydebank and Glasgow TUCs and other groups, helping to develop support for the hotel residents within the Erskine community and nipping in the bud any potential for Homeland to build a local base of support. A similar, thankfully less protracted response was necessary at Elgin, where a campaign led by Moray TUC, working with community allies, saw off a copycat attempt by the racist Highland Division group to target another proposed Home Office hotel venue. Less heralded, due to the merciful absence of fascist attention, has been sterling solidarity work undertaken by Dumfries and Galloway TUC to support refugees in similar circumstances near Dumfries.  

The Internationalism of the wider Scottish Trade Union movement has been on view in the last year, not least in the widespread support for the people of Gaza. Palestine has long been an issue for our movement and was the subject of a Dundee TUC Congress motion at Rothesay in 1979. With our support for Palestinian self-determination, BDS, and defining the treatment by the Israeli state of its Palestinian citizens as apartheid, the STUC and its affiliates have often been at the forefront of proclaiming support for the Palestinian people. As I write this, another fire appliance has just left Dundee on its way to Nablus, organised by the FBU with the support of the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, mirroring a similar act of solidarity in 2011. Affiliated unions, local TUCs and the STUC have provided various forms of support to the myriad of public actions on our streets in recent months and in pressing our political class for a ceasefire and for a just and lasting settlement.  

On the domestic front, local TUCs have also been on the streets across Scotland, joining local civil society organisations and the public in lobbying local authorities on budget cuts and campaigning on climate-related issues such as domestic heat pumps and local bus regulation. Meanwhile they have beenrunning central planks of our movement’s public profile such as International Workers’ Memorial Day events and Mayday marches and rallies, often against great resource-related impediments. Local TUCs also support industrial actions and related campaigns by STUC affiliated unions, attending and publicising picket lines and protests, and helping to lobby employers and local politicians and win public support for the trade union side. The need for local trade union branches to continue to affiliate and support our TUCs is something I will always advocate and encourage, and I call on the leaderships of Scotland’s trade unions to renew their vigour in ensuring that their local branches put this into practice.

Mike Arnott at STUC Congress 2024

Of course, on the trade union front, this year has been characterised by workers and trade unions’ continuing fight to combat the effect of widespread price increases, often through successful pay campaigns. Despite it not being all good news, astonishing victories have been achieved, often in the private sector. And although devolved public services in Scotland have seen the Scottish Government step up to the plate on a number of occasions to help settle public sector pay claims in a way Westminster so obviously hasn’t, other responses from Holyrood have disappointed. Fair Work, from their side, is still far too much of a statement of intent, only with too many statements and too little discernible intent. If Scotland’s trade unions are still having to look to the International Labour Organisation for practical definitions of worker participation, how is this important pillar of Fair Work really delivering progress? The Scottish Government also seems, if we’re being generous, to be blissfully unaware of the meaning of the term Collective Bargaining. It apparently lacks comprehension of how, or even why, it should be encouraged in care, for example, and in other sectoral areas. The progress made by PCS in advancing a Holyrood-focussed shorter working week does, however, show that advances are possible.This isn’t a comprehensive overview of the forthcoming STUC Congress. It is a pretty partial commentary through Trades Council tinted spectacles. And so in the same partial vein, with this being the last Congress before the UK general election, I will conclude with the wise words of one of Dundee TUC’s motions on the agenda: ‘Congress … believes that the decisions of our Congress provide the best election manifesto for the Scottish people’. Trades union councils, creators of the STUC, continue to be its keenest champions at its 127th Congress.

Mike Arnott was STUC President, 2023-24. He has been the Secretary of Dundee Trades Union Council since 1994.