Unions: first, last and best line of defence

Mike Kirby surveys the terrain on which the battle to defend public services and their workers will be fought

The famous adage, originating from Marx (Karl not Groucho) that ’we make our own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing’ retains its relevance today. Few, indeed, are the trade unionists who would have chosen any circumstance involving Boris Johnson as PM. Whilst no one is going to accuse him of being a model of consistency, there is no doubt that many of those around him are in thrall to a free market ideology that is hostile to the very idea of collective rights and organisation.

Our response has to be what unions should be doing whenever and wherever we are faced with a government looking to attack working people – and even when we are not – and that is building our power in the workplace. This cannot be the sole response, of course, but without it very little else is possible. We must be alert to the changing nature of the workforce – as services, society and the economy change, we must ensure that we are recruiting and organising in the areas where the workforce is expanding. Two very obvious examples of this are social care and early learning. A strong union presence in these areas is important, not just to protect the workforce from exploitation but also to provide pressure to maintain the quality of the services provided.

There will, of course, be a certain amount of holding the Westminster Government to account on the promises that they did make. It’s worthwhile bearing in mind that to win the Tories did need to promise extra spending on infrastructure, the NHS, and policing in order to win. Indeed, almost all of the extra money the Scottish Government proposes to spend in its budget comes from the Barnett formula consequentials of this, rather than the Scottish Government utilising its own revenue raising capacity. Continued pressure on the Tories to deliver on these pledges will be necessary.

It also seems likely that we will need to mount a defence of fundamental rights. Tory plans for a ban on strikes on the rail network put transport unions in the immediate front (or is it ‘main’?) line. There can though be little doubt that should the Tories succeed in this stripping of rights, it will be used as a wedge issue. The same logic, rhetoric and legal sanction will be deployed to strip workers in other essential services of their rights.

While a Johnson-led Westminster Government seems to be the source of many of our problems, we must work at getting the Scottish Government to be more than their delivery mechanism. We will be arguing for the Scottish Government to use the extent of its powers to sustain public services and investment. The full range of possible and necessary steps they could take is outwith the scope of this article – but the annual £700m giveaway through business tax exemptions is surely well past the time to be re-examined.

The impact of the Scottish Government’s contradictory aim of quality services and low tax rates is most obviously seen in local government. The Scottish Government maintains that the budget for councils has increased. The real picture, however, is that the discretionary spending capacity of councils remains almost unchanged – but councils are being given additional spending commitments by the Scottish Government which amount to an extra £590 mn – amounting to a real term cut of around £95m. This comes with a strict control from the centre on potential council tax increases.

All this will mean councils attempting to make cuts. We will, of course, work to maintain the terms and conditions of our members, and sustain the quality of the services that they deliver. One aspect of this has to be a robust defence of the quality of working life. This goes beyond a defence of core terms and conditions, although those too may need to be defended. In the last decade across public services cuts have left in their wake an over stretched and demoralised workforce. Workload has increased as numbers employed have dropped. What’s labelled ‘efficiency’ is often merely attrition. Stress-related illness and depression have reached epidemic levels. Sickness absence has gone from being a tool to maintain a healthy workforce to a weapon to seeking to define people as weak and target them for dismissal.

While of necessity opposing some aspects of its agenda, we will work with the Scottish Government where we can. Fair Work is a Scottish Government commitment and the principles concerned (that work should provide opportunity, fulfilment, security, respect and effective voice) are applicable to every workforce. Specifically, the vast majority of UNISON members work in devolved services which rely ultimately upon public funding. They should, therefore, not be beyond the influence of the Scottish Government. We will be pressing the Scottish Government to deliver further on this programme – a move towards sectoral bargaining in the care sector is an obvious, and overdue, objective.

The precise nature of the threats facing us, in this post-Brexit Boris moment, may not be known. What is certain though is that, whatever they are, the greater our strength on the ground, the easier they will be challenged.

Mike Kirby is the Scottish Secretary of UNISON.