We’ve Overcome the Mythical Separation Between Workers and Public

Roz Foyer explains why the season of strikes has brought the public into closer connection with the battles of our unions.

This year’s STUC annual Congress follows a year in which industrial action was at its highest level for the past decade and takes place during a year in which that trend is most certainly continuing. In truth, this comparison understates the real significance of the current situation. Ten years ago, the large majority of industrial action centred on public sector unions undertaking a co-ordinated one-day action in defence of pensions. By contrast, over the past year we have seen industrial action across sectors including industries such as transport, Royal Mail, telecoms and energy alongside a whole range of public sector groups. In areas such as health and the fire service, strong ballot results for industrial action induced improved employer offers. In local government, strikes in key sectors combined with the threat of future wider action delivered a positive result. At the time of writing teacher unions are expecting an improved offer following two solid strike days. This represents by far the broadest, most organised industrial unrest in a generation.

The economic crisis is a combination of the effects of Brexit, bad policy choices during Covid, and disastrous fiscal interventions designed to bring on a recession. It has provoked widespread anger and the conditions for building collective action. Union membership and activity is growing with high ballot turnouts, busy pickets, mass rallies and demonstrations. We continue to receive high levels of public support. This is in part due to the recognition of the role of key workers during the pandemic followed by the shared suffering from the cost of living crisis. But it also seems likely that the sheer breadth of industrial action has meant that members of the public not directly involved in an industrial dispute feel a closer connection to the battles we are fighting. This is best seen in the abject failure of the Tories to capitalise on the mythical separation between ‘workers’ and the ‘public’. Arguably, the trade union movement has emerged as the main opposition to government generally and the Tories specifically. Through the period of the pandemic, workplace organisation and the role of unions gained real agency. Now, specific wage disputes and our campaigning around issues such as energy costs are publicly recognised as the main counterpoint to the cost of living crisis. Right wing politicians and media outlets have tried and failed to ‘take down our leaders’ and attack us with outdated tropes which don’t work anymore. The Tories in particular have woefully misjudged the public mood.

Of course, we have not yet been successful everywhere. Even when we have won, some degree of compromise has been necessary. Now is certainly not the time to take our foot off the pedal. Even as some disputes are won, we must double down to ensure that no part of our movement that is in dispute is left behind. We must continue to organise and build outwards. Winning builds confidence and gives us the opportunity through education and organising to build durable workplace power. It also presents the opportunity to forge long term durable alliances with community and campaign organisations. All of the STUC’s priority campaigns seek to achieve this goal, to combine collective workplace success with wider political and policy goals. Our Just Transition campaign includes calls for a public energy company, municipal ownership of buses and council retrofit programmes, all of which also attract significant support from community campaigners and environmentalists. Our National Care Service Campaign has successfully united user groups, local authorities and enlightened providers. Our Scotland Demands Better campaign is underpinned by. These have received widespread support not just from think tanks and academics, but from anti-poverty campaign groups.

These are policies and campaigns that can deliver short term wins but should also be seen as a part of a wider struggle to rebalance power and wealth in this country. Thus, this strategy is not separate from wider democratic issues. Tory attacks on trade union freedom present a massive challenge which as well as requiring continued resistance require a wider public campaign. We are seeing attacks on devolution at precisely the time that we need more power to be vested in the Scottish Parliament. UK Government voter suppression legislation presents a massive challenge to our class. So, the challenges are many. And true to form, the right wing continues to attempt to capitalise on the economic crisis to scapegoat minority groups. Nowhere is this truer than in its horrific treatment of migrants and refugees. However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Collective action is working, and the Tories continue to languish in the polls. Our task now is to continue to collectivise and organise, to increase our education programmes and to build outwards into our communities. With this strategy and the skills and commitment of our reps and activists, I have every confidence that we can win.

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