Comment: Independence changes little for the unions

A triumph for the ‘yes’ campaign may not bring revolution for workers as some predict, writes Gregor Gall

Today sees the last in a series of meetings the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has held in September over its ‘A just Scotland’ consultation exercise, which has seen hundreds of union activists discuss the implications of the different constitutional options for achieving the goal of social justice.

But as September rolled on, it has become ever clearer that the third option of devo-max – which has been favoured by the STUC and its affiliates – will not make it onto the ballot paper come the referendum.

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Consequently, the options are the status quo or independence. In themselves, neither necessarily delimits change. For example, Labour could campaign for the Union on the basis of delivering substantial change when it next attains Westminster office. Or a left-wing majority may prevail in parliament under independence and deliver radical change.

Yet both are far less likely than a “no” vote maintaining the status quo as we currently have it and a “yes” vote seeing the continuation of deregulated capitalism under a future SNP administration. Ironically then, for unions, industrial relations and employment law, even independence could result in plus ça change plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So, for argument’s sake, let us assume that a “yes” vote is delivered in 2014 and it leads to an SNP administration. What then would unions, industrial relations and employment law look like shortly after independence? This gives us a heuristic way of looking at the implications of options of going it alone or staying with the Union.

For unions as organisations themselves, the implications of independence are remarkably slight. Existing Britain-wide unions would not see the secession of their former Scottish members into newly formed Scottish-only unions for two reasons.

First, it makes no sense for workers employed by the same company north and south of the Border to be members of different unions. The slogan, “Unity is strength”, still applies.

Indeed, the continuing challenge for unions lies in the opposite direction, namely to form organisations that unite workers in Britain with those in Europe and elsewhere. The sense of “think global, act local” necessitates inter-national organisation.

Second, workers north and south of the Border would still be subject to the increasingly business-friendly European Union diktats. No longer has the EU’s social chapter the prominence it used to. Instead, the right to strike has been undermined while privatisation has been promoted.

Consequently, union members on both sides of the Border would still need to act together to resist this neo-liberal agenda. Continuing to remain in the same unions would help coordinate and strengthen such a response.

Of course, unions would need to cede more autonomy to their Scottish sections under independence. Already some have progressed down this road under devolution, but it would need to go further to allow the latitude and resources to respond to particular Scottish aspects of the more general challenges. Indeed, the STUC would need an enhanced presence and resource-base to rise to its challenges.

There is historical precedence to this. After the Irish Free State was established in 1921, the forerunners of the biggest union in Britain, Unite, continued to operate either side of the Irish Sea. So too did the tiny National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Both Unite and the NUJ continue to do so as the Irish republic approaches its centenary.

What of collective bargaining structures? Again, and unless employers decided to play “divide and rule”, it would make no sense to have companies operating north and south of the Border negotiating separately with their Scottish and English workforces. This would involve duplication, and in times of economic growth, the danger of pay leapfrogging.

Turning to employment law, and going on the little the SNP has iterated on the matter so far, not a whole lot of change is expected.

Whether, for example, lowering the entitlement to claim unfair dismissal (from the current two years) is in prospect is unclear. Certainly, it would clash with the SNP’s policy of making Scotland attractive for overseas investment. And, it is this which might create friction within Britain-wide unions. If an SNP-led independent Scotland cut corporation tax to a Celtic Tiger level of 10 per cent, workers in England and Wales will be put under pressure to compete for overseas investment where they can.

This will then be on pay, conditions and work flexibility. If they do concede such concessions, employers may then say to workers in Scotland “match or better those conditions” to get new jobs. That way lies the “race to the bottom”.

The one big potential area for change is public sector employment – numbers employed and their pay and pensions. If the SNP wants to make good on its promises of a fairer Scotland under independence, this is the key area to do so in. There’d be no hiding behind the baleful influence of Westminster’s austerity measures. The rub is that unless the SNP generates the revenue for this – through its business-friendly measures and a growing economy – it will not happen. Indeed, there are potential tensions between private sector workers feeling themselves taken advantage of in order to fund public sector workers

So it is quite stark that independence would not lead to dramatic change – certainly not under an SNP administration. The heraldry and the like would undoubtedly change under independence, but the content of the rules and regulations that govern employment are far less likely to do so. This is a big problem for the STUC and the unions. It’s not so much a case of sticking with the “devil you know” – the Union – as having little certainty that the alternative of independence is an alternative at all. When the STUC publishes its report on the results of its consultation exercise, it will have to grapple with this thorny issue.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire.