Scotland's trades unions are finding they've got some muscle to flex – Gina Davidson

The coronavirus pandemic, we keep being informed, has changed everything.

Trade unions are becoming increasingly relevant once again (Picture: John Devlin)
Trade unions are becoming increasingly relevant once again (Picture: John Devlin)

It has changed our working patterns, proving people can be as productive at home as in the office. It has altered our views on the importance of public health measures. It has made many parents appreciate the value of a good teacher.

Nicola Sturgeon said it had even changed her view on how politics should be done – and now she’s in talks with the Scottish Greens about a co-operation agreement. It would be a first for Scotland if a deal is struck.

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Most of all it has raised our appreciation for health workers, and indeed all of those who were on the frontline as the virus swept through the country, be they social care staff, lorry drivers, bin collectors – the people who kept the whole show on the road as much as possible in the teeth of the pandemic storm.

Yet now that we appear to be through the worst of it all, one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is matching that appreciation of the public sector workforce with some cold, hard cash.

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While nurses have been told they will receive a four per cent pay rise, according to trade unions currently in negotiations with Cosla about pay for council staff, government ministers don’t believe they are “on a par” with health workers, so there’s no cash for them. Calls for £15 an hour for social care staff have also gone unheeded.

The unions have, unsurprisingly called such an attitude a “slap in the face” and staff are being balloted for industrial action.

Earlier this week Cosla president Alison Evison said the government was on a “dangerous” road in how it treated local authorities and that its “rhetoric on empowering the local does not match the reality”. Unions would argue that disconnect extends to local government staff and how much they should be paid.

Meanwhile, new GMB general secretary, Gary Smith, has said he’d support his members in Glasgow going on strike to disrupt the upcoming climate change conference as a protest against the level of budgetary cuts the city has faced.

Furthermore School Leaders Scotland and Unison are demanding a government rethink over its decision to exclude school support staff from a £400 payment going to teachers and lecturers in recognition of the extra work involved in delivering qualifications this year. The decision they say “ignores and disregards the substantial input” of other school staff.

Of course it’s yet to be seen if all the hard-hitting letter-writing to ministers pays off, but maybe there’s some flex in trades unions’ muscles yet.

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They’ve had a hard time of it in recent years. Many have become toothless, membership is down, a combination of too many “gig economy” workers and a belief that they no longer achieve much.

However, after a year like no other, demands for pay rises commensurate with all the “going above and beyond” done by so many in the public sector are hard to ignore.

Unions will have more public support for their demands right now than they possibly will have had in some time. They should make sure they capitalise on that.

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