Comment: Better Together? Not if you’re a trade unionist

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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AT THE recent SNP trade union group AGM, debate focused on the various UK trade union conferences and their delegates’ reactions to the current political choices facing union members in Scotland, particularly those organised around the public sector.

The challenging choices facing trade union colleagues in these times of austerity and constitutional debate dominate discussions.

More than ever we ask ourselves, what will the future hold for our members, often low paid and serving the most vulnerable in society? What promises do we believe and who can we trust?

We have been asking Scottish colleagues their view on the independence referendum. It’s a three way split. The first third are a definite No, then a third a definite Yes, and a crucial third who admit that they’ve moved from No to leaning towards Yes in the past year

The Yes and “maybe” punters hold the key to deciding the 2014 result – as with the wider public. But if we consider that trade union activists fall into the certain- to-turn-out-and-vote category then they could materially affect and define the result. Their reasons for inclining towards a positive vote for independence pose a real challenge to the status quo – and in particular, the Labour Party in Scotland.

Many trade union activists in Scotland believe it is becoming more and more obvious that Scotland and England are diverging politically. Delegates head home from national conferences acutely conscious that despite all the challenges facing the public sector in Scotland and the year-on-year pressures on our members, they aren’t facing the politically-motivated systematic dismantling of the public sector south of the Border.

Outsourcing and privatisation; the abandonment of protection of working conditions for public sector staff transferred to a new employer; removal of trade union facility time to represent and support members in difficulties – all are challenges found more in England and Wales than in Scotland. This erosion of hard-won rights is coupled with attacks designed to foster a culture of envy and dislike of trade unions, pitting workers in the private sector against those in the public sector – using language promoting the race to the bottom when it comes to dignity at work.

These attacks provide the weakest points in the Better Together armoury. Attacks on employment law, where statutory redundancy has been reduced to 45 days, contempt for health and safety legislation, removal of civil liability claims, welfare reform, and continuing austerity are not reasons for a trade union activist in Scotland to vote to keep the Union.

Curiously one other factor in the decision to vote for independence for many trade unionists may be political factors in other parts of the UK. The rise of the isolationist and anti-immigration Ukip and the overly cautious, borderline-timid approach of Labour shadow front benchers afraid to challenge a centralist/right wing orthodoxy does nothing to assuage the doubts of many trade unionists who have stuck with the party in the belief that they share core values.

With each passing year trade union activists I speak to are in despair about the Labour party as an agent for change – witness the recent statements from Ed Balls and Ed Miliband on public spending, more Blairite “let’s stick to Tory public spending plans”, 1997 re-visited. Not an inspiring prospect for those who have supported and funded a party leadership that is more interested in appeasing the people and institutions who don’t share core 
Labour values.

Scottish independence opens up the prospect of building a genuine Scottish Labour Party built on the traditions of the trade union and labour movement. The brutal political dynamic is that this is a level of change that too many vested interests in the Labour Party have no intention of considering as they rely on a cohort of Scottish Labour MPs to serve as the baseline to get Ed Miliband into Number 10. This will not allow for any consideration of an alternative future, and yet, we do live in interesting times and voters are looking for something different in a world of global change.

I am campaigning hard for a positive future for Scotland based on an open dialogue about what best supports the lowest paid and most vulnerable in our society – and many of my trade union colleagues are starting to question whether continuing with a political model that’s delivered some of the highest levels of inequality and poorest health outcomes in the developed world is truly better together. «

• Chris Stephens is a senior Unison activist in Glasgow, secretary of the SNP trade union group, and a SNP candidate in next year’s European elections