Monday, 7 November 2011

Independence - which way will the Trades Unions jump?

This is the substance of a contribution I made to a recent debate organised by the Communist Party of Scotland on the topic of trade unions and independence. Other contributers included Chris Stephens of the SNP TU Group, Jimmy Cloughley of the CPS and ex-UCS Steward and Dave Moxham, DGS of the STUC. I believe it is planned to put out a pamphlet collecting the contributions together. 
Despite the somewhat febrile, and often almost certainly manufactured reports that pass for debate on the issue of independence in the press - and not just the tabloids - This is certainly the first serious discussion that I am aware of that covers this ground - a fact that in itself is significant and says much about where TUs are at the moment. More on that later.

Who are we talking about?
The first thing to say about Scottish Trade Unions is of course that there are damn few of them! With the exception of the teaching profession, the vast majority of TUs operating in Scotland are UK organisations which sometimes have a Scottish organisation with a degree of autonomy, more or less broad depending on the organisation.

(Of course some TUs are actually British Isles-wide operations - with sections in the Irish Republic and/or Northern Ireland, but that would be to open up another whole debate).
Despite the increasingly separate nature of law, politics, media and attitudes in Scotland, very few TUs have properly addressed these factors. When I was appointed by Nalgo in 1989, I was the only TU publicity person employed in Scotland, and even then I was officially attached to the union’s London department, who told me that I should not be dealing with the Scottish media!
The arrival of a Scottish Parliament, a merger of unions and a reorganisation of HQ departments took place before even UNISON - and I venture to suggest that they were in the forefront of addressing the issues - set up the type of structure that took cognisance of the new realities in Scotland.
Now the recognition of these needs is wider, but I venture to suggest that it still isn’t universal in the TU movement. This, of course, has an impact not only in the union concerned but in STUC - a fully autonomous body, able to (and I suggest very successfully) articulate and promote the TU movement’s profile and views with Scotland’s politicians, media and civic society. The STUC, however, is resourced and financed by these same central UK organisations with varying levels of autonomy. The last factor of all to be autonomised, of course being finance!! (Even UNISON - with its high levels of Branch organisation, policy, media, campaigning, bargaining, and communications autonomy, still pays its STUC affiliation fees from London, and technically its delegation to Congress is bound by UNISON UK policy).
A rough count suggests that of 650,000 TU members in Scotland - 580,000 are in UK-based unions.
What shapes their policy?
Of course, if we are looking at attitudes to independence, it will not always be the case that this will be dependent on where the union is based. Policy-making is sometimes a complex process in our TUs and there are degrees of relaxation on whether policy on Scottish issues is made close to the source, or remotely from London - often degrees of relaxation that vary according to the issue. In UNISON for example, London would be relaxed about a Scottish policy decision being taken on (say) devolution of broadcasting, but would be far from relaxed on a Scottish policy calling for (say) the break up of the NHS. In either case, however, ultimately the union’s policy will be adopted by the union as a whole.
In fact the NHS proves to be an interesting case in point illustrating another factor that will influence TU attitudes to independence. It is something that has already caused waves within UNISON and will no doubt, have varying impacts on other unions. The principle that someone doing a particular job in one hospital or clinic (or any other workplace) should be paid the same as someone doing that job in another, is a strongly-held union principle and one that underpins grading structures in UK-wide organisations such as the NHS. 
It is of course, also one that employers increasingly want to scrap, so the thought that independence may give that attack further support may well predispose TU activist minds (on both side of the border) in opposition to independence.
A similar concern may also apply in regard to reserved legislation such as that covering employment, work-related benefits and health and safety. Should you lose protection in work when you cross a border? Currently TUs would answer ‘No’ to that, though of course current Tory proposals to attack these rights may sway debate in this area.
A third factor that will militate against TUs deciding in favour of independence, is of course, affiliation to the Labour Party, which is not in favour.
There are 14 Scottish unions affiliated to the Labour Party. (One union affiliate has no members in Scotland). And they cover around 441,000 of the members in Scotland.
Of course, that isn’t the whole story in terms of their membership. Many of the affiliated unions will have substantial membership numbers in Scotland who do not pay the political levy or who do, but would support independence in any case. 
I think UNISON is unique in its twin-track affiliated/non-affiliated political funding, but the SNP TU group has been campaigning for some years now for people to opt-out of affiliated political funds in other unions, (in my view a serious mistake). This will have had some success. Plus there will be members of all affiliated unions down South who don’t pay the political levy and/or who may be part of what I call the ‘sod-off Jock!’ tendency increasingly seen in parts of England.
So, you will have a membership, even in the affiliated unions, who may be ripe to hear the arguments for independence. Whether they will have the strength, the power or the tenacity to have an impact on their union’s policy on the matter, however, is debatable.
Non-Affiliated - potential supporters?
Of course to view those unions that are not affiliated as natural supporters of independence is also a mistake. in my view. While the likes of the FBU and RMT might be thought to be only too happy to be an awkward squad - especially if Labour is on the opposite side - it should be remembered that the FBU is of course part of a UK bargaining machine similar to that in the NHS. So too are the Civil Service unions. and for them you can add an almost pathological aversion to publicly siding with any political view that would be seen as party political - in the way that independence will.
Even in my own union, the NUJ - most likely to be relaxed about dealing with union organisation across boundaries - after all they already do it in Ireland, I think the view that as journalists we must be even-handed to all sides will hold a lot of sway.
But this brief survey is maybe a little missing the point. After all, TUs are essentially - much as we might not like it - not think tanks, not policy wonks breaking new ground with blue sky thinking - but essentially pragmatic organisations that have been created to defend and advance the living and working standards of their members. In many ways reactive rather than proactive organisations.
How will they decide?
I don’t doubt that in the fevered hothouses of TU research departments in Edinburgh and Glasgow (but of course mostly in London) there are people pouring over research, and analyses trying to work out the ‘what-if’s’ of Scottish Independence. But it isn’t occupying the waking hours of their members. No doubt, if and when a referendum is called, then the TU movement will take a decision (or many different decisions) on their policies, but I venture to suggest, if we are talking about reactive organisations with a clear function on defending members, then those debates will be set in the context of ‘what is the impact on our members?’. In a nutshell - will Scottish Independence be a benefit or a detriment to those members - not just in Scotland but across the memberships? At the current time it seems unlikely that this question will be answered in the affirmative.
Are concerns allayed by independence?
The current concerns of TU members - are remarkably similar and similar across the nations of the UK. The threats to jobs, pay, services and of course, currently pensions stems from the Westminster Government’s austerity measures and is being fought - in my view correctly - with a UK-wide co-ordination. While the Scottish Government is able to (and does) criticise these policies, they find themselves in the position of largely passing on the cuts to their recipients in the public and voluntary sectors.
Indeed, while ‘It’s all the fault of Westminster’, is a sentiment we can probably unite around, the suggestions so far about what an independent Scotland would look like, is currently unclear, and the signs are not good. For example, why does the Scottish Government want to control Corporation Tax so badly? To ensure that the bankers and financiers who drove us unheeding into the debt crisis pay back the bail out that they received from us? Apparently not, what is required according to the Scottish Government, is less tax on business to attract more overseas companies into Scotland. The Scottish Government has been notably business friendly in many areas -  the Scottish Futures organisation with its attempts to continue the PFI route (watch out for more of that shortly, by the way), is merely another example.
On the positive side, of course, in Scotland there is a greater value placed on, and defense of public services and public provision. I wouldn’t want to ignore that courageous decision of Nicola Sturgeon to build the new SGH through public provision for example. 
But this attitude to public services largely crosses party boundaries in Scotland - and, what is more, has been a distinctive feature of devolution in any case - so any specific advantage of independence still remains to be clearly spelled out.
Still a huge job to be done
In short, there is some way to go before the Scottish Government or other advocates of Scottish independence can articulate an argument that details a practical case that working people will significantly benefit from independence for Scotland, and such an argument will be important in attracting potential allies from TUs and their activists.
Does all this suggest that those who wish to call for independence need to look elsewhere and ignore the TU movement? Can I suggest they shouldn’t? When Alex Salmond celebrated his stunning victory on May, he said he planned to try and govern though consensus. There has, unfortunately been little practical experience of that so far, but I think that it remains the only sensible aim.
And maybe if it can’t happen inside the Parliament, maybe it should happen outside. After all the trade union movement - well at least the majority of it inside Scotland - isn’t, I don’t think, scared of independence. After all there are already many areas where they have suggested increasing powers to be devolved and contributed much of the evidence to the much-maligned Scotland Bill - devolution of broadcasting, equal opportunities, and immigration legislation are proposals that come immediately to my mind. There are more.
No, the TU movement currently cannot see the relevance of the independence debate, and when the issue looms larger in their ken, they will remain to be convinced. Not an impossibility, but a job that remains to be done.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on Chris. I have been pondering this issue for such a long time now. And to be honest have been very very impatient with the failure of trade unions to properly address even just devolution issues.
    Pensions for instance... where the English arm forgets from time to time that the Scottish situation is different.
    Affiliation to the labout Party is a very major "problem" (I am a Party member...). Particularly whilst the Party just hasn't gotten to grips with devolution itself...