Thank you, Grahame. Let me again congratulate today’s award winners.
Their achievements have made a very real difference to people’s lives - and helped to further the values of the trade union movement.
Of course, they are just a few of the outstanding examples of the important work being done by union reps across Scotland. That work is just one of the many things that makes trades unions so vital – to our economy and our society.
And that’s relevant to what I’m going to speak about today. Because I want to talk about the some of the ways the Scottish Government works with the STUC, and employers, to make Scotland a fairer and more prosperous country.
But first, I want to talk about the important decisions that Scotland faces.
Because we are, of course, at the start of a general election campaign.
A general election campaign called by the PM for one purpose - to strengthen the grip of the Tory party and crush dissent, and to do so before criminal prosecutions for alleged expenses fraud at the last election catches up with her.
So the question that confronts us is this: what kind of country do we want to be?
The different parties will obviously set out their competing visions in the weeks ahead.
One of those visions, the Tory vision, should be ringing alarm bells loud and clear across Scotland.
The hard-liners have taken over the Tory Party.
And now those Tory hard-liners want to take over the country.
Scotland knows there has always been a cost to voting Conservative.
But the price of voting Tory at this election has never been higher.
And it will be those least able to pay that price who will bear the biggest burden.
The Tories will impose a double hit on Scottish families and communities:
They will make Scotland a poorer country.
And a more unfair, unequal society.
Don't just take my word for it.
The Resolution Foundation think-tank issued its annual audit of living standards recently.
It said this: “A particularly tight squeeze on poorer households will actually see their incomes fall, and is set to drive the biggest rise in inequality over a parliament since Margaret Thatcher’s time in Downing Street.”
And they go on to say:
“….the unequal impact of the upcoming squeeze is the result of government policy on tax and benefits.
Now, much of political debate in the UK at present, of course, is dominated by Brexit.
And our relationship with Europe is of central importance to the kind of country we will be.
But the hard-line Tory plans for post-Brexit Britain are about far more than EU relations.
They see Brexit as a means to an end.
And that end is a low tax, low wage, low regulation UK.
We already know Brexit will hit wages and jobs here in Scotland. Leaving the single market will cause serious damage to our export prospects. It could jeopardise the vital inward investment that creates jobs. And it could limit our ability to attract and retain those EU citizens who contribute so much to our society and our workforce.
The UK Treasury itself has said Brexit will leave the whole of the UK “permanently poorer”.
But there is even more at stake. EU legislation currently guarantees us important rights – covering things like paid leave, working hours, and maternity pay. It sets baseline standards when it comes to health and safety practices and the treatment of agency workers. And it provides us with important protections from discrimination.
But now the Tories are threatening to walk away from the EU entirely and in their words “change our economic model.”
We should be in no doubt.
A changed model is precisely what the former Chancellor, Lord Lawson had in mind when he said: “Brexit gives us the opportunity …..to finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started.”
That would be a catastrophe for Scotland’s communities.
Even with a small majority the Tories have introduced the bedroom tax, the two-child tax credit cap and the shameful rape clause.
With a large majority of hard-line Tories, our social security system – that so many depend upon – will never have been in greater danger. And we have seen just this weekend that the triple lock on pensions will be under threat too.
The truth is the Tories are starting to think they can do anything to Scotland and get away with it.
Brexit is a good example of that.
Despite saying she would seek a UK approach to triggering Article 50, the Prime Minister rejected the Scottish Government's compromise plan to protect our place in the single market.
Indeed she announced unilaterally, with no consultation, that the UK was to leave the Single Market – no matter the cost.
As a result Scotland now faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU, against its will.
And I know we share the same concerns as the STUC and want to see many of the same solutions. How many of us could honestly look any worker in the eye and say we trust Theresa May’s Tories with the minimum wage, employment rights or equalities law. I know I couldn’t.
Far from seeing an overdue crackdown on zero hours contracts by a UK government, for example, we'd be more likely to see an erosion of workers' rights that would be both dangerous and unacceptable.
And when it comes to migration - yes there are challenges that must be addressed - but we cannot stand by and watch EU citizens living in Scotland be deprived of their rights and nor can we allow Theresa May to shut the doors of this country to a valued workforce in a way that risks shutting the doors of many of our businesses or driving away essential staff for our public services. That would be an act of economic self harm that would damage all of us. And it would be wrong. Politicians must have the courage to say so.
So I can tell you that the SNP and the Scottish Government support the 6 key demands that the STUC is making and with a strong voice at Westminster and a strong Scottish parliament we will keep fighting to bring those powers to Scotland at the earliest opportunity.
The fact is that it has never been more important for people across Scotland to think clearly and ask themselves this question:
How can we best protect Scotland from the hard-line Tories?
That’s why the next few weeks – and the next two years, as Brexit negotiations are completed – will be hugely important for Scotland’s future.
Indeed, faced with the prospect of a PM who, in her own words, wants to strengthen her own hand to deliver the kind of hard Brexit she wants, it is more important than ever that, firstly, Scotland sends strong voices to Westminster and then, when the terms of Brexit are clear, that the people of Scotland should have a choice about our own future.
For a Westminster government to seek to block that choice - and instead decide our future for us - is undemocratic and unsustainable.
Meeting Economic Challenges
Of course, in addition to protecting our relationship with Europe, the Scottish Government is also working with unions to meet other challenges that our country faces. We’re still recovering from the global downturn in the oil and gas sector. UK cuts to public spending have harmed our economic growth, our public services and our social security system. And, partly as a result, too many people find themselves in jobs that offer too little stability or security.
There are other longer term issues facing our economy. These include our need to raise productivity; to adapt to the requirements of an ageing population; to ensure that everyone can earn a decent living, as more jobs become automated; and to manage the move to a low or no carbon economy.
Now the Scottish Government has taken major steps to meet these challenges and seize new opportunities.
For example, we’ve supported the establishment of eight innovation centres – bringing together academia and businesses – to ensure Scotland remains at the forefront in areas of huge economic importance, like biotechnology, oil and gas, and data science.
We’ve made unprecedented investment in Scotland’s infrastructure, through transport projects like the Queensferry Crossing, the Aberdeen Western Peripheral route, and the Edinburgh-Glasgow rail improvements; and through our broadband programme, which is on track to deliver superfast broadband access to 100% of homes by 2021.
And we’ve taken every opportunity to support a vibrant green economy. That support has helped Scotland become a world-leader in renewable energy.
But we know that one of the most important things we can do to build a stronger economy is to tackle inequality. The evidence is clear that greater inequality has a negative impact on economic growth. That’s why creating a more equal society is at the heart of our economic policy.
Support for Trade Unions
And we know that strong trade unions play a hugely important role in helping achieve that. Research shows that lower levels of union membership reduces pay – not just for union members, but across society.
That’s why we value trade unions and the contribution you make to our economy. That is why we opposed the UK Trade Union Act. That legislation represents a direct threat to unions; to the fundamental rights of workers; and to the collaborative approach we take here in Scotland.
And let me make clear today - the SNP supports it's immediate repeal.
But in the meantime, through our Trade Union Fair Work and Modernisation Fund, we’ve sought to limit the negative effects of the Act. Today, I can announce that over the next year we will provide an additional £250,000 to that Fund. It will ensure that trade union reps are not needlessly diverted by the burdens of the legislation from their most important role – supporting members and promoting fairer work practices.
And where the Scottish Government has the power or the discretion, as an employer, we will not invoke the provisions of the Act against unions. We will ensure that check-off remains and is not delivered at cost which penalises unions. And we will use our discretion as an employer to ensure the minimum one week notice period for industrial action is required.
Make no mistake. The Tories' legislation is designed to weaken unions. To cast you as an enemy.
Well, let me be clear. You are not the enemy. You are our partners.
Sometimes, you are critical partners - that's as it should be.
But you are vital partners.
By standing together and working together, we will build a better country.
That's why we must do more than just mitigate the consequences of the UK Government’s Trade Union Act. We want to work with you to build a fairer, more prosperous nation. For example, the Scottish Government and the STUC have agreed to work together on a project examining the impact of technological advances on the labour market. That’s going to be one of the key issues affecting the workforce in the coming years. So it’s vital that government, unions and employers work together to adapt to its implications.
This kind of partnership approach underpins Scotland’s Fair Work Convention. The Convention brings together representatives from unions and the public, private and third sectors to help shape and drive our agenda for Fair Work.
As you know, the Living Wage is a big part of that agenda. The Scottish Government was the first government in the UK to pay the real Living Wage.
And wherever we can, we use procurement to encourage its use in all public sector contracts. And through the initiative that the Scottish Government funds, more and more Scottish-based organisations have now become accredited Living Wage employers. When I spoke to this Congress in 2015, 150 companies had signed up. Today, more than 780 organisations are accredited. And we’ve set a target of increasing that number to 1000 by the end of the autumn.
In addition, almost 350 companies have signed our Scottish Business Pledge - committing themselves to good employment and business practices. One of the values the Pledge seeks to encourage is gender equality in the workplace. That’s another major focus of Fair Work agenda.
We know we need to close the gap between the proportion of men and the proportion of women in the workforce. Our commitment to almost double free childcare entitlement will help achieve that, by removing one of the main barriers that prevents women returning to work.
And we also want to address the lack of women in senior positions. That’s why, later this year, we will legislate to ensure gender balance on public sector boards.
But as you all know, there are employment inequalities across other protected characteristics – like race and disability. So I can announce today that, through our new Workplace Equality Fund, we will provide an initial £500,000 to help address these disparities. The money will go to groups who can demonstrate that their efforts will help people overcome barriers to employment.
It’s a small but potentially significant way in which we can help address a major economic and social issue. And it’s in-keeping with the broader principles of the union movement. By ensuring everyone in society is able to flourish, everybody in Scotland will benefit.
Since the start of devolution, the STUC has worked with different Scottish Governments to make Scotland a more equal, inclusive and successful country. You’ve helped the Scottish Parliament legislate for social progress. And you’ve been at the vanguard of making workplaces more productive and protecting people in Scotland from the worst effects of austerity.
As I said at the beginning of this speech, this is a challenging time for Scotland. We face the prospect of a Brexit, implemented by an out-of-control, hard-line Tory party.
But through all the challenges we face, our trade union movement remains a source of huge strength for our country. I want to thank you for all you do. And I pledge that the Scottish Government will continue to work with you to make Scotland a fairer, more prosperous and more equal nation.