Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Where are our unions in Scottish Labour’s policies?

WITH only 10 weeks until Britain’s general election the main parties are setting out the territory on which the campaign will be fought.

Inevitably, the economy (or more likely it’s fallacious surrogate, “the deficit”), the NHS, immigration and Europe will be key battlegrounds. However, it would seem — if the recent pre-election skirmishes are anything to go by — that Labour’s focus on the cost-of-living crisis and union campaigning on fair work and fair pay will mean that workplace protection policy will receive more than just superficial attention.

The Tories have already called on employers to increase the wages of their staff and pay the living wage for lower-paid workers as they enjoy record profits in the wake of the fall in oil prices. They have also advocated a £7 minimum wage. This, I suspect, has more to do with reducing welfare payments to the working poor rather than any real concern over the fact that two-thirds of children living in poverty come from working families.

While the level of inequality in Britain should be enough to provoke action by any government that has not mislaid its moral compass, it is more likely that the pronouncements of the likes of the IMF and the OECD on the economic impact of inequality are what is focusing political strategists’ minds. It is difficult to ignore the 9 per cent GDP lost between 1990 and 2010 as a result of inequality in Britain.

Redressing Britain’s disgraceful record on the inequality level — the fourth worst of 340 OECD countries and the worst Europe — has, in part, motivated Ed Milband’s advocacy of “pre-distribution.”

Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government has put reducing inequality at the heart of its programme for government and alongside innovation and internationalisation as the main driver of its refreshed economic strategy.

New Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, in a recent speech to the David Hume Institute, identified inequality as Scotland’s single biggest challenge.

In the next few weeks we will discover how this translates into party manifestos and, in particular, into proposals for enhanced workplace protection.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, the Tories have flagged their intention to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, to end the use of exclusive zero-hours contracts (ones which tie workers to just one employer) and to tackle trafficking through a modern slavery Bill.

Labour has committed to raising the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020, to using public procurement and tax incentives to encourage more employers to pay a living wage, to banning “exploitative” zero-hours contracts, to reform the tribunal system so affordability is not a barrier to justice, to set up a proper inquiry into the blacklisting and to double the length of paternity leave and increase paternity pay.

While Labour’s proposals in particular should make a difference, they fall far short of the demands the Scottish TUC will publish early next month. However, of more significance is how little of substance Labour has had to say about the role of unions and about the need for a positive approach to union rights.

We already know about Tory proposals to introduce thresholds for strike ballots in the utilities and public services. Labour’s national policy forum report, on which its manifesto will be based, contains some warm words about the importance of the union voice for people at work and in wider society. But, aside from welcome commitments to support union learning and to repeal the Lobbying Act, it contains no firm proposals.

Murphy referenced STUC evidence on zero-hours contracts in his recent speech on inequality, but had nothing at all to say about the role of unions in reducing it or what a future Labour government might do to support union organisation or to extend the scope and reach of collective bargaining.

Labour’s strategists may consider it an electoral liability to display too positive an attitude to unions. Such an approach is unlikely to work in Scotland. Labour faces a formidable challenge from the SNP which is certain to make much of its support for the recommendations of the Working Together review, instigated by the Scottish government to highlight the positive role played by unions in Scotland, in direct contrast to the Westminster government’s Carr review on the conduct of industrial action.

The Scottish government has already started to implement some of the 30 recommendations of the Working Together review, conducted by academics and an equal number of union and employer representatives.

This includes establishing a post of cabinet secretary for fair work, training and skills, supported by a fair work directorate and the creation of a fair work convention. This would promote union and employer leadership on workplace issues and explore the potential to extend collective bargaining in Scotland and increase levels of workplace democracy.

Under its new leader, the strategy of Scottish Labour appears to be concentrated on winning back the support of working-class men, mostly in the west of Scotland, who voted Yes in the referendum.

This strategy is likely to focus on a narrow range of issues that opinion polls suggest appeal to this particular group — the NHS, youth employment and standing up for Scotland. It is also responsible for Labour’s blatantly populist and cynical campaign for the sale of alcohol at football matches. While this is something that might be attractive to Labour’s target voters, it is less so to those who have to deal with its consequence, particularly the victims of the domestic violence with which the combination of football and alcohol is related.

Politics must be about more than parroting the findings of focus groups. It must be about ideas, about values and about ideology. It must be about winning support for policies that might be unpopular with some groups of voters but for which the evidence is sound. The evidence, presented in the report of the Working Together review and published elsewhere, is that high levels of union membership and extensive collective bargaining coverage are not an impediment to economic success and are central to the reduction of inequality.

If Labour is serious about reducing inequality and about tackling the cost-of-living crisis, it must not shy away from a positive policy agenda on union rights, signal this in its manifesto and campaign on it.

The recommendations of the Working Together review would be a good place to start, not just to match the commitments of the SNP, but because it is the right thing to do.

Grahame Smith is general secretary of the STUC

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Value of Ethical Trade

Pamela L’Intelligent will be attending the Fairtrade Fortnight event at the STUC centre on the 23rd February. To register for this free event email Helen Martin on

Pamela is a 44 Year old woman from Mauritius who has worked in the manufacturing industry since the age of 13. She started working at Entansia where she was a helper before being trained on sewing machines and starting as a machinist. Entansia made products from wool which could irritate the eyes, skin and the respiratory system. She left because she was being exposed to such unnecessary risks. After this she joined an established textile company in Saint-Pierre. During her time there she was blessed with a beautiful daughter who is now 19 years old.

Pamela then joined a fair trade company named Craft Aid. Joining Craft Aid has seen her develop her skills further. Initially she worked on different segments of a shirt, but now she works on different garments from start to finish. During her career at Craft Aid, she has managed to find a balance between her work life and her personal life, something that was hampered during the early parts of her career.

She is looking forward to telling you more about her story working at Craft Aid in Mauritius when she attends this event.  

Scottish Fair Trade Forum                              

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Right to Strike is a Human Right

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) have called for a day of action on the 18th February in support of the right to strike. Currently employer organisations, including the CBI, are opposing the accepted consensus- that has functioned well for the last 60 years- that the right to strike is implied by the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and that the ILO should be able to rule on whether government restrictions on that right are fair or reasonable. The effect of this dispute has been to throw the normal workings of the ILO into disarray and to sabotage its ability to criticise many of the world’s worst regimes, leaving working people and trade unions vulnerable to brutal oppression.

For more information on this dispute see Stephen Russell’s excellent blog, available here.

In Europe the right to strike is covered under Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In a landmark case Wilson and Palmer V the United Kingdom (yup you can always rely on the UK to provide the landmark rulings!) the court ruled that:

“the Convention safeguards freedom to protect the occupational interests of trade union members by trade union action, the conduct and development of which the Contracting States must both permit and make possible. A trade union must thus be free to strive for the protection of its members' interests, and the individual members have a right, in order to protect their interests, that the trade union should be heard”.

It also stated that

"The grant of the right to strike, while it may be subject to regulation, represents one of the most important of the means by which the State may secure a trade union's freedom to protect its members' occupational interests."

It went on to say:

"The Court agrees with the Government that the essence of a voluntary system of collective bargaining is that it must be possible for a trade union which is not recognised by an employer to take steps including, if necessary, organising industrial action, with a view to persuading the employer to enter into collective bargaining with it on those issues which the union believes are important for its members' interests. Furthermore, it is of the essence of the right to join a trade union for the protection of their interests that employees should be free to instruct or permit the union to make representations to their employer or to take action in support of their interests on their behalf. If workers are prevented from so doing, their freedom to belong to a trade union, for the protection of their interests, becomes illusory. It is the role of the State to ensure that trade union members are not prevented or restrained from using their union to represent them in attempts to regulate their relations with their employers."

In this way the Court makes a very clear ruling that trade union freedoms are not simply about the freedom to exist or the freedom to recruit members, but genuinely turn on the ability of trade unions to defend their members’ interests. A trade union that is prevented from doing so, is prevented from accessing one of its fundamental freedoms under a democratic society and every trade union member within that organisation has suffered a breach of their Human Rights.

It is useful to consider the status of trade union freedoms within international law and to remember that trade unions are recognised at an international level to play a key role in defending the rights of vulnerable people, and are key to making the economy work for those at the bottom.

A quick glance across our own economy tells us that: wages have been stagnating for a decade; foodbanks are growing and low paid workers are the second largest group using them; use of zero hours contracts is widespread and growing; and the minimum wage falls quite far short of a living wage. All of which stands in stark contrast to the fact that the richest fifth of households have increased their share of total income from 35% in 1979 to 42% in 2011 and if this trend continues we will be back to Victorian levels of inequality within 20 years.

Our economy does not function well for those at the bottom and trade unions have a key role to play in reversing this picture, as institutions that help to balance out the power differentials that exist between employers and workers.

Yet rather than seeing a championing of trade union rights at a political level, we are often seeing regressive action and further restrictions on trade union freedoms, and the painting of trade unions as anti-democratic or suspicious organisations.

Just consider the recent debate about ballot thresholds for trade unions which the Prime Minister has declared ‘on the table’ for after the general election as he wants to see ‘fewer unnecessary strikes’ (whether the strike being necessary or not clearly being a matter for the Tory party rather than the workers affected by the industrial issue). The 50% turnout threshold, with no precedence in any other part of our democracy from General Elections to decisions taken by boards within companies, would have the effect- explicitly desired by the Prime Minister- of limiting the right to strike and thus further limiting the rights of trade unions to defend their members.

At what point do these actions become Human Rights breaches? Well that is for the court to decide but what is clear from the above judgement and many others taken by the court is that trade union rights and freedoms are considered in the round and if the right to strike is curtailed there would need to a compensatory increase in collective bargaining rights in order to protect the Human Rights of workers.

Given the state of our economy and the crisis that exists in living standards these rights seem ever more crucial. Currently the situation in Scotland seems better with the Government’s Working Together Review and the creation of a new Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work. While this is certainly positive there is still much to do to make the recommendations of the Review a reality, much a which may well run up to the sort of employer response which is having such a devastating impact at the ILO.

Whatever lies in front of us, however, it is important to remember that the right to strike is a Human Right but more than that the right of trade unions to defend their members’ interests is a Human Right and should not only be respected but facilitated.

Helen Martin- STUC

Monday, 2 February 2015


Last week, David Torrance accused the STUC of effectively jumping on a 'grievance' bandwagon for criticising the watering down of Smith Commission proposals on welfare. He also (ridiculously) suggested we didn't spend any time making proposals for tackling inequality.

Scottish Labour has now recognised that the Command paper unnecessarily precludes the creation of a range of new benefits and Gordon Brown has made reference to the 'nailing down' of Section 54 of the Smith recommendations. And guess what, it's now being identified as an important means of promoting social justice.

The STUC has welcomed this in a press release. I wonder if David categorises this action as another example of us jumping on a (different) bandwagon or if he will be prepared to concede that we might have had a point in the first place and continue to pursue our policy positions on a more consistent and considered basis than he implied.

Dave Moxham