By Mark McNaught
The neo-liberal assault on labour unions over the last 30 years has gone hand in hand with an erosion of workers’ rights.
The unquenchable thirst for corporate profits and ‘shareholder value’, coupled with corrupt collusion between the state institutions and multinationals, has decimated entire industries, job stability, and the right of workers to petition their employer for redress of grievances without fear of getting fired and blacklisted.
This trend is shared with the United States, where the ‘American Dream’ promise of upward mobility through hard work is nearly extinct for vast swaths of the population. Though due to many factors, the corporate-funded, state-implemented assault on workers rights and unions has led to a new era of worker exploitation, with no means of recourse from a complicit co-opted state.
Once Scotland votes for independence, this must serve as a warning of what could beset Scots if state laws and institutions are not constitutionally shielded from assaults on workers rights.
The right to form a union and collectively bargain must be constitutionally enshrined in an independent Scotland. All workers, from a woman working the till at Tesco, to bankers and lawyers must have the right to freely form unions that will be recognised to collectively bargain for salary, benefits, working conditions, and any other matters pertaining to employment.
In addition to these constitutional articles, the legislation necessary to give effect to these rights must prevent any type of intimidation from employers, provide for binding arbitration in case of irresolvable disputes, protection from retaliatory firing, and other provisions seeking to strengthen employment and give workers a greater say over the course of their profession.
This will not lead to universal unionisation in independent Scotland. There will be many employees who are perfectly content with their working situation, have an excellent rapport with the managers, and have no need to form a union.
The structure of employment for the future must also be taken into account. Start-up companies and other modern forms of employment may not be fertile ground for unions to grow.
However, all Scots must have the constitutional right form a union and collectively bargain. Given that rights exist only to the extent the state can enforce them, they must be backed up by laws and enforcement mechanisms which not only assure these rights in perpetuity, but also shield these rights from future governments which may be ideologically opposed.
A ‘yes’ vote in the 2014 independence will not only result in Scots self-governance, but also afford the opportunity no Scot has ever had; to fundamentally recast the rights and privileges they as citizens will enjoy.
As an American, I observe labour relations in my native country with increasing dyspepsia. There have recently been a series of strikes in fast food chains, even though their union is not recognised, because the process of organizing is too onerous.
They simply want to earn a wage they can live on, despite working full time. By walking out of their jobs, they all risk their livelihoods, as does anyone in the US who wants to form a union or go on strike to make their jobs tolerable.
Workers in the US are fighting for the same rights they did in the Gilded Age, and the great labour unrest if the 1930’s. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in an independent Scotland where workers have a constitutionally protected status, so that the employed can focus on advancing their careers rather than risking it in exercising what should be their right?
If the white paper on Scottish independence due out later this year makes an ironclad commitment to enshrining workers rights in a written constitution, this will guarantee a ‘yes’ vote among those who subscribe to the founding values of the Labour party.
It will also make Scotland a beacon of social justice in the English-speaking world, worthy of emulation.
Who knows, maybe some Labour MSP’s might realize that Scottish labour rights will never be effectively assured if adhesion to the UK is continued, assuming they are still committed to providing them.
Many people have died for labour rights which could be bloodlessly enshrined in a written Scottish constitution. Scots should avail themselves of this unprecedented opportunity in 2014.
Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.