The tide is turning in the trade union ranks


By Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser

It’s been a good week for those of us campaigning as trade unionists for independence. Huge numbers of trade unionists have voted to support  Scottish independence after thorough, well-informed debate.

And even those union leaders who unceremoniously imposed their union’s support for the anti-independence camp with no – or entirely sham – consultation of Scottish members, are now desperately scrambling to distance themselves from the toxic, Tory-funded Better Together campaign.

By Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser

It’s been a good week for those of us campaigning as trade unionists for independence. Huge numbers of trade unionists have voted to support  Scottish independence after thorough, well-informed debate.

And even those union leaders who unceremoniously imposed their union’s support for the anti-independence camp with no – or entirely sham – consultation of Scottish members, are now desperately scrambling to distance themselves from the toxic, Tory-funded Better Together campaign.

Workers hold the key to Scotland’s future – both on and beyond September 18th. We make up the vast majority population. We have most to gain from escaping the brutality of Westminster rule. We have the potential power to shape an independent Scotland’s policies by forging a force for radical redistribution of power and wealth, for socialist change. And we have most to lose if workers continue to be ruled over and dictated to by the three factions of Thatcherism that dominate Westminster politics.

On 13th February George Osborne sallied forth to Edinburgh like a colonial governor to tell the uppity natives that if we dare vote for self-government he will take away the pounds in our pockets. Workers could be forgiven for thinking Osborne and his millionaire razor gang had done that already, considering the savage pay cuts we’ve ‘enjoyed’ at the hands of various stripes of Tory, Labour and Coalition Westminster regimes in recent decades.

Leaving aside for now the whole issue of the currency – which I strongly believe Scotland should own and control as part of genuine democratic self-determination – working people are furious at this dictatorship by the Tories. And if anything, trade unionists are even more incensed at Labour’s carefully orchestrated support for Osborne’s anti-democratic threats.

This assault on the right of the Scottish people to share the assets we have helped create over generations is a timely reminder of just how much is at stake. A confirmation of the fear of British capitalist politicians at losing Scotland’s vast natural resources; huge financial assets; highly educated workers’ talents and skills; nuclear bases for housing their USA puppet-masters’ weaponry; and not least their power and prestige on the global stage.

It is a timely reminder to working people that Tory, LibDem and Labour all piss in the same pot, in defence of the profits, power and prestige of  those capitalists whose wealth depends on low pay, restricted workplace rights, and stoked-up divisions within the working class.

We can’t rely on any of them to rescue the working class majority population from obscene levels of poverty and inequality in this fabulously rich nation. Switching from Tory to Labour at Westminster is about as useful as switching energy suppliers so as to be ripped off and still left in fuel poverty under a different logo.

The three factions of Thatcherism have proven the need for democratically electing our own Scottish governments with their carefully choreographed chorus of threats on the currency issue.

And on the day after Osborne, Balls and Alexander played their roles as schoolyard bullies, workers employed by the Westminster government replied.

The members’ meeting of the 1,000-strong Glasgow DWP branch of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) voted by about 2:1 for their national union to recommend a Yes vote in the Referendum. And the one-third minority were NOT calling for a NO vote; they were personally for Yes, but wanted the PCS union to make no recommendation on it, to be ‘neutral’ as a national union.

Days later, on 18th February, 570 members of the giant 2,200-strong branch of the same PCS union at East Kilbride Revenue and Taxes met and debated the same three options. After thorough and democratic debate the vote was 60% for PCS to recommend a Yes vote; 20% to remain neutral; 20% to call for a No vote.

Other PCS branches in the DWP, HMRC, Scottish Government and Driving Examiners also voted for Yes.

However, in several PCS branches the members openly and overwhelmingly declared they would be voting Yes, but then by (a sometimes slim) majority called on their national union to make no recommendation one way or the other.

Two distinct types of arguments were advanced for this. Tiny handfuls of Labour hacks and anti-independence campaigners argued for PCS neutrality because they knew there is a better chance of snow surviving Hell than of them winning members to a No vote; an entirely bogus stance.

On the other hand some genuine members who actually intend to vote Yes have sincere fears that if PCS calls for a Yes vote it could divide the union and shed members; genuine worries, but entirely misplaced.

PCS has a proud history of debating and deciding policies on a wide range of progressive policies, and have never seen a split in the union nor a mass exodus of members despite strongly held opposing views on issues such as abortion rights, apartheid, wars, Trident, etc.

PCS members who see the merit of being in a union do not treat this as merely a private preference; they would never advocate ‘neutrality’ on whether the union should seek to openly convince non-members of joining PCS.

Likewise when they are convinced of the need to take industrial action, even though a minority vote against it; the odd handful might leave the union in protest, but larger numbers have joined, impressed by a union with the courage of its convictions, standing up for its members and its democratic majority decisions.

In reality there is no such thing as ‘neutrality’ available to the trade unions on this vital issue. Day and daily the government impose attacks on civil servants, with closure of HMRC Contact Centres, attacks on facility time for PCS reps to represent their members, and removal of the check-off system of union subs payments as a means of trying to cripple and crush the union as government agencies wade through jobs and services.

Day and daily the mainstream media pummel PCS and other trade union members with lies, distortion and fantasy fears to cow them into voting No, into accepting Westminster’s butchery of jobs, pay, services and workplace rights. To remain ‘neutral’ in this context would be to leave the Fear Factory unanswered.

In the specific case of PCS, repeated annual conferences have called for far-reaching progressive policies such as a decent living wage for all over 16; public ownership of the energy giants to combat fuel poverty; a free, publicly owned and integrated transport system to challenge poverty and pollution; abolition of all the anti-union laws; opposition to wars and nuclear weapons of mass destruction; democratic public ownership of the entire banking and financial sector; progressive taxation of big business and the rich elite to create jobs, fund public services and dismantle the gross inequalities suffered under the current system.

These are precisely the policies pursued by the likes of the Scottish Socialist Party and the broad-based Trade Unionists for Independence. They are policies with precisely zero chance of being implemented by any of the three Thatcherite factions dominating Westminster. So in order to pursue these clean, admirable principles, first in Scotland, then in the neighboring nations, the PCS nationally should not pretend to be neutral, but forcefully campaign for independence.

Of course that is what their Scottish conference of branches will debate on Saturday 22nd February. Hopefully delegates will see that calling for a Yes vote is entirely consistent with the emerging intentions of most members, but also the best route to implementing the PCS unions’ own democratically agreed policies and principles.

But regardless of how they vote on 22nd, one thing is clear: NO is nowhere within PCS! Members see no sense in giving a vote of confidence to successive Westminster governments which have devastated their jobs, slashed their services, plundered their pay packets and now robbed their rights at work.

The anti-independence parties can salvage no comfort whatsoever even if the PCS union decides to make no recommendation for Yes/No, because members attending the debates have shown a decisive tide is running in favour of a Yes vote by individual members. For instance, in one big branch where a 3:2 majority opted for ‘neutrality’ on the part of their union collectively, just two members out of the 266 who voted favoured PCS calling for a No vote.

To their credit the SNP government has declared continued adherence to ‘no compulsory redundancies’ in the civil service and refused to implement the Westminster assault on the check-off system of collecting union membership fees. The SNP White Paper has pledged Commissions on pay and workplace rights that kick the door open to the unions demanding an entirely different set of rights at work and pay levels under an independent Scotland.

But the key thing also confirmed by recent debates and votes at union meetings is that trade union members are increasingly taking on board the point consistently made by the SSP and Trade Unionists for Independence, and by the more recent growth of Labour for Independence: voting Yes is NOT a vote for Alex Salmond nor indefinite SNP governments.

It is not a vote for the SNP implementation of a 1% pay cap, nor for their failure to defy all Westminster public sector budget cuts with a clarion call for mass rebellion to win back some of the billions stolen from Scotland’s budget. It is certainly not a vote to cut Corporation Tax by up to 3% whilst promising very welcome social reforms.

It is a vote for democracy. For the actual right to choose and elect your preferred government. To then fight for measures like a decent living minimum wage for all at 16, with equal pay for women. For repeal of the anti-union laws devised by Thatcher, kept by New Labour, added to by the current Coalition, and with no prospect of being removed by any future Labour government.

For public ownership of not only Royal Mail – as pledged by the SNP White Paper – but also of energy, transport and banking as demanded by the likes of the SSP and TUFI.

In other words, voting Yes is a means to a very desirable end: it opens the path to vast improvements in the rights and living standards of the working class of Scotland – which have absolutely no prospect of being achieved under a Miliband government let alone some computation of the Tories, LibDems or UKIP.

The Yes Scotland campaign should go beyond the limits of the SNP White Paper and forcefully broadcast – as a bare minimum – the opportunity to repeal the anti-union laws; ensure the best workplace rights in Europe; achieve a living minimum wage for all over 16; and win democratic public ownership of Royal Mail, transport, energy and banking in order to create well-paid and secure jobs for all.

Workers have suffered too many privations at the hands of the capitalist overlords of Whitehall and Westminster. We need to fight for the hearts and minds of the 630,000 Scottish trade unionists – and those workers too terrified by anti-union laws and anti-union employers to become members – with a vision of the “fortune” available to the working class, provided we organise not only for a Yes vote but also for radical changes in favour of the millions rather than the millionaires.