Will the unions put the Labour party before the people of Scotland?

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By Mark Irvine

Party before people?  Will loyalty to Labour stop Scotland’s trade union leaders signing a no redundancies deal for their members?

Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, made a remarkable pledge the other week which he repeated at the SNP’s recent spring conference in Glasgow.

Alex Salmond committed an SNP led government to ‘no compulsory redundancies’ within the civil service in the years ahead, notwithstanding the significant public spending cuts that are now underway.

The First Minister also pledged to work with other public sector employers – the NHS, local councils, universities and further education colleges – to prevent compulsory redundancies in these areas since the Holyrood government holds the purse strings and provides most of their funding.

Now under normal circumstances, the trades unions would bite the hand off of any employer making such an offer.  I say that as someone who spent many years of my life in the trade union movement, including as Head of Local Government and chief negotiator for Unison in Scotland.

Because down the years the first aim – in any big financial crisis – is to prevent workers being forced out of their jobs – against their will and regardless of circumstances.

But this is a case of the dog that didn’t bite – in fact the dog didn’t even bark – or speak up effectively on behalf of a million public sector workers in Scotland.

So why did the dog lose its bite and its bark?

The reason is that there was a coordinated attempt behind the scenes to strangle the idea at birth – by the Labour party and Labour supporting trade unions.  The problem now is that just about every Scottish union leader is a member of the Labour party – and they look at issues in terms of what’s best for their party instead of what’s best for grassroots union members, very few of whom have a party political axe to grind.

The General Secretary of the Scottish TUC might have been expected to respond by saying something like:

“We are encouraged by the First Minister’s remarks, but the devil will be in the detail.  Because it’s not clear how public sector employers can deliver on such a pledge at the same time as budgets are being cut.”

But instead of debate, dialogue and serious negotiation all the public got was a partisan Labour response, with a few anonymous comments in the press thrown in from allegedly ‘senior union figures’.

The reality is that a no compulsory redundancy pledge would be difficult to achieve, but it would be a prize worth fighting for – in most folk’s eyes anyway.

Successful negotiations would require everyone to leave their political baggage at the door – including the unions who need to put their members’ interests ahead of past loyalties to Labour.

Imagine what Jimmy Reid would have said about this kind of cowardly, partisan union behaviour?

Reid and other leaders would have let their members down had they behaved this way.  The famous UCS ‘work in’ would never have got off the ground if its leaders refused to engage with the government of the day.

So let’s hope the grassroots begin to find their voice – and demand a proper debate both inside the trade unions – and beyond amongst the wider public.

Mark Irvine worked at the highest level of the trade union movement in Scotland for twenty years.  A former Chair of the STUC Youth Committee and winner of the TUC Youth Award in 1983, Mark was a full-time official with NUPE and worked in London for several years before returning to Scotland where he became Head of Local Government and chief negotiator for Unison – the country’s largest public sector trade union.

Mark is now an independent consultant and has been heavily involved in the fight for equal pay in Scotland’s local councils over the past six years.  He writes a blog site about equal pay pay and wider topical issues which can be found at: www.action4equalityscotland.blogspot.com