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Scottish unions shape Scotland's future

Ann Henderson looks back at the key role played by the trade union movement in shaping the Scottish Parliament of 1999 and considers its contribution to policies for today.

The four founding principles of the Scottish Parliament - openness, accountability, the sharing of power and equal opportunities - have much in common with the core beliefs of the trade union movement.

These founding principles were at the heart of recommendations from the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) in January 1999, Shaping Scotland's Parliament, used as the blueprint for the Parliament. The CSG had built on the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC). In March 1989 the Claim of Right for Scotland was published with the demand for a Scottish Assembly or Parliament with law-making powers. November 1995 saw the publication of its final report Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right .

Campbell Christie CBE (General Secretary STUC 1986 – 1998) served on the Scottish Constitutional Convention from its inception, and then joined the CSG. Canon Kenyon Wright, chaired the SCC, placed on record the central role played by the STUC in his book ‘The People Say Yes – the making of the Scottish Parliament' (1997). He notes that the STUC Congress in 1989 gave its unanimous support to the Scottish Constitutional Convention, whilst delegates chastised the SNP for not participating in the SCC.

Crucially, a working group on women's issues had been established in the SCC right from the beginning, and its influence shaped the Parliament in terms of women's representation. The STUC Women's Committee members led the way in arguing for a 50/50 approach to a new Parliament. Kenyon Wright pays tribute ‘Scotland's Parliament will indeed be a lively and stimulating place if it includes such women as these'. The Parliament had over 40% female members, impacting on policy and practice right from the start.

The trade union movement, along with Civic Scotland, has had to learn quickly about how best to shape and influence policy here (including health, transport, education), whilst also not losing sight of all those matters still reserved to Westminster (employment law, immigration and asylum, tax and benefits, international).

Over the last ten years, whether through the STUC, individual unions, political parties, workplace organization and community campaigning, many different ways have been found to continue taking the voices of working people into the Parliamentary process.

But the economic recession brings a whole new set of challenges – and it remains to be seen how Scotland's political parties and the Scottish Parliament respond.

STUC Congress 2009 was organised around an ‘Agenda for Collective Prosperity', committing the STUC to work with Civic Scotland to develop and promote policy around these priorities:

  • Tackling poverty – fair pay, a living wage, and fair benefit levels.
  • Reducing economic insecurity and investing in the workforce.
  • A fair and progressive taxation system.
  • A low carbon industrial strategy for Scotland, to sustain and grow manufacturing employment.
  • Excellent public services for all, essential to secure sustained economic growth and equality of access to employment and economic opportunities; and to improve the quality of life of those unable to work.
  • A fairer global economy.
  • Equality of opportunity and fairer outcomes for all - tackling discrimination in the workplace and wider society.
  • The economic downturn presents an opportunity to set out different priorities, at all levels.

From the start the STUC embraced the new opportunities brought by devolved government. The Scottish Trade Union Research Network (STURN) has held a number of conferences hosted in STUC buildings with STUC support, considering topics that included the new Scottish budget process; equalities and social inclusion; trade union recruitment and retention.

In June 2000, Bill Speirs, STUC General Secretary, welcomed the STURN delegates saying: ‘The Scottish Executive and the Parliament's committees have engaged in the kind of consultation that was expected of them. At the same time Scottish civic society in all its forms, has found itself facing challenges both exciting and frightening, this has made the Scottish Trade Union Research Network all the more important for the STUC and the people our member unions represent' The first Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Cabinet placed tackling poverty and promoting social inclusion high on its agenda. Housing legislation, and improvements to teachers' pay and conditions (McCrone Commission) were matters given early attention.

The decision to repeal Section 28/Clause 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 unleashed a backlash. As Brian Souter and Cardinal Winning warned of the threat allegedly posed to ‘family values', Wendy Alexander MSP, Minister for Communities, and First Minister Donald Dewar MSP, along with the majority of MSPs, did not back down.

The STUC Congress programme of April 2000 carries contributions from members of the STUC LGBT Forum, with the STUC wholeheartedly behind the repeal of Clause 2A. Trade unions in Scotland made clear that they would speak up against discrimination and injustice.

In 2002, under the leadership of First Minister Jack McConnell MSP, the Scottish Government signed up to a Memorandum of Understanding with the STUC, as one of a number of bi-lateral agreements with ‘social partners' across Scotland. The Memorandum of Understanding commits the Scottish Government to 'support as far as practicable, effective trade unionism, fair employment practice, and greater partnership between employers and trade unions'.

There are shared priorities around economic growth, social partnership, and partnership working with civic Scotland. However, testing times lie ahead. Will those ‘shared priorities' include investing in Scotland's public services, sustainable development, and a serious manufacturing strategy?

Legislation has been developed in Scotland, often in advance of that going through the Westminster Parliament, using the expertise of the trade union movement. This has included: the Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Act 2007; Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) (Scotland) Act 2008; and the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005; and the legislation in 2004 which introduced the ban on smoking in public places.

Currently Bill Butler MSP is consulting on a proposal for the Damages (Scotland) Bill, in relation to rights to damages in respect of personal injuries and death, and Hugh Henry MSP is consulting on the Workers (Aggravated Offences) Scotland Bill, which extends protection for workers in contact with the public.

John Park MSP has brought forward the Proposed Apprenticeship Rights (Scotland) Bill, seeking to establish a right to undertake an apprenticeship for those aged between 16 and 18. After Labour interventions last year on the Scottish budget, additional resources have been allocated by Government to the whole apprenticeship programme, and the STUC and member unions are working closely with industries to promote and safeguard employer led apprenticeships, whilst also arguing for adequate wage levels and job protection.

The Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee provides another route for lobbying and, for instance, in March 2009 it considered Petition PE1231 on behalf of a coalition including STUC and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), which called upon the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to establish a clear framework for parity of wages and conditions for all those delivering public services.

5th –9th October 2009 brings the third ‘Scottish Parliament Trade Union Week'. The STUC co-ordinates a programme, sponsored across the Party groups, bringing in affiliated trade unions to the Parliament. Business debates have allowed MSPs to highlight local and industrial links with trade unionists and their constituencies. Previous themes have included civic participation and young people at work.

This year the focus will be on responding to the recession and the priorities for public expenditure. Parliamentary Committees have already questioned the inability of central and local government to resolve outstanding equal pay claims. Trade unions are highlighting the threats to jobs and conditions at local level as more public services are contracted out. Thousands have taken to the streets over multinational Diageo's decision to close its Kilmarnock and Springburn plants and the STUC has challenged the SNP led Government to demonstrate that preferential treatment for small businesses is actually protecting or creating jobs.

Trade union membership is on the increase, as unemployment rises. The STUC and its member unions will continue to speak up for those they represent. The Scottish Parliament will have its part to play in setting out priorities, as will Westminster.

Those priorities must take us towards a more equal society that invests in its public services, and meets the needs of all its citizens. It is time for bold policies, if we are to achieve the goals set out at the STUC Congress this year.