Trade Unions and the SNP

SNP conference 2013By Bill Ramsay

A session at Saturday’s RIC conference will consider the future development of the Scottish National Party. In this article I try to tease out some of the issues, if not the answers, to one dimension of this development, the relationship of the SNP to the Scottish Trade Union movement.

Like the SNP itself, that relationship has developed over the years. I recall, back in the nineties, Alex Salmond visiting a Congress held  in Dundee. As one of the few SNP members who was also a Congress delegate I had arranged to meet him with a few others on the steps of the Caird Hall.

Such was the anti SNP tribalism within Congress at the time, the steward on the door, a retired trade union activist from Dundee Trade Union Council, actually tried to bar him from entering as he did not have a visitors pass. For some the STUC was Labour and Labour was the STUC.

Less than a decade later things had sort of moved on. Congress was in Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliamentary election was looming, with the Secretariat of the STUC waiting to officially greet the Leader of the SNP.

Notwithstanding, again as a delegate on the inside, I felt it necessary to forewarn someone on Salmond’s staff that trade unionists from Faslane were waiting to “greet” him also. Needless to so Salmond relished the prospect and the resulting televisual media scrum was everything and more that the SNP press office could have dreamed for.

At the 2014 Congress Salmond of course handled a searching Q and A session in front of Congress better, according to some Labour colleagues, than Joanne Lamont handled hers.

Since September the SNP Trade Union Group has grown from a few hundred members to over 12,000. Anecdotally ( the IT membership data dust has still to settle) we already know that trade unionists of every level of activity and none have joined the SNP TUG since September, from full time officers and officials, to individuals joining the TUG because they thought it is actually a trade union.

This new SNP Trade Union Group will face many challenges, organisationally,to be sure and no doubt politically.

The most obvious challenge will be to answer the question that the SNP has itself put to Labour trade unionists for decades. What comes first, the party or the union?

Part of the answer will be in the attitude the SNP takes to party political funding of trade unions. Some in the SNP in recent years, mistakenly in my view, argued for developing some sort of financial link between some unions and the SNP.

Labour trade union activists of course welcomed this development, confident that such measures were highly unlikely to pass at UK conference level but secure in the knowledge that the same SNP activists in their union had accepted the principle of institutional trade union funding of political parties.

That such a naive notion won overwhelming support only a few years ago at an SNP conference show how little strategic thinking the SNP as a party, (as a government it is quite different)  had done in relation to its relationship with the trade unions. The same cannot be said about the thinking overtaken by some unions and their relationship to the SNP.

By no means all unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, indeed the loosening of Labour -union ties with some unions over the fairly recent past has masked this fact.

For instance my union, the EIS, Scotland’s largest and the world’s oldest teacher’s trade union, has never been affiliated to any party, indeed the Institute only affiliated to the STUC in the nineteen seventies. At the time, I am told,  it was dominated by Labour Party members some of whom wished to affiliate to Labour. However in typically open debate the Institute decided to remain politically independent.

It did of course, during the eighties, establish a non-party political, political fund, another area of misunderstanding even amongst many union members.

The impact of the referendum on the trade union movement is as significant as the impact on other parts of civic Scotland. In terms of ordinary trade unionists the landscape has been reconfigured. In terms of the unions institutionally the impact will take longer to have an effect and the timescale of change will vary from union to union.

Again many misunderstand the culture of Scottish trade unionism. Scottish union culture is multifaceted, each union has its own often unique organization and culture. Some, like the EIS are activists led (at least 9 of my fellow National Executive members voted yes along with me who was at the time, but not now, the only SNP member out of a total of 23).

At the other end of the scale we have USDAW, the shop workers union, which is dominated by its officials. To some extent this is organsationally unavoidable given the  industry it organises in  USDAW has a membership churn, I believe, of around 200,000 members per year. Developing an activist base in such circumstances presents huge challenges. Inevitably USDAW it has an intimate, if not the highest profile, relationship with the Labour Party. I myself though find it difficult to believe that Jim Murphy had a former career in retail distribution.

However USDAW’s intervention in the independence referendum was politically unfortunate to say the least and potentially damaging from an organizational perspective, if the rumors of a 20% membership drop in response to their “Vote No if not voting at all” leaflet to members is anywhere true.

For some time to come it is almost inevitable that speculation about the development of the SNP’s relationship with the Scottish trade union movement will be viewed through a prism constructed in large part from the experience of the Labour Party’s relationship with the union movement.

Could it be that some elements of the non SNP left’s perception of the SNP rests as much on the pre-packed baggage of their parent’s disappointment and growing cynicism about Labour in the eighties and nineties, as with Salmond’s occasional photo call with the not so great and not so good?

Will the influx of huge chunks of the “45” change the SNP? In my view that and the advent of the Sturgeon leadership suggest that it will. After all the Holyrood bubble had Keith Brown as a shoo in for Deputy Leader and the Holyrood bubble was, simply wrong.



Categories: Commentary

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20 replies

  1. Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2014 21:07:45 +0000 To: janetfaulkner3@hotmail.co.uk

  2. Re the SNP and the STUC I think there is a swell of opinion amongst trade unionists that the days of blindly supporting the Labour Party are coming to an end after the latters stand during the referendum. Regarding funding, I was an official in the Fire Brigades Union and a portion of members dues were compulsory paid into the Labour Party, much to the annoyance of some of the members I think all political parties should be self- financing or receive government funding.

    • Hi Ronnie, I was also a member of FBU, you could in fact cancel your money to the labour party and give it instead to a named charity, I personally know one member who did this “Blue watch C7* please encourage others to do so if you can. Respect Ambrose.

  3. I never have liked the idea of trade unions or big businesses funding into political parties. Partly because I believe the it is too easy to make the party slave to the union mandates and thereby possibly whittling away at the other party ideals.ideals.
    If a party and a trade union share similar ideals then so be it but leave the money and the obligations that go along with it out of the equation. This the very thing that gets the ire of the dispossessed who begin to feel they have lost their voice when money starts to take over the direction of the party they felt was listening to them.
    The SNP seems to have a tremendous grass roots following that likely has little love for trade unions and the politics of yesterday. Could they alienate that support by jumping into a deal with trade unions?
    Tell voters the facts, do what you say you will do, be fair across the board, respect the electorate and you will have the backing of enough votes to gain the mandate you need.

    • When Germany was finally vanquished by most of the world ( although you wouldn’t think it by the rhetoric spouted by the British State ) its rebuilding was dependent on, amongst other things, advice from British Unions.

      This advice was to have workers’ councils involved in a constructive way with company owners, rather than the adversarial approach of the UK. Isn’t it time Scottish Government and Scottish Trades Unions ( are there any, or are they all Branches like “Scottish labour” ) grew up and created something the populace could appreciate ?

  4. Perhaps someone within the SNP Trade Union Group could write a piece on what aims the group have and detail it’s structure and what influence it might make on party policy.
    As an RMT member also a member of SNP, I reflect on my previous local branch experience , there was little or no reference to this group nor were there any discussions on the merits of joining, perhaps this membership increase will raise the Trade Union Groups profile at SNP local branch level.
    Hopefully in future there should be many opportunities for Trade Union Group Members to address local meetings. Many SNP members would certainly benefit from a much wider knowledge of Trade Union activities. (I am now a SNP HQ Branch Member)

  5. Could Bill or another members of the SNPTUG outline from their perspective why workers should specifically support the SNP or get their union to link up or affiliate? In what way is it in the interests of workers to support the SNP (as opposed to the pro-indep movement as a whole). Few would argue that the SNP is a workers’ party, rather I think it is a cross-class nationalist party so I would like a reasoned argument as to why it is in the interests of Scottish workers to push their unions to link up with the SNP. To take one specific example: has the SNPTUG lobbied the SNP to work to lift the draconian Thatcher era anti-trade union laws (which might be a possibility if SNP have balance of power in next Westmin parl)?

    Ive been concerned at a recent tendency by some SNP members/supporters (I emphasise SOME) to shoot down any criticism of the party from within the pro-independence movements ranks so it is with a little caution that I raise these points.

    To put my questions in context, Im don’t regard the modern Labour Party as a workers party and I agree that it is a good thing that unions disaffiliate and stop funding Labour. I also happen to think that, while the SNP is not a workers party either, it is now clearly to the left of Labour (not a difficult task, mind you, given the politics of Miliband, Murphy et al!). I voted tactically for the SNP in the last Westmin election and will probably do so next Westmin election unless a credible pro-indy left candidate stands in my constituency. I worked in my local YES group with SNP members during the referendum so I don’t share the visceral anti-‘nats’ agenda of some on the left. I think a crushing defeat for Labour in Scotland in the Westmin election would be a positive outcome.

    I also think Scotland needs a broad party of the radical pro-ind left that is, amongst other things, a workers party: by which I mean a party primarily composed of, supported by and working in the interests of workers. Such a party is necessary IMO to push for immediate changes in the interests of workers and to work for a long term transformation to a socially just post-capitalist society. It is also necessary to keep pressure on the SNP from the left so that it continues on its current left of centre trajectory. So thats the perspective Im coming from.

  6. Names mean nothing – it is how it is earned and reputation maintained. History is just that – history.

    In the present you align with people who share your key values. Hence my enjoyment during the YES campaign to realise how much I shared with people from no political party,those of non party political organisations such as RIC. Those from other political parties SSP, Greens,Labour for Independence/ etc.

    The Labour Party was formed from the trade union movement. A fairer society is the cornerstone.

    The Trade Unions need to decide which is more important – core values or an old brass nameplate at Labour HQ.

  7. As a trade unionist in the 90s, I saw how corrosive the relationship with the Labour Party was, with officials putting Party loyalty above their members’ interests. Most TU officials were Labour Party members, and took it for granted that getting the Labour Party into power was paramount. If this meant not rocking the boat, as ordered by the Party, that was what they did.

    Whoever is in power, trade unionists need to be independent (no pun intended) in order to support their workers. There should be no split loyalties.

    In my opinion, it was Gordon Brown’s visit to the STUC conference, to force Scottish Trade Unions to accept PFI “for the sake of the Party” that did more damage to the STUC than 18 years of Tory Government. Trade Unions should never put themselves in that position again.

  8. Time to get into the 21st century. Cut the divisive mantra of them n us and get workers reps in the executive boardroom. Everybody whether in service, manufacture or development industries has to take responsibility for the quality, performance and viability of the firm they work for.

    It’s time to face facts and, as much as we can, get rid of the them, otherwise the neoliberal ‘them’ will continue to enjoy free rein and reduce employment to the level of feudalism.

  9. It is time for the trade unions to distance themselves from the Labour party. It is simply incredible that they have supported a party which in the last thirty years has failed abjectly to protect the interests of the low paid. The lowest paid and those made unemployed have been ground down while the political party that claims to represent their interests has colluded in their downfall. The trade unions in Scotland should be publicly supporting whatever party is going to best promote their members interests and is best placed to bring about positive change. In Scotland that party is the SNP which is supported by far more people who want a fairer way of life than any of the other parties. How long will it take? How much longer will the low paid have to live in miserable conditions to satisfy the ‘ideals’ or perhaps the self-interest of trade union leaders?

  10. John Souter.Correct.

  11. Why don’t we insist that Trade Union officials and MP’s generally be paid the same money as the people they represent; then again maybe they don’t believe in socialism. When I was a Labour Branch secretary in West Lothian we activists who did the work got so scunnered by councillors only interested in expenses, seats on the planning committee, site visits etc we didn’t vote for them.

  12. This whole piece is an example of out dated 20th Century tribal politics. Many people, and rising, no longer think in terms of joining moribund trade unions or self serving political parties.

  13. I was once told that it was inevitable I would be exploited as a worker. As a Trade Union member at least I would benefit from a fairer form of exploitation.

    Given Thatchers punitive TU legislation which Blair and the Labour Party including all of the feeble 50 did sod all to rectify . Trade Unions do a great job in certain industries to represent workers and protect and preserve the rights earned by previous generations of TU members.

    Given half a chance our benevolent employers would have us ALL on zero hour contracts,with no holiday or sick pay turning the clock back to the early draconian conditions of the early 20th Century .

    Incredibly there remain a number of blinkered dinasaurs within the leadership of the movement who cannot bring themselves to accept the reality that LABOUR no longer represents the working class. 20years of evidence is there for all to see frustratingly they just can’t. To his credit the late Bob Crow did.

    TU members in Scotland recognise this so do many members in other parts of England,Wales and NI they don’t as yet have an alternative Political Party who resembles anything like a Party worthy or deserving of Workers votes.

    The WM election outcome will reflect this realisation on the part of many workers.

  14. In post industrial Scotland the major shift in the objective character of our society has seen the Labour Party staggering around in search of its old certainties of blue-collar working -class solidarity when the society has moved on and left them.
    Labour is unwilling/unable t o discover a new ‘socialist’ ethos reflecting the objective change in labour.
    Thus we the rise of post –class based parties like the Greens as well as multi-class parties like the SNP and community political movements of autonomous radicals like RIC.
    No longer will we see 60% of the working class defined as manual workers or 50 % voting Labour or mass based Trade Unions.
    What we have now in the reorganization of the economy, is a smaller labour force, a smaller working class filled with knowledge based industries, service industries, self employment, part-time work & the rise of the ‘white van man’/ IT,sales and creative industries making up a fluid plural working community that may not be classically a class.
    BUT what has replaced traditional class forces are groups/communities radicalized by education and angered by social deprivation and ‘unfairness’ that unions don’t engage with.
    The unions tend to look after the entrenched worker leaving the eco-gender- single issue- emancipatory politics of the new ‘worker” to discover the ‘collective autonomy’ of the folk in RIC.
    Or of course to find the struggle for a fairer distribution of power within the civic struggle for sovereignty ( with its associated policies of social justice).
    Greens, RIC, SNP are all products of the shift in objective conditions and Labour’s search for a new captain cant change the fact that our society has changed and the left has left Labour tailing behind…

  15. I can tell you as a trade union rep that the branch I come under (Glasgow) has an official line now that the Labour party when in power is the enemy of the members and of the working class in general. I am an SNP member now and have joined the TUG of the party. It is obvious the Labour Party is a dead duck for most on the left. Even the hardly radical big Trade Unions themselves. And about time too.

  16. Iam a retired member of Unison on the exec committee of Argyll and Bute.I worked in the NHS forty years as a Band 7 Occupational Therapsist annd was affiliated to the British Assosiatation ofOccupational Thrapists I stopped my labour Party component to labour party years ago.Thought this might be of interest to the above debates. I am keen to prmote Young people to join Unison , i spoke to a young care as .

    sistant an she did not Know what a union was she wa employed by an outside contracter

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