Comment

Every year, to coincide with the STUC Congress, the SLR picks a theme of particular interest to trade unionists and also carries at least one article looking at the state of the trade unions and considering the challenges ahead.

This time the role of the trade unions in Scotland is perhaps under the spotlight even more than usual. In a landscape dominated by London austerity on one side and Scottish independence on the other, the path for the trade unions is going to be a hard one to find.

All our writers stress the importance of the trade union movement. But what they all ask is whether unions are doing enough.

How we envisaged this issue was that we’d get a perspective from the UK, one from an independence-supporting trade unionist and one from the new generation of activists. To this we would add an ‘open letter’ from the SLR with some thoughts on what might be the contribution of the trade unions in the years ahead.

What we received was not quite what we expected. At the UK level, John McDonnell sees a failure in the role of the big trade unions to really tackle the Tory-led government and to put the Labour Party under enough pressure to move to the left.

At the Scotland level, Bill Ramsay speculates on whether trade unions will be able or willing to follow the views of their members in the constitutional debate, and suggests worry about what will happen if they play a major part in delivering a No vote. Sarah Collins then argues that the trade unions have to stop being scared of the young generation and to stop being so suscpisious of the left.

All our writers stress the importance of the trade union movement. Indeed, they all identify the unions as being the most important force in the UK today able to oppose a right wing government. And they all want the unions to take a national lead in reshaping society. We also see evidence of important steps being taken, for example Unite’s attempts to take trade union membership out of the workplace and into deprived communities.

What all these contributions ask, however, is whether unions are doing enough. Does the sum total of everything the unions are doing amount to a serious strategic attempt to get a grip on the politics of the nation? Scepticim is raised.

Given the content of the issue we will stop short of weighing in with our own thoughts on the way forward. However, the points raised in the articles do pick up two of the themes we would have liked to raise.

The first is where trade unions should fall in the tension between ‘member representative organisations’ and ‘big national political influencers’. Lately there have been lazy comments from some on the question ‘what are the unions doing?’. Looking after their members in one of the most hostile period to be an employee should be the obvious answer, one that a lot of commentators seem to miss. They assume that unions strike or lobby with little in between. That is of course silly.

But trade unions have always been more than representative organisations and have always had a mission to change the nature of society. Since devolution in Scotland, it can be argued that trade unions influence over Scottish politics did not grow. That would have surprised many in the 1980s and 1990s. How and with what aim they do this is question with many answer. If it was a slight nagging doubt for a while it has become a more central concern for many.

The second issue relates to this. If the trade unions in Scotland are to seek a greater level of influence over the national debate, do they have the infrastructure and capacity to do it? Many of the unions, even the big ones, have only a limited research capacity in Scotland with much of it retained in London. No-one would now argue that London is capable of producing the research needed for the Scottish political scene. And while the STUC itself has done some very high quality work indeed, it produces it without the kind of capacity dedicated to influencing the political agenda from the neoliberal commercial side. And few unions in Scotland would claim to have a strong influence on the media agenda.

None of this is written with any aim other than to strengthen and encourage the trade union sector in Scotland. A big section of the population is looking to them to really change the way politics is being done in Scotland. This is the case many times over at the UK level.

There are no simple prescriptions for this. One the one hand, those who believe that Britain is one general strike away from a ‘people’s revolution’ are far too optimistic while those who think ‘just a bit more of the same’ will lead to major change are no less so.

It may seem unfair that so many have vested possibly unrealistic hopes in the trade unions. It probably is. But it is also a message of hope.

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