At his recent appearance at the Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture in January, I asked Alex Salmond whether in an independent Scotland, we would have the ability to repeal the anti-trade union laws. I was met with a politician’s answer: there is no appetite in the Scottish Government for anti-trade union legislation.
Of course, this response can be seen in a positive and a negative way: the “appetite” certainly does exists in Westminster. However, undeniably, it does not answer my question. A key demand, not just for unions or the Left, needs to be that an independent Scotland would repeal these laws. Whilst the “Yes to a Just Scotland” report doesn’t contain any specific policies, the comments made by Blair Jenkins at the launch indicate a shift in Yes Scotland’s overall strategy. He stated, “We believe the trade union movement will be able to deliver more of its agenda through Yes than No.” The report suggests an independent Scotland would be more sympathetic to STUC demands for higher taxes on the wealthy and a more generous welfare system.
I want to argue that there is also an economic case that needs to be made for the restoration of trade union rights and the positive impact that could have on the economy as a whole. Since 1979, anti- trade union laws have become progressively harsher, regardless of the colour of government in Westminster. This indicates a trajectory for trade union abilities, which on a long enough timeline could prove fatal. The legislation that I’m referring to covers a manner of activities including mandatory postal ballots for strike action (a logistical nightmare), secondary action becoming illegal (an insult to our class) and restrictions on numbers and locations of pickets (a violation of our right to protest). Anti-TU laws and practices also have far wider implications. The key role played by the continual fall of the value in Real Wages in the 2008 economic crisis shows that without a decent wage, demand in the economy must be “topped up” by credit- and we all know where that road leads; triple dip recession, growing inequality and a narrative of inevitable austerity. The collective bargaining power of unions that allowed the increase of wages across sectors was crushed by Thatcher. There are now economic arguments being made- not only in Left-wing or radical circles, that the powers of trade unions must be restored in order to create a balance of forces in the economy. The problem remains however that there is no space within British political structures to make these demands. Independence can provide the space for this debate. The rights of workers to organise freely must therefore be at the core of progressive demands for Independence in Scotland. All trade unionists can champion this argument, not just those based in Scotland. Scottish independence that can benefit workers in the rest of the UK by challenging and repealing that legislation, undermining it in the rest of the UK, and opening up new ground to challenge these laws elsewhere.
Following the launch of the Yes to a Just Scotland paper, Neil Findlay, Labour MSP commented that in order to “achieve social justice we need a progressive taxation policy to promote redistribution and the major player in the Yes campaign, the SNP, is opposed to this…Only last week John Swinney confirmed there would be no rises in personal taxation in an SNP-governed independent Scotland.”
The debate between Yes and No cannot just be a battle between the low corporation tax, or tax cuts, of the SNP and the welfare cuts at Westminster- otherwise, we’re in a sorry state. Rather, the Yes movement- which transcends party membership- needs to campaign for a socially egalitarian vision of an Independent Scotland, at the grassroots- not just via the policies of mainstream parties. This is where the Radical Independence Campaign can play a key role: RiC can say things that perhaps politicians can’t say, that parties are unwilling to say. We need to develop a collective, strong voice to make these demands, and project our positive vision of change, that upholds the values of solidarity, democracy and equality- and we must, eventually look towards having this voice represented and elected into the parliament.
This is our task as trade unionists, regardless of borders: to restore the rights of trade unions to act in the interest of the working class. If we fail, in any constitutional set up, ordinary people will be in a worse off position. Without the break-up of the British state, these laws will not be challenged with speed or substantial vigor. A vote to keep the union, without any real plan to get rid of these “anti-democracy laws” will continue to set ordinary people back decades- in terms of work, welfare and education.
A Yes vote in 2014 will not instantly give power back to the unions, nor will it automatically lead to economic democracy and fairness. I recall people arguing that a No vote was a vote for the status quo, and that a No vote would guarantee that things would stay the same. I disagree: a No vote is a vote that puts a motor behind the downwards trajectory of trade union rights, of wage equality and of workers ability to fight back. A Yes vote interrupts this path- that is undeniable.