2007 - 2022

SNP and the Unions

sturgeon-snp-elect_3273523bBy Bill Ramsay

Much of the discourse around the future development of the relationship between the SNP and the Scottish Trade Union movement is being viewed through the lens of Labour’s historical link with the Scottish trade union movement. Indeed this fundamental misunderstanding is not confined to the ranks of the media.

Although there is a comfortable match between many of the policies of the SNP and the Scottish trade union movement, the institutional cultures of the SNP and the Scottish trade union movement are grounded in two different types of activism.

The SNP has had, long before it delivered spectacular electoral results, a justifiable reputation as a very effective electoral machine. Above all in the old SNP and even today, activism is equated with preparing the ground for the next election, anything that diverts from that prime directive tends to be frowned upon.

This attitude had consequences for the wider development of the SNP in Scotland’s civic institutions, particularly out with the areas that would, in the past, be viewed as SNP heartlands. It also led to the development amongst many though not all, of a bunker mentality, an assumption that civic Scotland was a wholly owned, even monolithic sub section of the Labour Party.

I well remember the first morning of my first attendance as a delegate from my trade union to the Annual Congress of the STUC in the early nineteen nineties. As someone who had decided that my primary political activity would be through my union, not my party, the SNP, it was quite a culture shock. I felt that I was at one at the same time “at home” yet almost an orphan. Surrounded by people who, I assumed, belonged to a political party I had battled with in many elections and bye elections in the eighties and early nineties. They were at one and the same time “the enemy” and anything but.

A year or two later, during the 1997 General Election campaign, I recall the look of puzzlement on the face of Nicola when I suggested she forgo an afternoons Sunday canvassing to spend the time, with her SNP rosette on of course (she was already developing a profile amongst the activist community of progressive Scotland if not the wider public) strolling through the tents and amongst the stalls at the 1997 Glasgow May Day on Glasgow Green.

Ten years later things had moved on somewhat. The 2007 Glasgow May Day March took place four days after the 2007 Scottish Parliament Election. In the crowd behind the SNP Trade Union Group banner were a clutch of unknown newly elected SNP MSP’s some of which are now Scottish Government Ministers. The fact that not one speaker on the platform made any reference to the electoral events of the previous Thursday was the subject of great amusement in the pub afterwards and a straw in the wind about the gradual decline of Labour’s connection to Scottish society.

Paradoxically it was advent of an SNP Government that brought the Scottish trade union movement, with a degree of trepidation, knocking on the door of the SNP. To the surprise of many of Scotland’s senior trade unionists they found that the Scottish Governments door was wide open, that they had in fact, stumbled upon a level of access unheard of during previous Labour/Liberal Democratic coalition.

We now have Labour’s apparent annihilation and the prospect of more of the same at next year’s Holyrood election.

It is at this point that I suppose I am meant to consider the prospects of Labour’s recovery or otherwise or maybe consider what are the prospects of the Scottish far left, a term, I wish to emphasise, I do not use pejoratively, in the lists next May.

These points are of course worthy consideration but I would suggest that the future development of the SNP’s relationship with the Scottish Trade union movement will be, from the perspective of the overwhelming majority of Scottish trade unions members and not an inconsiderable number of activists, of more immediate concern.

Consumers of political commentary, even the sophisticated readership of Bella, do not naturally warm to discussions around matters organisational. However if one is to understand the baselines from which any grass roots development of the SNP’s relationship with Scottish Trade Unionism is to take place then some consideration of these realities are necessary.

Earlier today the headline that the SNP Trade Union Group had over 15,000 members was repeated on the BBC. During the same piece it was revealed, by of all people, the political editor of the Daily Record, that this was probably over twice the membership of the Labour Party in Scotland. A number of factors underpin this impressive figure.

First of all the results of the referendum and the General Election are in part due to the laser focus of the SNP, as an institution, on the electoral effort. Of course the results of both are down to much, much more that the SNP, particularly in relation to the referendum where the SNP normally winning election strategy alone resulted in a year of flat lining.

It is only now, during the period of “peace time” between GE 15 and the 2016 Holyrood campaign that the SNP is really in a position to start to develop its relationship with Scotland’s grass roots trade unionists.

On the 20th June in Stirling University the SNP Trade Union Group will hold its first post referendum meeting with its wider membership. https://www.facebook.com/snptug
In a sense no one yet quite knows what the SNP Trade Union Group of over 15,000, as opposed to the pre referendum Trade union group of a few hundred will actually be and will actually do.

Bear in mind that TUG membership is triggered by two things, joining the SNP and ticking the box on the membership form that one wishes to be considered a member of the Trade Union Group. With this a small portion of SNP membership fee of the member is allocated to the TUG. The decision of the Party to facilitate this arrangement represents a significant investment, both political and financial in the TUG by the SNP.

We should not be surprised that the range of trade union experience of the new TUG membership varies hugely. Some have joined thinking that it is actually a trade union and the range of experience goes from party members who are union members but not active in their union, to full time officials.

Due to the more politically pressing activities of the last two years it is only now that the new SNP and it much enlarged Trade Union Group can start to properly organize. The Trade Union Group itself as is well aware of the organisational challenges that lie ahead.

Some in the Scottish trade union movement, notably the Secretariat of the STUC itself, are positioning themselves to take cognisance of the new situation. Speaking to an STUC Conference last weekend the General Secretary of the STUC was at pains to point out that it was not affiliated to any party. That only a proportion of STUC affiliated unions, although most if not all have political funds, have a funding link with Labour.

Some unions would be advised to start to think through how it develops a positive relationship with the SNP rather than whether Kezia Dugdale or Ken MacIntosh ends up leading Labour’s Scottish rump.


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Comments (21)

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  1. Allan Armstrong says:

    There are two significant disputes going on at the moment. The Homeless Caseworkers, employed by Glasgow City Council, who have been on strike for seven weeks. The hospital porters employed by NHS Tayside in Ninewells and the Royal Victoria have also been on strike and faces threats to their jobs as a result. Both strikes have arisen because of management attempts to deny these workers their proper grading. Both disputes are further fuelled by the contemptuous attitude of management, who think they can behave just as they like. The first set of managers are under the control of a Labour council. The second set of managers are under the control of the SNP government.

    Will the SNP Trade Union Group show its loyalty to “Scotland’ grassroots trade unionists” by publicly declaring their support to these workers?

    Allan Armstrong, Trade Unionists for Independence.

  2. Bill Ramsay says:

    As far as I am aware no one has claimed that the Trade Union Group will solve all of Scotland’s industrial relations problems. I will leave it to others to develop master plans in that regard. However the Trade Union Group will , provided it develops organically over time, help SNP supporting trade unionists find there voice and in doing so strengthen the hand of the Scottish trade union movement in general.

  3. Penny says:

    Now is the time for the trade unions to advocate for employee representation on the management boards of the councils and the NHS. We can learn lessons from the co-determination models elsewhere how to promote bargaining processes that are fair and democratic.

    Surely the lesson of the decades since Thatcher is this: if its bosses against workers, the bosses win. If they do not control government; they control the perception of it through their stranglehold on the media.

    Only if the community controls ownership through a wide variety of institutional mechanisms including co-determination, worker-self-directed enterprises, land cooperatives and so forth can ownership be made to serves social as well as personal purposes.

  4. TheBabelFish says:

    Very interesting article, sorely in need of proof-reading. A service I provide, as a sideline, for a distressingly modest fee. Bella editors NB: You may wish to glance at my blog, thebabelfishblog.wordpress.com where you’ll notice two things:

    I’m not a bad writer myself, you might be interested in some of my stuff (if so please get in touch), and,

    No mistakes.

    1. Carntyne says:

      How modest!….

    2. JBS says:

      Nice blog. I see that nobody has bothered to update Gemma Doyle’s Wikipedia page yet. Maybe nobody cares.

      I wonder, though, if she will be one of the outraged crew trying to get a list seat in Holyrood next year?

      1. TheBabelFish says:

        Oh, I do hope so. 😀 It would be delicious to relive the moment of her defeat. We could sell tickets this time.

        1. JBS says:

          My bad. Seems that Doyle’s Wikipedia entry has been updated, though only minimally.

          Following on from what you say in your latest blog entry, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the list of Scottish Labour MPs who voted for the welfare cap. Here is that roll of dishonour:


    3. Ben Zyl says:

      Yeah, still puzzling over “Paradoxically it was advent of and SNP Government”

  5. florian albert says:

    It is refreshing to read an article which is not a polemic.
    One important point not covered by Bill Ramsay is that so many ‘new’ jobs in the economy – in the care, cleaning and retail sectors – are in areas where unions are weak or absent.
    This is a key factor in maintaining inequality.
    If the SNP is to create a social democratic Scotland, it must find a way of helping those who are, at present, not receiving much protection from trade unions.

  6. Angry Weegie says:

    It’s not just the SG which has to think about its approach to the unions and union members. The unions themselves have to consider how they “look after” their membership. My wife, formerly a school secretary and a union member, looked to the union to support her in her quest for equal pay, only to be told by her union rep, on one of the very few occasions when he deigned to speak to her, that her case was not a priority for the union. This led to my wife, and the other staff in the school involved in the action, all women, of course, leaving the union as it was obviously only interested in taking their money.

    1. Angry Weegie says:

      Sorry, SNP, not SG.

  7. john young says:

    Unions have in the past been as bad as Labour a Labour party they encouraged and supported,they failed to back the miners therefore inadvertently helping Thatcher to defeat and all but obliterate the unions,most of them I wouldn’t trust,just look at Michael Martin shop steward MP for Springburn fcuking disgraceful sleazeball,if I were Nicola I would give them a wide berth,they are not to be trusted.

  8. Derek Durkin says:

    Oh dear, from a message from the SNP TU Group to a demonisation of Trade Unions! John, for every Michael Martin type of trade unionist you can mention, I’ll show you 10 more grass root members who give of their time to assist their colleagues in the workplace. Of course there are examples of career minded individuals who have used our movement for their own ends. However, if “Nicola” can’t trust Trade Unionists (which I don’t believe to be the case) then Trade Unionists wont trust “Nicola” (again something I don’t believe to be the case). The Labour Party’s strangle hold on the TU movement is lessening by the day and only by our continued struggle can we force democratisation of our political funding. The recent role of TUs has not been beneficial to most workers, just as the actions of consecutive governments haven’t. That’s no reason to give up the struggle. It would be helpful if the SNP TU group could give a straight answer to the question posed in the first comment. Is the group prepared to criticise the party when workers rights are being undermined? Not to do so, I suggest, would render the group ineffectual at best.

    1. Bill Ramsay says:

      Hi Derek,

      Nice try.

      Clearly you have a potential future in the mainstream media doing a fox news tricks of

      1. deliberately taking the word “Nicola” out of context
      2. adding your own “cant trust trade unionists”
      3. then a bit of faux analysis to conclude “then trade unionists cant trust Nicola”

      1. Allan Armstrong says:

        Whilst Bill has still not answered my original question about the SNP TUG being prepared to back two groups of workers in dispute, several others of those commenting have made criticisms of the trade unions themselves. Since I am a supporter of Trade Unionists for Independence, which has critical attitude to the way trade unions have been run, it may be helpful to show this and the policies we advocate to change the situation. These can be seen on the leaflet handed out by TUFI (East Coast) at the STUC demo held in Glasgow on October 18th last year.












  9. Malcolm McD says:

    What have Trade Unions in common with the labour Party in 2015?


    What should the relationship ship between The SNP / Scottish Government and the Trade Unions be in 2015 and beyond.

    Constructive, consultative and business like. SNP and Scotland have much to gain by this relationship. This needs to be a modern relationship based on what TUs can give Scotland and their members, not what TUs can extract as paid lobbyists wishing to wield power.

    Trade Unions will out live the labour Party in Scotland, they have an important place in Scotland, involving them to make lives better for Scots makes good sense.

  10. john young says:

    Derek I was in the unions from a boy,my brother is a trade unionist for Unison and we have a dis-cussion regularly about union representatives now and in the past,we both agree that as soon as they see the”bright lights of London” they are dazzled and like all the others chosen to represent the people succumb and bend the knee to the establishment,an establishment that has been in power for a thousand years and well practised in the “black arts” just rubbing their hands in glee at another raft of “working class” warriors easy peasy.There is no easy solution as human nature being what it is greed/selfishness will abide.

  11. anon says:

    The general election has been a wake up call, the unions have been caught being out of touch with scotland just like the labour party has.
    They cannot reform their corrupt and undemocratic ways.
    New unions needed.

  12. Kenny Smith says:

    I am impressed with Allan’s organisation. I heard about them during Indy ref. I am a passionate trade unionist and ex shop steward and still pay my union dues even though I am now a sub contractor and being a member does not protect me or advantage me in the traditional sense. My pay my dues still to the GMB( although with drawn from political fund) because it is still the only way the working man has to organise and have a voice firstly in the workplace and wider society. Yes like all big organisations they can be flawed and certain individuals can ruin it and by gum I have met many but a lot of that is down to the fact the people who should be involved don’t get involved for many reasons leaving the ones who are left either exasperated or on the make. I contacted SNPTUG about more info but you can’t be part of it without being a SNP member and although I vote SNP I’ll never be a member of the party because I think it would restrict me when I feel the need to critise some of their decisions. I would however pay a political fund donation to them through my dues if I could. Before the vote last September I wrote to the SNP asking them to embrace the movement more and spell out its plans on how an independent government would deal with trade unions and I got a swift reply outlining some points that were raised before based on European models ie union board members and Work Council set ups. My hope is they can get more employment powers devolved and then we can pass judgement on exactly where they stand

  13. kevin ferguson says:

    Interesting article n comments. As with all initiatives there will be problems finding a focussed ad common area.
    However, recent independence movements (RIC, WFI, TUFI) have demonstrated lefties CAN put aside differences and do this.
    This is the prob for SNP TUG. while there was wiggle room for TUs – though their hierarchies are populated by labourite apparatchiks- SNP TUG is chained to SNP action on power.
    AA is correct to point to current disputes n SNP sitting on its hands as the govt. But there is another initiative which may pt to greater difficulties for aaSNP to sustain activist support n the TUG to attain any kind of credibility: HUBCO.
    this is an initiative to outsource facilities management. It is a back door to privatising NHS jobs- the privatisation of the NHS the SNP went so far as to portray itself being against.
    Note too penny, NHS already has union invole.ent at board level in form of Partnership Agreement. PA has no credibility on the front line or in action.
    If TUG wants credibility it will have to Engage with nonSNP trade union activists. It could have kicked that off at their conference but has declined to do so.
    As an active steward- fighting union officialdom as much as aggressive employers- I remain sceptical aboutTUG ability/ potential and in avoiding becoming an SNP tool as TUs have become Labours.
    I am however optimistic that the landslide & contributors on this site will provide / forge other opportunities.

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