Conditions not Conspiracies: Why Workers Strike
Picket lines of largely middle-aged working-class women are outside the two schools just down the road from my home in the Gorbals today (Thursday 27 September) and that’s true of schools which lie closed across Glasgow. It was the same yesterday, and it will be tomorrow. Unison, the public sector union, has called over twenty thousand local government workers out on strike in response to what it regards as an inadequate pay offer from the employers’ organisation, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). In Glasgow, the strike is against an SNP-led council, but Labour-led South Lanarkshire will also be affected and so are the Orkney and Shetland Islands Councils which are each led by independents.
Striking workers have good reason to demand more. In the short-term, pay has been eroded by inflation over the last couple of years. Scottish local government workers are far from alone in that respect. I’m writing this article whilst on strike myself, taking part in industrial action called by my union, the University and Colleges Union as part of a UK-wide dispute. It coincides with a three day walkout by my colleagues in the University of Glasgow’s Unison branch. Last week, we were also joined by worker from the institution’s Unite branch in demanding a better pay offer.
From a longer-term perspective, lower to middle-income wage earners, particularly in the public sector, have lost out to almost two decades of wage restraint. British workers are now typically earning pay packets worth the same real-terms value as they were when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. In the meantime, the cost of essential items has shot up in recent years whilst housing has spiralled to unsustainable levels. These are the reasons workers are striking. They’re not difficult to understand given common experiences of the so-called ‘cost-of-living crisis’ that almost everyone in Scotland can relate to.
Nevertheless, if you made the mistake of glancing at Twitter, you’d find a very different conspiratorial interpretation: workers have been ‘duped’. They’re being used as pawns in a political game motivated by supporting the Labour Party and undermining the Scottish Government, the SNP and the cause of independence. These allegations centre on the role of Johanna Baxter, a Unison Scotland official who has been responsible for the COSLA negotiations but who is also a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and a supporter of Keir Starmer.
These conspiracy theories fall into a long standing pattern when it comes to nationalist explanations for trade union action in Scotland in recent years. Since an uptick in strikes by public sector workers in 2021, industrial action been explained through party political motivations. A range of different unions have been blamed as different groups of workers have taken action. When the convener of GMB’s Glasgow cleansing workers, Chris Mitchell, gained a public profile as the leader of the bin strikes in the autumn of 2021 he was vilified as a politically motivated member of a union which had backed a ‘No’ vote at the 2014 independence referendum. Since then, other unions which aren’t even Labour affiliated have faced similar condemnation, such as the Educational Institute for Scotland and the National Union of Rail and Maritime Transport Workers (RMT) during disputes in education and at Scotrail.
These allegations though were not just the preserve of Twitter ‘cybernats’. They have been stoked by the traditional media too, particularly The National newspaper. In 2021, the paper published commentator Stuart Cosgrove on the cleansing workers’ dispute, alleging that the ‘GMB strike is a wholly political move from Better Together funders’. The more recent attack on Unison has ratcheted up this approach. Hamish Morrison, the newspaper’s Political Reporter, published an ‘exclusive’ on Friday 22nd September, the end of the week before Unison’s strike began. Morrison’s exclusive news was that Baxter is a Unison official and a Labour Party activist: hardly Water Gate levels of revelation. Such information is publicly available and far from surprising as Stephen Smellie, the Unison convener for South Lanarkshire Council and a member of Unison’s National Executive Committee, pointed out in a column replying to the story published by the paper a few day later. Nevertheless, The National saw fit to put the exclusive on its front page on 23rd September.
This manner of gutter press reporting damages the Scottish public sphere as well as serving to delegitimise trade unionism and the relatively low-paid women taking strike action this week. When challenged on the legitimacy of claims that Unison members have been duped into taking action, believers in the conspiracy have pointed out that two other unions, the GMB and Unite, stood down their members and advised them to accept COSLA’s offer in a ballot. Accordingly, Unison’s refusal to do the same is cited as proof of their political motivations to undermine the SNP ahead of next week’s byelection in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
There are a number of reasons why unions may opt to take different courses of actions. Typically, they represent distinct groups of workers who may be affected differently by an offer of the nature of the one put forward by COSLA. They may also feel their members are more motivated or that they have more resources when it comes to paying strike pay and sustaining action. These factors all seem likely to have impacted the ongoing local government dispute.
Chris Mitchell, the former villain of the anti-union conspiracy worldview, emerged as an unlikely oracle for its advocates when he urged Unison to abandon their strike action and take the deal. Mitchell argued that COSLA’s deal was good for lower paid workers, a position broadly shared by Unite. The political economy of the strike from this reading isn’t so much party political as more traditionally industrial: Unison tends to represent slightly better paid workers who were not as well rewarded by the deal. They have also though underlined that this deal doesn’t ensure a minimum flooring of £15 per hour for workers providing essential services.
One of the more informed comments on the dispute came from Chris Stephens, the former Glasgow City Council Unison branch official and SNP MP for Glasgow South West. Over the weekend, Stephens pointed out that the idea the Scottish Labour Party was in a position to call on tens of thousands of workers to give up days of wages, and accordingly mobilise them, was laughable. Workers in Lerwick and Stromness probably have other things on their minds. Furthermore, Stephens underlined that it was Unison members who voted to take strike action. Whatever their political creed, Unison officials are highly constrained in this respect.
This is the third autumn in a row that COSLA negotiations have resulted in strike action. Unfortunately, the responses to it haven’t shown any growth in maturity when it comes to reporting and understanding from large swathes of independence supporters. In a context of increased inflation, but also of increased worker confidence, there will likely be more strike action to come in years to follow. Anyone who claims to want a more social democratic economy (never mind a socialist one), or even just one where workers can expect a decent return for their labour, should be supporting workers in struggle no matter who is in power.