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. 


Comments (3)

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  1. 230928 says:

    But the striking workers and their unions should subordinate their struggles to the Great Struggle for Independence, don’t ya know? They’ll get better terms and conditions once and only once the Scottish government has sent Proud Edward’s army homeward to think again.

    If I were conspiratorially-minded, I’d suspect that nationalism is nothing but a bourgeois ploy or ‘spectacle’ to distract and divide workers from their real supranational class interests. But I’m not.

    1. Matt Quinn says:

      “If I were conspiratorially-minded, I’d suspect that nationalism is nothing but a bourgeois ploy or ‘spectacle’ to distract and divide workers from their real supranational class interests. But I’m not.”

      Of ‘small n’ nationalism, the belief that Scotland should be an independent – and socially just – nation? There is no reason to suspect that at all.

      Of that which is espoused and promoted by politicos on the other hand – who (of all shades and grades) are primarily interested in getting and keeping their own noses in the trough; perhaps you have a point.

      They’re different things… and I say that as a ‘dyed in the wool small-n nationalist’.

      Likewise the unions are far removed from the principled organisations they once were. My own personal experiences with the EIS, BECTU and even the British Association of Journalists – suggest they are – have become over the years – in the service of themselves; political incubators and (in the case of the BAJ) posh-boy’s drinking clubs. – Which the workers are expected to fund.

      – And I say that as someone who grew up through the infamous Alan Sapper’s ACTT apprenticeship scheme; was a diehard ‘union man’ all my working life until my experience with BECTU caused me to become ‘stateless’ .

      Put simply… there is no real nationalism any more; it’s not in the personal and business interests of the politicos. Nor really are the plights and rights of workers the main concern of ‘the union industry’; they serve themselves. No real nationalism, no real unionism, no real interest (on the part of the organisations responsible) no real progress to be made… ability, honesty and integrity are things to be feared in the minds of the injelitant.

      ‘Distract and divide the workers’ ? That does seem to be an observable effect of what they’re all doing. – I’m inclined to believe it would be naive to imagine this wasn’t intentional.

      1. 230930 says:

        I’m not sure that either nationalism or unionism is dead.

        In a nutshell, nationalism is the belief that the state (the non-physical ‘person’ of international law’) should coincide with the nation (however this is conceived, whether ethnically or civically) rather than with a union, federation, or confederation of nations. Lots of people still believe this; ergo, nationalism is still alive.

        Unionism is the belief that it’s better for individuals or communities (including ‘imagined communities’ like nations) to band together or ‘pool their sovereignty’ in pursuit of their common aims and interests rather than to pursue them independently. Again, lots of people still believe this; ergo, unionism is still alive.

        The real trouble is populism, a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups (‘Tories’, ‘the English’, ‘Westminster’, ‘Jews’, ‘liberal intellectuals’/’graduates’, ‘cultural Marxists’, ‘Brussels’, ‘the media’, ‘the industrial-military complex’, ‘the World Econiomic Forum’, ‘the unions’, etc., etc., etc.). Populists can and do exploit both nationalism and unionism and the grudges and grievances they manufacture to create ‘mobs’ they can then deploy in pursuit of their own material or ideological interests.

        Unfortunately, populism or ‘rabble-rousing’ is also still alive in our political discourse, and its divisiveness the bane of civil society.

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