The annual conference of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) meets against a background of ferocious attacks on workers, their rights and living standards by employers emboldened by the most vicious government of millionaires in memory. And it meets amidst raging debate on whether trade unionists should support Scottish Independence.
With 37 affiliated unions and 630,000 members, the STUC represents a huge force, so the battery of progressive policies and demands being debated are potentially vital to the future working people face, provided the STUC takes decisive action in pursuit of its own decisions.
STUC MOTIONS FOR REFORMS
As the Westminster old-Etonians kick seven colours out of workers' rights, and preside over the most prolonged decline in wages since the 1870s - yes, the worst drop in real wages for 140 years! - the STUC Motions up for debate rightly demand an end to austerity; investment in public services; fair pay; a living wage; redistributive taxation; reduced inequality; social justice; support for carers; investment in public sector housing; a ban on zero hours contracts; an integrated public transport system; renationalisation of Royal Mail; public ownership of the Big Six energy companies; collective bargaining rights for workers; industrial democracy; election of accountable trade union representatives on company boards; take union facility time for unions in all workplaces with over 21 workers; state retirement at 60...and a host of other specific reforms that would enhance the lives of millions in Scotland.
HOW TO WIN REFORMS
Two related questions arise. How can the trade unions best put up a serious fight to achieve these gains? And how does that relate to the Referendum?
Nothing has ever been gained by merely passing Motions at conferences. It's always taken determined action, with maximum unity, to win every reform, however mild or far-reaching. The STUC and it's affiliated unions have a duty to give leadership amongst working people, their families and communities, through public forums, rallies, demonstrations and in some circumstances united industrial action - such as in opposition to the crucifying cuts emanating from the Twin Tory Coalition. Pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears; action by the working class speaks far louder than words. So the STUC conference needs to support those Motions that include a strategy for action.
TRADE UNIONISTS FOR INDEPENDENCE
But that inevitably also raises the issue of the Referendum.
Those unions backing the scrapping of Trident and Defence industry diversification must surely face up to the fact a Yes vote would guarantee this path, whereas it is beyond the powers of a devolved Edinburgh parliament in a continued UK.
Calls for collective bargaining, trade union facilities at work, employment rights will fall on utterly stony ground if we remain under Westminster rule - even in the less than probable event of Miliband's Labour winning office in 2015; look at Labour's record in office. And again this is all beyond the remit of a devolved Holyrood.
Likewise with the level of minimum wage; state pension; welfare spending; retirement age; fully redistributive taxation - not to even mention the fact Holyrood is powerless to take Royal Mail, transport or energy into public ownership, or to pursue the general aim (in UNITE's Motion) of "public and common ownership, with election of trade union reps onto company/industrial forums and boards".
Only a fully-fledged government elected by the Scottish people would have the powers to transform workers' lives, through these and other measures.
And here again there needs to be a bit more consistency on the parts of many trade union leaderships. The STUC and its affiliates have a proud record of fighting South African Apartheid (as, in fact, referred to in a Motion to this STUC on the death of Mandela), fighting for majority rule. So where are many of the same trade union leaders when it comes to majority rule for the Scottish people - with an overwhelmingly working class majority? Are they going to advocate a No vote on 18 September so we continue to suffer 'rich minority rule' by Westminster Tories - who have been openly, nakedly dictating over Scotland for at least 34 years since 1955, despite never once getting a majority vote in Scotland since that year?
SELF-DETERMINATION FOR GREECE, PALESTINE...AND SCOTLAND?
A Conference Motion from ASLEF rightly offers solidarity to the Greek people, supporting "democracy, sovereignty, independence and the right of the Greek people to determine their own future free from oppressive external intervention". Does this not sound uncannily familiar?
So why therefore do union leaderships like those of ASLEF, USDAW, GMB, CWU not apply the same principles to Scotland? Why are they so rightly eager to support self determination for the Greeks or Palestinians, but so eager to ignore the right of their own Scottish memberships to determine the views of their own trade union on the Referendum - through branch debates, votes and a Scottish conference, rather than having no consultation or sham consultation after the UK-wide union leadership declared and imposed support for Better Together?
WORKERS' UNITY AND SOLIDARITY
And the dusty old argument that independence would wreck the unity and solidarity of the working class melts in the face of reality. Since when did any British government - including Labour ones - ever encourage or facilitate the unity and solidarity of workers across the UK?
On the contrary, measures banning so-called secondary action, combined with the break-up of public sector industries and services through rampant privatization, have been used to block workers' unity, to divide and conquer.
On the other hand, when Liverpool dockers, Manchester care workers, or Bristol civil servants were brought on tours of Scottish workplaces and unions by those of us who founded the SSP, not one Scottish worker ever spurned them on the grounds they were English. Nor did they turn away appeals for support to Irish car workers or Danish bus drivers that I toured Scotland with. The solidarity of Scottish workers - which also dates back to the 1930s Spanish civil war or the 1973 fascist coup in Chile - has never been dependent on workers being part of the UK, and certainly never awaited the support or permission of any Westminster government.
A BEACON TO WORKERS ABROAD
So why should that change after Scotland gained self-rule? The opposite: an emboldened Scottish working class, which helps not only to win a Yes vote but goes on to organise to shape the type of Scotland we build, would act as an example, a shining beacon, to workers across England, Wales, Ireland, Europe and beyond.
Trade unionists should not only stand up for Scottish self-determination, but fight to achieve a just and egalitarian Scotland, based on the best traditions of the trade union movement - an independent socialist Scotland - which would advance the cause of workers and socialism well beyond the boundaries of Scotland. In contrast, continued rule and ruin by the Westminster puppets of bankers and capitalists spells misery for millions of working class people. The choice is stark, the opportunity for sweeping change in favour of working people far too precious to miss.