Tuesday, 29 September 2015


As the Tories take a claw hammer to workers' rights, and swing their wrecking ball at jobs, wages, tax credits and public services, it's no wonder workers search for a political alternative. 
The cream of the Scottish working class has joined the SSP, the socialist contingent of the 630,000-strong trade union movement. They are rightly attracted by the SSP's track record of solidarity with workers in struggle; unflinching fight for an immediate £10 minimum wage for all at 16; our advocacy of democratic public ownership, and our tireless campaigning for a charter of workers' rights, as a core human right.
But given their near-monopoly of Scottish politics since the Referendum, and the power they wield, thousands of trade unionists and workers see the SNP as an immediate vehicle for their aspirations. 

The SNP claims that within its overall, phenomenal growth to about 112,000 members, their Trade Union Group (TUG) has rocketed from 800 to 16,000 - at least up until the Corbyn factor, outnumbering the entire membership of Scottish Labour. 
Some have joined the SNP TUG under the false impression that it's an actual union, such is their disenchantment with their own trade union. 
Others purely because they see the SNP as the big vehicle to climb aboard for independence, and tick the box to register as a trade union member. 
Others still, doubtless attracted by the SNP's mood music towards the trade union movement - in technicolour contrast to the savage hostility of the class war launched on the unions by the Tories, and the decades of neglect and abuse of workers' loyalty by Labour.
But what does the SNP actually offer workers? What does their very welcome talk of inclusion of the unions amount to? What does their oft-trumpeted belief in 'Social Partnership' mean in practice?

One of the most comprehensive statements of SNP policy on the unions and workers' rights was carried in the November 2013 SNP government White Paper, 'Scotland's Future'. 
It promised, given the powers of independence, to "reverse recent changes introduced at Westminster which reduce key aspects of workers' rights. For example, we will restore a 90-day consultation period on redundancies affecting 100 or more employees." And to abolish the pernicious 'shares for rights' scheme, whereby workers were given a few piddling shares as reward for selling all their rights on redundancy, unfair dismissal, etc.
Very welcome, considering the jailhouse conditions endured under the Tories. But never a single mention from this voluminous SNP document of fully repealing the bulging package of anti-union laws ushered in by Thatcher, retained by Blair and Brown, now being made infinitely more repressive by Cameron's dictatorship. 

Nor have the SNP pledged repeal before or since the Referendum. For instance, to their full credit, they have argued and voted against the current Tory Trade Union Bill - but still never once promised to repeal the batch of repressive legislation that the Bill is being riveted onto. Even in the scenario of an SNP government with full control over employment law, that implies the retention of at least the majority of the most repressive anti-union laws in the entire western world.
The SNP Trade Union Group is undoubtedly on the left flank of the SNP. It has submitted Motions to the forthcoming SNP conference calling for opposition to the Trade Union Bill, an outright ban on fracking (rather than just a moratorium) and for a public inquiry into blacklisting of trade unionists in Scotland. But even they don't explicitly call for total repeal of the vicious anti-worker laws. 

The core philosophy of the SNP is 'Social Partnership'. In the White Paper they spelled it out: "working directly with the trade unions, employers' associations, employers and voluntary sector to build a partnership approach to addressing labour market challenges". 

But the fundamental feature of a capitalist society - with private ownership and the profit motive pivotal - is that the interests of workers and capitalist employers do not coincide. They clash, in what at root is a struggle over who gets the bigger share of the wealth produced: workers in their wages, conditions and 'social wage', or owners in profit and shareholders' dividends. 
Any attempt at 'social partnership' within the framework of such a capitalist 'free-market' economy is not a partnership of equals, between two sets of people with common interests, but a partnership of the rider and the horse!

This philosophy shows its inherent flaws when confronted by the concrete reality of workers being forced to fight back in self-defence and in opposition to attacks on the public services they provide. 
For example, when the SNP and its Trade Union Group were challenged to unequivocally side with the striking Dundee hospital porters and Glasgow Homeless Caseworkers - a challenge laid down by members of Trade Unionists for Independence, not by some opportunist Labour hacks - they writhed, wriggled and declined to declare open solidarity with the strikes. 
The SNP TUG were caught between their instincts as trade unionists and their loyalty to the philosophy of 'social partnership'; mangled up in the clash between workers seeking a fair and justified jobs regrading in both strikes, and the public sector employers involved, who are primarily funded by the SNP government.

The baleful consequences of 'social partnership' between trade unions and employers was even more starkly shown up in the recent CalMac ferries strike. 
When RMT members balloted and went on strike in defence of jobs, pensions and conditions in the face of a Scottish government tendering process likely to result in privatisation, the Scottish Socialist Party didn't hesitate to side with the ferry workers and organise support for them. In contrast, the SNP government tried to deny transferring the service to a private company (Serco) would be privatisation, and the SNP TUG squirmed with embarrassing verbal gymnastics about "recognizing the right to strike" and how the strikers were being met by SNP Ministers, but patently failed to unequivocally support the strike. This earned them the stern rebuke of the RMT - a union affiliated to no political party, after being expelled from Labour when they (temporarily) affiliated to the SSP over ten years ago.

So whilst individual SNP members in the unions will have supported the strikers mentioned above, the SNP as a party - and even its Trade Union Group - were prisoners of their own false belief in the common interests of workers and big employers, or of workers and the dictats of the capitalist European Union's directives on privatisation. 
Instead of defying such forces, the SNP tried to straddle two horses, as they charged off in opposite directions. 
In the case of the ferries strike, they only eventually intervened to concede promises on jobs and pensions after being forced to by the tenacity of an escalating strike which threatened to expose the hollowness of their 'social partnership'.

At its more general level, the SNP 'Social Partnership' model includes very seductive sounding proposals of 'worker directors' on company boards - emulating the various versions practiced by 14 out of 28 EU countries - with the White Paper favouring "employee representation to bolster long term decision-making and improve industrial relations."
Compared with the way unions have been cast out into the industrial Siberian steppes by successive Westminster governments, frozen out of all discussion and decisions, this looks like a warm, welcoming hearth fire.
But it's riddled with pitfalls and potential traps.

If elected workers' representatives were given access to discussions on employers' plans, that would be a radical breakthrough compared, for instance, with the ruthless dictatorship of capital - in the form of one man! - on display in 2013 at Grangemouth. 
INEOS owner and boss Jim Ratcliffe held the entire Grangemouth workforce, and indeed the Scottish government and people to ransom, shutting down the biggest plant in the country to enforce his union-smashing plans.

If union reps had access to company secret accounts, that would be a huge advantage in protecting workers and communities from the shenanigans of the profiteers.

But in those other countries with 'worker directors', they are usually gagged from speaking about any company secrets, and frequently bound hand and foot to the majority decisions of the boards of directors they have a token place or two on. 
Close to home, that's the situation with so-called worker directors on NHS area boards. They are entirely compromised in the eyes of trade unionists.
And the example lauded in the SNP's White Paper - as a model of 'Worker Directors' enacting their 'social partnership' - was that of First Group, which has had a 'worker director' on its board since the firm's formation in 1989. 
Where the hell was this 'voice of workers' when RMT members on First Scotrail were compelled to stage strikes against savage attacks on their conditions a few years ago? 
I don't recall meeting him on the picket lines, nor hearing him side with the workers he claims to represent in the media. Nor condemning the revelations at the time that the SNP government had underwritten any losses to First Scotrail as a result of strike action. 
Is that what social partnership - and worker directors - amounts to?! 

The SNP's belief in Social Partnership is pleasant mood music to the ears of thousands of workers expelled into the wilderness by employers and governments hell-bent on slashing jobs, wages, conditions and public services. 
But it's anything but original, and a slippery road to setbacks for workers and working class communities, which the likes of the STUC would be wise to heed as they (quite rightly) engage with the SNP government and SNP MPs. 

Back in the days of the 1974-9 Labour government - 'Old Labour', with a powerful trade union influence and sizeable socialist wing in the party - a previous version of this 'social partnership' notion was practiced. 
Called the Social Contract, it was initially popular amongst layers of the lowest-paid workers, as they gained reasonable pay rises in Phase I of this agreement between the tops of the unions, employers and the Wilson/Callaghan Labour government. 
But it faced its own inevitable doom, because whilst the government had the power to control (that is, suppress) workers' wages, it lacked the power to control prices in a capitalist market economy. 
So workers suffered ferocious pay cuts as inflation ripped through the roof; the (left) trade union architects of this Social Contract became discredited as they tried to stop members striking for compensatory pay increases; workers became bitter and confused; Labour was blamed and defeated; and the inglorious butcher of the working class, Maggie Thatcher, won office by default in 1979. 

More recently, in the South of Ireland, as working people faced decimation to pay for the horrendous crises not of their making, the tops of the trade union movement entered a succession of 'National Agreements' - based on the same 'social partnership' model. This left workers hamstrung in their attempts to resist austerity measures, with jobs and incomes slaughtered on the altar of protecting profit margins and targets on cuts to public expenditure. 
So in contradiction to the seductive sounding alternative to red-in-tooth-and-claw Toryism, the SNP's 'social partnership' will fail to meet the aspirations of the very workers attracted to it right now. 

Under the hammer blows of cuts to the Scottish budget by Westminster, the SNP faces a harsh choice, a real test of whose side they're on: they'll have to either stand up and defy the Tory cuts, refuse to pass them on, and mobilize a mass rebellion of the Scottish people - to demand back the £billions stolen by Westminster - or they'll end up slashing jobs, wages and public services, whilst trying to devolve the blame to local councils, colleges and Health Boards. They'll have to choose to defy or destroy. 
The Tories' ideological crusade to slash the share of wealth going to workers through austerity and privatisation is irreconcilable with the needs of the working class majority population. 
To compromise with them would be to shatter the hopes of those who rejected them, including the masses of Scots who voted SNP. 
Social partnership is an attempt to paper over the chasm between the interests of the working class and the 1% who possess most of the wealth.

Of course in an independent socialist Scotland - as fought for by the SSP - elected, accountable workers' representatives should be the majority on workplace committees to control day-to-day operations and conditions.
The majority on the boards of management of nationalized industries and services, and of local cooperatives, should be made up of working class representatives - elected, subject to recall, and paid the average skilled wage.
But that's on the basis of a society where the core of the economy is under democratic public ownership - a world apart from the present setup, where a handful of billionaires, bankers and hedge fund managers control the majority of the economy. 
A socialist Scotland would usher in genuine 'social partnership', where the workers in each industry or service, alongside the wider community, and elected local and national governments, could collaborate for the betterment of the entire population- not the narrow, selfish profit interests of a handful. 
That's the vision of the SSP; a starkly different picture to the SNP's 'social partnership'.

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