Sunday, 24 January 2016


Defiance or destruction: that's the stark choice facing elected councillors and MSPs across Scotland as they debate the budgets for local councils in the context of the Scottish government's recent Local Authority Funding settlement. 
Defiance of Tory-initiated cuts to public sector jobs and services, or destruction of at least 20,000 council workers' jobs this year alone, and decimation of vital, lifeline services to children's education, and care services for children, frail elderly people, and vulnerable adults.

Every one of Scotland's 32 local councils is embroiled in decisions about this year's budget, to be voted on in the next few weeks. In the dead of winter, when most people were preparing their family Christmas, the Scottish government announced its budget, which included what John Swinney euphemistically termed "a challenging settlement for local authorities". In honest English, it actually means a 3.5% cut to council funding from Holyrood (which is overwhelmingly the main source of council funding); a loss of £350m this year alone. 

The SNP rightly condemn the annual cuts to the block grant from Westminster. But when John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon claim that they've been 'very fair' to councils, and that "local authorities' share of the budget has remained fairly steady" over the past five years, they're playing with words to hide the truth. Councils'  share might be similar, but with overall cuts to Scottish public spending as a whole, the savage truth is revealed by Audit Scotland in their 2015 Report: in just three years, from 2010 to 2013, Scottish government funding to councils was slashed by 8.5%. Even the SNP-Labour council in Edinburgh admits a fall of 14% in its real budget from Holyrood since 2010. 

And now a further 3.5% is to be hacked off last year's funding, which itself led to thousands of job losses, service cuts and exorbitant increases to service charges. Indeed, 40,000 local authority jobs have vanished in the past five years.  

The savagery facing Scotland's 250,000 council workers and communities depending on vital services this year and next makes the recent past look like a Golden Age! Cosla, which represents 28 of the 32 councils, has warned of 15,000 job losses. The union UNITE forecasts 20,000 - this year alone. 
And councils of all political complexions are plunging the knife like maniacs, with Labour-led Glasgow threatening 3,000 jobs to 'save' £131m this year; SNP-led Dundee seeking 'volunteers' for redundancy amongst its 6,000 non-teaching staff to slash £23m; and the SNP-Labour coalition in Edinburgh city council no longer guaranteeing that they'll avoid compulsory redundancies as they seek to butcher 2,000 jobs as part of this year's £141m cut. 

Vital services face decimation. One of the flagship policies of the SNP government is to close the education attainment gap between the richest kids and the rest; a gap that is yawning as wide as ever under their watch. Contrary to any such goal, even the Scottish Parliament Information Service (SPICE) reveals that the national education and lifelong learning budget is being cut by £83m (2.3%). In turn this threatens the loss of specialist teachers and support staff in most local authorities. 

So what should councils - and indeed the Scottish government - do, instead of meekly passing on a menu of brutality ultimately drawn up by Westminster's Tories? 

Some councils, such as Tory-led Moray and Independent-led Highlands, are threatening to defy the SNP government's 9-year-old council tax freeze. But the Council Tax is a pernicious, regressive means of collecting in £2billion for local authorities... still only about 15% of overall council funds, which predominantly depend on funds off Holyrood. So jacking up Council Tax bills (by 18% in the Moray Tories' plans!) will hit the poorest and middle-income households hardest.  
Putting up the Council Tax is death by financial strangulation rather than death by a thousand cuts. 

On the other hand, the SNP's freeze on Council Tax bills also helps the better-off more than lower-income families, and adds to the squeeze on council spending, jobs, services.  
As the SSP has persistently argued, the Council Tax shouldn't be frozen, but put into cold storage, killed off, abolished, and urgently replaced by emergency legislation in the Scottish parliament with a progressive, income-based Scottish Service Tax - which we've demonstrated would mean 77% of people paying less, the very rich a damn sight more, with funds thereby raised for councils literally doubled, from £2billion to £4billion.  

More immediately, while pushing ahead with such a progressive form of local taxation reform, the Scottish government and local councils should refuse point blank to pass on Westminster's cuts and set No Cuts Defiance budgets. Not as a feeble political gesture, but as the starting gun for a massive campaign built amongst council workers and local communities to win back some of the £billions stolen off Scotland in recent years. 
The SNP swept the elections by claiming to be 'anti-austerity'. Jeremy Corbyn replicated that by storming into the Labour leadership position with his 'anti-austerity' message, which included a call on Labour councillors to "combine and refuse to implement Tory cuts." 
Both the SNP and Labour have a mandate to defy Tory austerity; now they need to start practicing what they preach. 

For several years the SSP has advocated Defiance Budgets, No Cuts Budgets, at both Scottish and council levels. But what do we mean? 

It means setting out spending plans that protect every single job, wage packet, local service and community facility. It doesn't even have the ambition of being a 'needs budget', or a 'people's budget', with advances and reforms; merely the modest aim of defending what little we already have.  

Then, due to successive years of cuts, that would leave an inevitable shortfall compared to income from government funding, council tax, service charges and rents. But instead of punishing the working class by hikes in Council Tax bills or service charges, we advocate a systematic mobilization of workers, user groups and communities to force funds out of the greedy fists of Westminster.  
But that would be illegal, and just lead to fines, sequestration and jail for councillors, cry the Labour (and SNP) benches. Wrong! On several counts, wrong!
In one of his disappointing retreats in the face of treachery in his own party and the media frenzy, Jeremy Corbyn has more recently circulated Labour councillors insisting they "must not set illegal budgets". There's no need for such capitulation to threats of being branded 'illegal'. 

For starters, councils (and the Scottish government) could temporarily fill much of the spending gap for this year's budgets by use of existing powers over their (annual!) underspend, reserves, borrowing powers and cancellation of debt repayments. On just the latter mechanism, since Scottish devolution, local authorities have forked out £3.6billion in interest charges on their £2.5billion debt!  

Such financial mechanisms would only be a very temporary reprieve, a delaying tactic to help mount a serious struggle to win back funding off the Tory thieves. They would not be a solution in themselves, but a means of buying some time to mobilize for the real solution: more funding from central government. 
And fines and sequestration of councillors were abolished in legislation 15 years ago, giving councillors more room for maneuver than the socialist councillors in Liverpool enjoyed in the 1980s.  

In any case, MSPs and councillors weren't elected to obey David Cameron or George Osborne. Instead of whining about Tory austerity and then passing it on to local people and their own workforce, SNP and Labour politicians should discover the collective spine to stand up to the Tory cuts, defy them, set out a No Cuts budget, and then build a Scottish rebellion to force the Tories into retreat, to win back the funding to balance the books. 

It could be done. It has been done. I was at the heart of the mass movement in Liverpool which involved regular workplace mass meetings, college students meetings, public rallies in the communities, one-day regional general strikes and demos of up to 50,000 in Liverpool in the '80s. The result? Working class people won back over £60million (about £100m in today's money) off the hard-faced Maggie Thatcher - through a mass struggle inspired by a group of socialist councillors prepared to defy the Tories and go all the way to win the funds to vastly improve working class people's lives, housing, jobs and incomes. 
And that was in one city, smaller than Glasgow. Imagine even a few councils in Scotland, in alliance with the Scottish government, staging the equivalent defiance, demanding back some of our stolen £billions, from the far-weaker Tory government of Cameron? 

As we head towards the budget-making meetings, workers, communities and socialists should pound Labour and SNP councillors and MSPs to stand up for the working class majority, defy Tory cuts, and set out on the road to a mass struggle that could defeat the worst savagery in at least a generation. 
And hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully! If these politicians fail to give a lead, and bow the knee to Westminster cuts, they should be forcibly reminded of the forthcoming Scottish elections, where the SSP and other socialists will advocate precisely the option of defiance, not destruction. 

Saturday, 2 January 2016


On Hogmanay 1996, the Glasgow Glacier Metal engineering workers were ringing the bells in elation at their victory, whilst Glacier bosses were wringing their hands in despair.
The ‘Polmadie 103’ had scored a landmark victory for class struggle trade unionism, defeating the factory’s multinational owners, Turner & Newall, after a seven week factory sit-in. 
It was the first workplace occupation in ten years, and was provoked by dictatorial bosses trying to impose a 15-point change of contract, which aimed to double company profits, cut wages by £123 a week and slash sick pay, the canteen subsidy and other benefits won over 25 years by these members of the AEEU, now part of UNITE the union.

The boss’s method of imposing this was designed to undermine the union. He picked on the youngest tradesman in the workforce, and ordered him to risk health and safety by doing two jobs at once. The lad went to his union stewards, who had prepared for this confrontation and, advising the entire workforce to ‘down tools’, went upstairs to negotiate.

As they waited outside his office, the manager sneaked down to the factory floor to declare: “Gentlemen, you are all sacked!" Four of those sacked were on holiday, while another was convalescing after operations for brain 

Advantages of Factory Occupation  
Critically, instead of walking out the door on strike, which years before had landed them in a prolonged lockout, the workers stayed in the factory, declaring themselves available for work.

This totally wrong-footed management, and gave the highly-skilled workers several strategic advantages. They seized control of a factory with £1million worth of undelivered precision engineering products, paralysing £200,000-a-day production and thereby putting pressure on the owners from customer companies. I'll never forget the irate phone call to the factory during the sit-in, when a company boss bellowed: "What's going on with my orders? I've got a f***ing nuclear power station to run!"
They psychologically brought the battle into the bosses’ domain, preventing them bussing in scabs past legally-hamstrung pickets with police assistance, as Timex had done in Dundee 1993. And above all, they were fighting for their jobs, justice and full trade union rights inside a well-heated factory, with snow-storms outside, making it one huge campaigning nerve centre.

Building Workers' Solidarity  
If the factory occupation had remained a ‘folded arms’ affair, waiting for concessions from the employers, it would have collapsed, or at best allowed some dirty deal to be hatched above their heads between the management and top AEEU officials, who had secret contact with the company as early as five days into the occupation. But this inspiring workers’ struggle was a model of strategy and tactics. Firm discipline was established by the union stewards and Occupation Committee, with a booze ban and daily mass meetings. Meals were cooked and the factory kept clean.

Role of Socialists in the Sit-in 
Some of us who later founded the SSP played a major role in this historic event.

I first called to offer practical solidarity the morning after they started the occupation. We had been in the thick of building support for the 500 locked-out Liverpool dockers for the previous 15 months, and used our vast array of workplace contacts to arrange solidarity visits with Glacier workers all over Scotland – and parts of the UK, particularly those with big engineering industries. This served several purposes, including financial survival for the workers’ families and a breach in the media vow of silence.

On the issue of whether management could evict them, we explained the law, with the help of a couple of friendly lawyers, but emphasised that the ultimate means of defence of the sit-in from potential moves - involving police, or cowboy security firms - was to build mass support in the workplaces and surrounding community, creating a potential army of defence.

Solidarity Mass Pickets  
The employers hoped to isolate the sit-in with the help of media silence, aiming to starve the workers’ families into submission as Christmas loomed large. Workplace solidarity tours helped scupper that. It also countered the danger of boredom and demoralisation setting in amongst a workforce not previously known for involvement in the wider movement. 
When management told the arbitration service ACAS that they had no workforce, we smelt a rat, suspecting imminent eviction, and in discussions with the Occupation Committee suggested an early morning solidarity mass picket, built through a leaflet around workplaces and the mailing list of the Clydeside Dockers' Support Group (which I was the organiser of). That vastly boosted morale, became a weekly feature, and peaked at a turnout of 400.

Taking to the Streets 
We then suggested a pre-Xmas demo, which attracted well over 1,000 on Sunday 15 December. One report claimed 3,000. The build-up was as important as this stirring event itself. The Occupation Committee had coopted me as an adviser, and put me in charge of a small Demo Committee. We involved the absolute majority of the men, and a few of their partners, in street meetings, issuing hard-hitting leaflets that won support, by-passed the media blackout, and swamped workplaces and shopping centres across the west of Scotland.

An ACAS boss complained after a leaflet was left unwittingly on his windscreen, because it described Turner & Newall as ‘notorious merchants of death’, citing their appalling record on asbestosis. AEEU officials went ape-shit down the phone to the union convener, who firmly rejected their instructions and printed 29,000 of the ‘offending’ leaflet. This propaganda offensive helped bring T&N bosses to heel, as they already faced dire problems with £billions of outstanding asbestosis claims and feared their notoriety being broadcast.

Supporting Locked-out Liverpool Dockers  
The workers were literally dancing with elation after the success of the demo. They then turned their attention to daily street collections in the run up to Xmas – for financial survival, but also to keep the campaign alive and in people’s minds.

The first big collection, on 18 December, raised £488 … for the Liverpool dockers. The Occupation Committee rounded it up to £600, in an act of selfless solidarity born of their own experiences in battle. On Xmas Eve, a team hit Glasgow’s Argyle Street from 10am to 5pm and collected £2,800.

Negotiations began that day, involving both full-time union officials and the factory union convener and deputy convener. T&N’s head of Employee Relations grizzled that as they negotiated, Glacier workers were on the streets with megaphones and leaflets attacking T&N. That was part of the point – to pile pressure on the company and remind right-wing AEEU officials what was at stake.

An Xmas day breakfast was laid on in the occupied factory for families and supporters – another ingenious act of defiance and comradeship by people whose talents erupted in the heat of battle. 

Outright Victory! 
By Hogmanay, the 103 workers were celebrating a landmark victory. All were reinstated, with full union recognition, and very little conceded to the bosses on their conditions of work. In a final fling at undermining union rights, the company tried to get a staggered return to work – which the AEEU full-time officials agreed to. The workers’ direct union representatives went ballistic, refused, said it was a ploy to potentially victimise leaders of the occupation, and won a proud, united return to work.

A multinational giant was brought to its knees by the tactics, skills, and impact on production by this factory occupation. Socialists played an important, constructive part, applying collective experience to living struggles, laying foundations for a united, working class socialist party - in the form of the SSP, established two years after the Polmadie 103's victory. 

Capitalists Complain! 
Such was the impact of this victorious struggle in the southside of Glasgow, that a dissident voice in the hierarchy of Turner & Newall management reproduced the article I wrote on its tenth anniversary, with a covering note bemoaning their losses.

"Even if they worked only 5 days per week, at “£200,000-a-day” this 7-week strike cost them £7 million, plus legal and administrative costs of fighting the strike. And they lost not only the strike but their former stronger position against the union.
Here’s an exquisite example of why [former Glacier Metal Company CEO] Wilfred Brown’s ideas about Works Councils make management stronger, not weaker. Had Turner & Newall had the guts to restore this strong institution — instead of the cowardice of underhanded union-busting — they would have been in a stronger position overall in their discussion with the union."

Interestingly, he advocated a return to earlier methods of Works Councils - the much-vaunted concept of 'social partnership' - rather than full-frontal union-busting methods... to achieve precisely the same cost-cutting, profit-boosting attacks on workers' terms and conditions!

As workplace closures and massive redundancies erupt 20 years on, workers and their union leaderships should study, adapt and apply the lessons from this outstanding model of how to defy the dictatorship of capital.