The role of trade unions in economic and social life was the theme of the March 2017 Policy Forum discussion at the Hamilton campus of UWS.
The Forum was timely, given the 30th anniversary of the Caterpillar factory occupation in nearby Uddingston. During 1987 the Caterpillar workers occupied the factory for over 100 days as they sought – ultimately unsuccessfully – to stop the closure of their plant by the US multinational. This closure was enforced against wide public opposition, only months after long-term commitments, backed by government financial support, had been provided to the workforce by the firm.
The Partnership was delighted to have John Gillen, John Brannan, and John Kane, former shop stewards at Caterpillar and leading members, both of the 1987 Joint Occupation Committee and of the recently former Caterpillar Legacy Group, as contributors to the discussion. In conversation with Dr Ewan Gibbs (Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, UWS), the three Johns’ recollections of the 1987 occupation provided the context for the wider discussion about the role of trade unions in economic and social life both then, now and also in the future.
The wider discussion was supported by contributions from John Foster (Emeritus Professor of History, UWS), Ann Henderson (Assistant Secretary, Scottish Trade Union Congress), Patricia Findlay (Professor of Work and Employment Relations, University of Strathclyde and Academic Adviser to the Scottish Government’s Fair Work Convention) and Bryan Simpson (Better than Zero campaign). Francis Stuart (Research and Policy Adviser, Oxfam Scotland, and Chik Collins (Professor of Applied Social Science, UWS) chaired and concluded the discussion. UWS Special Collections’ Allison Buchanan and colleagues prepared material for a book stall at the event.
The discussion showed wide-ranging agreement that an active role for trade unions is crucial to the challenge of managing economic growth to address the future threats of technological change (threatening further mass unemployment), heightening inequality and also climate change. More generally, participants were reminded of how often the importance of trade unions in challenging the prevailing neoliberal economic model had been raised at previous Policy Forums dealing with a wide range of themes and issues. However, John Foster, Ann Henderson and Patricia Findlay all highlighted how the trade union movement finds itself in challenging circumstances. Not only has membership decreased significantly over the past decades, also politicians have increasingly reduced the room for manoeuvre for trade unions. The UK Trade Union Act 2016, as the latest example, has further limited the right to strike. John Foster reminded participants that trade union activity was once entirely a criminal act and that any concessions, not just in the workplace but also in the political sphere, were hard fought for.
Ann Henderson and Patricia Findlay also sounded an optimistic note, however, with regards to their view of the current Scottish trade union movement. Patricia Findlay argued that the Scottish Government accepts an important role for trade unions in policy-making. After all, trade unions not only hold significant expertise of use to policy-makers but they are also important when it comes to the implementation of policy. The Fair Work Convention, set up by the Scottish Government in 2015, was discussed as one example for strong trade union involvement in policy-making. But also the Government’s Economic Strategy shows, it was argued, the acknowledgment that trade union demands are not only good for workers but also good for individual business and the overall economy.
However, while all of this is significant, questions were raised from the floor about the depth of the Scottish Government’s commitment to the principles of fair work, for instance in relation to major public procurement contracts and the expectations around them. There is a challenge, some believed, to the Scottish Government more generally around gaps between policy rhetoric and appearances, on the one hand, and substantive action and realities on the ground, on the other hand – both on trade union and employment issues, and also more widely in relation to inequality, social justice and environmental concerns.
There was no disagreement, though, around how problematic it is that so many workers in low-paid sectors remain beyond the reach of trade unions. Participants considered the challenges of pursuing collective action for workplace rights in this context. Bryan Simpson, from the Better Than Zero campaign, presented his organisation’s direct action-based strategy to combat “zero hours contracts” or practices such as withholding tips. Both are widespread in the hospitality sector. Through “flash mobs”, naming-and-shaming, and pickets, Better Than Zero has won dramatic concessions from large businesses. However, Bryan also stressed that trade union organisation in the hospitality sector remained low, even where the Better Than Zero campaign has won with, and on behalf of workers.
The three Johns from the Caterpillar Legacy Group, and also John Foster, strongly emphasised the importance of the principle of solidarity which underlies all trade union activity. In their view, this principle needs to be strengthened to sustain collective action to challenge the prevailing economic model. Whilst the three Johns, during their struggle against the US multinational, experienced solidarity from Caterpillar workers across the world and from the local community, they warned that such cross-national class solidarity may have waned. Recent discussions about closures of General Motors plants either in the UK or in Germany and the attempts of local workforces to outperform others over productivity to prevent closure of “their own plant” are perhaps examples.
For decades, and well within living memory, trade unions played a central role in Scotland’s economic and social life. Clearly, in recent decades the capacity of the trade unions to do that has been reduced. Can trade unions be made more significant actors again? Professor Findlay said that those who wish for trade unions to regain their central role can start by encouraging their colleagues to sign up to their trade union.
But more widely, the case needs to be made around the essential role for trade unions in the wider processes which will be needed to change the prevailing economic paradigm and the extraordinary challenges which it is posing in the present and for the future – of irreversible climate change and of intensifying inequality and injustice, social divisions and disempowerment.
As Ann Henderson of the Scottish Trades Union Congress stressed, this must mean bringing increasing numbers under the terms of collective bargaining on the one hand, while extending the scope of trade union activity further beyond the workplace and into local communities, and being fully cognisant of the need to address gender issues – both in the workplace and in the trade union movement itself.