SNP party conference
17 October 2015
Thank you for inviting me to address your conference this morning. I am deeply grateful for this historic opportunity to contribute during this debate on the trade union bill.
Before I turn my attention to the bill it would be remiss of me not to mention yesterday’s announcement about Tata steel and the threat to 400 jobs in Lanarkshire and the continued existence of the Scottish steel industry.
This morning, hundreds of workers, their families and the Lanarkshire community have woken up with a dark cloud hanging over them.
We need immediate clarity from the company as to its intentions and a commitment that it will work with the unions and its workforce and the Scottish Government to ensure a future for steel production in Scotland.
I discussed the situation briefly with John Swinney yesterday and encouraged him and the Scottish Government will do all they can to retain the steel industry and its skilled workforce in Scotland and I look forward to exploring all the options open to us to achieve that objective.
There is a proud history of steel production in Scotland. Times have changed and market conditions are challenging. But Scottish industry needs steel and we must so everything possible to have that steel produced in Scotland. These workers expect and deserve no less.
Now let me turn to the trade union bill. And can I say how delighted I am to be following Chris Stephens who has led your opposition to the bill in the Westminster parliament with such passion and expertise.
There is so much to say about this bill; about the ideology behind it; about its potential impact and about our strategy of opposition to it.
I want to concentrate my comments this morning on two or three specific points.
The first point is that this is a bill presented as solutions to problems that simply don’t exist.
We do not have a strike problem. And even if we did, that would be no reason to trample over workers’ civil and human rights.
We don’t have a problem with picketing.
The so called ‘evidence’, none or which comes from employers or workers claiming intimidation, includes such extreme tactics as:
The use of air horns in public places;
Walking slowly in front of vehicles;
Using the internet to post intimidatory material (undefined) and blocking the access for shoppers at the doors to retail stores.
The consultation document on picketing mentions that during the Ineos dispute secondary targeting occurred at a number of premises and suppliers who had links to Grangemouth.
Unite the union put a large inflatable rat outside the offices of Jim Ratcliff the owner of Ineos!
It depends very much what you define as intimidation!
I think it is intimidation if an employer, as in the case of Ineos, threatens to close a plant and take away workers’ livelihoods.
I think it is intimidation for an employer to threaten to decimate a local community or indeed a national economy, if a union and its members do not agree to accept cuts in their pay, terms and conditions and pensions.
An inflatable rat seems pretty mild to me.
My second point is that the bill raises serious questions about the nature of democracy in the United Kingdom. It should alarm not just unions and their members but anyone concerned about democracy, human rights and civil liberties.
It represents a level of state interference in the activities of a civil society organisation that goes way beyond what is reasonable in any democracy.
Colleagues, through this vindictive, unnecessary bill, the Tory government has wilfully placed our country at odds with international law and the conventions on freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly and the rights to strike.
These conventions exist to protect fundamental human rights. They are a recognition that our democratic wellbeing demands that workers have a meaningful collective voice in the workplace.
At the core of this is the right of workers to withdraw their labour in protest at the actions of their employer without the fear of being sacked.
Without the ability to strike as a last resort, workers, will have no effective voice at work. They will be left with no alternative but to accept the decisions of the employer, whatever the consequences.
There will be no fairness or justice or democracy in the workplace.
The United Kingdom is conspicuous in not recognising the importance of constructive industrial relations and the many benefits that come from the effective voice that unions provide, something that is the norm in Germany and in Scandinavia and in other successful northern European economies.
And it is not the approach to unions and industrial relations we are trying to create here in Scotland -
Which makes the case for the powers over employment protection to be devolved at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Tories claim that their proposals on ballot thresholds are about outlawing undemocratic strike action.
This has nothing to do with democracy.
I will not take lectures about democracy from a government elected on only 24% of those eligible to vote – and only 10% of those eligible to vote in Scotland - much less, of course, than the proposed thresholds that they wish to impose on strike ballots. If the Tories were serious about increasing participation in ballots, which I am all in favour of, they would allow unions to use secure online balloting, including on-line balloting at the workplace.
We can bank online. We are encouraged by the uk government do a range of government business online, like pay your car tax or apply for a driving licence.
You can vote for the leader of a political party on line, or in the case of the Tories, vote online for your candidate in the london mayoral election.
But it is unlawful for union members to vote online in a strike ballot.
I’ve heard it argued that the 50% turnout threshold is reasonable and I've also heard it said that there may be a deal to be done on thresholds, that maybe we could accept a 40% turnout or 30% of those eligible to vote.
Thresholds are undemocratic. Thresholds and wrong in principle. They are wrong at 50%. They are wrong at 40%. They are wrong at 30% or 20%. There is no deal to be done on thresholds other than to drop them completely.
And what about the intention to make it illegal for public sector employers to collect membership fees on behalf of the union, the so called check off arrangement, and to restrict the amount of time public sector workplace reps can spend representing their members.
This not only constitutes a disturbing degree of centralised dictate - it drives a coach and horses through both the spirit and intent of devolution, to Scotland, to Wales and to the English regions.
It is totally unacceptable that, a minister, from an office in Westminster, and without any parliamentary scrutiny, can determine how much the Scottish Government or a council or the NHS in Scotland, can invest in ensuring effective industrial relations arrangements with its recognised unions.
I very much welcome the strong statements of opposition to the bill from the Scottish Government, from cosla and from a number of Scottish councils.
And I have every confidence that if this bill becomes law they will resist the implementation of any instructions issued from westminster on facility time or check-off.
We will of course continue to work with you to defeat this bill in the Westminster parliament and I commend your approach in building alliances to do that on behalf of workers across Britain. But let us also be clear, the provisions of this bill intrude on devolved responsibilities to such an extent that not one clause should be applied to Scotland without the consent of the Scottish parliament, a consent that I am confident would not be forthcoming.
We will oppose the bill through legal challenge– although the courts have never offered us much comfort.
It is inevitable that if this is bill implemented it will bring unions into conflict with the law and bring the police, lawyers and judges into industrial relations as never before.
Do we really want our police force to be monitoring what unons say on twitter and facebook to check if it matches what they said they would say 14 days earlier? It is a proposterous and impractical proposition which you might expect to find in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.
But others have tried to use the law to destroy the trade union movement and we are still here. We will not to silenced and we do not intend to be bullied or intimidated.
This bill is an attack on unions. It is an attack on our right to strike and to represent our members.
But more than that, it is attack on democracy, on fundamental human rights and civil liberties, on the right to free speech and peaceful protest.
I know that the SNP values these rights and that we will stand together as we have on other issues where we share a common cause.
I also know that the best way to defend and advance union and workers’ rights is by building union membership and organisation at the workplace.
So if you are not a union member please join.
If you are a member become an activist.
If you are an activist – keep doing what you’re doing or if you can, do a wee bit more!
Conference, thank you once again for allowing me the privilege of addressing you today.