Speech by STUC General Secretary to STUC Women's Conference

November 3rd 2015

gs speech


Speech by Grahame Smith STUC General Secretary

Thank you for inviting me to address your conference today. It is always a pleasure to be here.

To begin with, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Women’s Committee and my colleagues who support the Committee, for all the work you do taking forward the decisions of the Women’s Conference and the issues of concern to working women in Scotland.

The debates that take place here at the Women’s Conference and the resolutions you pass, are based on the real life experience of working women from across Scotland and from across a wide variety of economic sectors.

The views of you and your members are invaluable in informing the work of the General Council particularly in its engagement with the Scottish and UK Governments, with the opposition parties, with the Scottish Parliament and its Committees, and on the many strategic and advisory boards on which I and other STUC colleagues serve.

This afternoon I know you will be discussing motions on violence against women. The Scottish government recently published ‘ Equally Safe – Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls’

I have accepted an invitation been to join the Board set up to oversee the implementation of the strategy which meets for the first time later month.

This issue is a high priority for us and the General Council when it meets tomorrow will agree proposals for union activity during the forthcoming 16 days of action to eradicate violence against women, including marking the Un International Day of Action on the 25th of November.

The input we have already had on the issue from trade union affiliates and our Equality Conferences and your debate today will be vital in informing the contribution we make in the period ahead.

The work done by the STUC in recent years on women’s employment with the Scottish government is another example of how the Women’s Committee and this conference are shaping the STUC’s priorities.

Our women and work partnership project with the Scottish Government is allowing us to gather more evidence about our own movement and the work being done to organise women workers – but also to better analyse what’s happening in Scotland’s economy, recognising that there will be different experiences and different policies to be developed for women in the labour market, at different times in their lives.

The economy

Colleagues, there is little doubt that the Scottish economy is facing troubling times.

The most recent figures show unemployment is now back on a clear upward trend and working age employment is lower than it was this time last year.

Over the last year we have suffered from thousands of jobs losses offshore with worst to come as the operators cut and run.

We’ve seen Tullis Russel, one of Scotland’s last paper mills close with the loss of over 400 jobs. Next year will see the closure of Longannet with hundreds of jobs lost at the plant and in the supply chain.

We are currently facing the prospect of the end of steel production in Scotland with the future of the Dalzell and Clydebridge plants under treat.

But we know that there are real prospects for the Scottish steel industry in the future if we can secure these plants now.

There is potential for steel produced in Scotland to be used across industry: in mining; in defence; in environmental protection; in renewables; in offshore fabrication; in manufacturing heavy machinery and in construction.

To realise that potential we urgently need a realistic, modern manufacturing strategy for Scotland.

We need radical new steps to give growing companies access to long term investment. We need more support for skills, a more strategic approach to procurement and a plan to encourage more companies and sectors to bring manufacturing back to Scotland.

And any strategy for manufacturing must also address the considerably under-represented of women in manufacturing in Scotland, and the concentration of women in occupations with the lowest pay which contributes to significant gender pay gaps of almost 44 per cent in some sub-sectors of manufacturing.

We are witnessing large industrial workplaces being lost at a worrying rate. These are the glue which binds local economies. Giving generalised tax breaks to micro-employers will never replace the scale of economic activity lost in Fife, Lanarkshire and Aberdeen over the past year.

And it’s not just in industry that we see jobs under threat. In north Lanarkshire, an area reeling from the announcement of the possible loss of hundreds of steel jobs, the Council is considering axing over 1000 full time equivalent jobs in the next 3 years to save £45m.

Glasgow City Council plans to cut 3000 jobs in the next two years. Edinburgh plan to cut a 1000 jobs; and with Highland Council having to save £46m over the next three years, that could mean another 1000 jobs to go.

It’s disturbing how little publicity job losses of this scale have generated compared with the recent announcement by TATA for example. 270 steel jobs are vital to Lanarkshire and Scotland.

The threat to them deserves the attention given by Government, including the creation of the Steel Taskforce. We have the Energy Jobs Taskforce to deal with off-shore job losses, we have the Longannet taskforce; the Tullis Russell Taskforce.

Where is the Local Authority Jobs Taskforce – nowhere to be seen? Might that be because Council job losses disproportionately impact on women?

It’s all very well the First Minister talking about the need for gender equality on Boards. Perhaps a little more attention to and action on the gender impact of the Government’s own spending decisions might be in order. Abandoning the Council Tax freeze would be an important first step in helping Council’s avoid at least some of these cuts.

Council’s might plan to make these job cuts without resorting to compulsory redundancies. But it can’t be done without increasing the workload and stress of those workers that remain and without cutting services to communities.

But colleagues, without doubt, the biggest hurdle to sustainable economic recovery in Scotland is the Tories shameless, evidence-bereft approach to the economy. At the end of the month when the Chancellor delivers his Autumn Statement we will see confirmation of the brutal cuts in public expenditure the Tories promised before the Election.

There is nothing inevitable about austerity. It is a political not an economic choice.

We know that austerity makes no economic sense. We know that its primary purpose is ideological, intended to entrench the economic and political power of a self-interested, privileged elite.

The fiscal charter – which will compels the UK Government by law to achieve a budget surplus by 2019/20, and then keep the budget in surplus each year thereafter, has no economic rationale and is supported by not a single economist of any credibility and profile.

It is nothing more than political game playing – an attempt to hoodwink the electorate into believing that the Tories are economically competent and that anyone who challenges their approach is not.

The Tories record on the economy is a political con trick. They never came close to clearing the deficit in one Parliament as they pledged; they have racked more debt than the sum of all Labour Governments combined; the decline in pay has been without precedent since Queen Victoria sat on the throne; and Britain’s record on productivity and inequality is amongst the worst of any industrialised country.

Tax Credits

But it’s the cuts to tax credits show the Tories at their duplicitous and callous worst.

No mention of cuts in their manifesto and total a disregard for the hurt they will inflict on the very “hard-working families” they profess to represent.

It is important we’re clear about what is at stake here: tax credits have contributed to a significant reduction in child poverty and helped to genuinely make work pay.

They are one of the few policy measures to have made a tangible difference in tackling income inequality.

Cutting tax credits will simply compound the scandal of poverty in our country, a problem caused by a failure of politics as much as economics.

There is no evidence that tax credits have pushed down wages and there is no evidence that removing tax credits will cause wages to rise. The working poor will get poorer while tory cuts to inheritance tax will make the already rich even richer.

Poverty – health and education

The scale of poverty that persists in our country is a scandal.

Poverty physically and psychologically impacts on individuals, families and communities. It blights opportunity. It shackles parents and their children indeed whole communities, over generations. It should shame our political generation that we have failed to comprehensively tackle the level of poverty and inequality in our country.

Austerity, welfare cuts, cuts in local government services, all driven by central government, must take their share of the blame. But in areas where funding is supposedly protected, in health and education, what we have is a failure of policy.

Policies in education and health have had insufficient focus on alleviating poverty.

We have seen a reform agenda in these areas by successive Scottish Government’s dominated by an obsession with managerial practices imported from the private sector, many of which failed there.

Centrally determined, top down driven performance indicators. Ill-conceived targets and a fixation with audit.

Most of our politicians seemed more concerned about the findings of the recent audit Scotland report on the NHS in Scotland than the fact that if you live in Bearsden you can expect to live almost 10 years longer than if you live across the road in Drumchapel.

It seems that the demands of accountants for fundamental changes in our NHS are given more credence by politicians than the views of the over worked nurse who’s required to explain in triplicate to an auditor why the 4 hour target to get a patient from A&E to a bed in a ward was breached, when the ward is two staff down and there are too few beds.

Similarly, policy to improve attainment in schools is once again focused on testing.

Testing is not a policy that will improve attainment. The quality of teaching and the teaching environment will improve attainment. But politicians seem obsessed with testing because it is something that can be measured.

Continually testing children does nothing to alter attainment unless it leads to more effective policy. Teachers know that smaller class sizes with support within larger classes will undoubtedly raise attainment.

But what happened to the promise of smaller class sizes and indeed the pledge of class sizes of 18 in p1? Nothing.

If pressure on resources means smaller class sizes across the board can’t be delivered in the short term, an excellent first step would be to reduce class sizes in identified areas of deprivation. That could really make a difference in alleviating poverty and would also have a consequent impact on reducing health inequality.

Politicians might be better investing less time obsessing about targets and measures and invest more trust in the competence and experience of the professionals who do the job.

It has been clear from the recent Party Conferences that heath inequality and education are likely to be the key policy areas under focus in the run up to the Scottish elections next year. If that is to be the case then let’s have a debate based on the evidence of the policies that work and that will have a real impact on reducing poverty and inequality not just on what can be measured.

There is no getting away from the fact that we need more investment in our public services and that this will inevitably mean that we all might have to pay more tax with those most able to paying their fair share. Politicians need to be honest about that. But there is no point investing more in the wrong policies and unions, whose members have more insight than most on the policies that work on the ground, have a vital contribution to make to the debate.

We know, or course, that a key to reducing poverty and inequality is through a sustained increase in pay achieved through collective bargaining between unions and employers, the very thing that the Tories vindictive and unjustified Trade Union Bill seeks to undermine.

Trade Union Bill

And it is on the Trade Union Bill that I would like to finish. We had an excellent lobby at Westminster yesterday and I saw a lot of social media coverage of the excellent event you held here in solidarity.

The attendance from Scotland, despite travel problems caused by the weather, was excellent and disproportionately greater than everywhere bar the south east of England.

And while we have support from all but the one Scottish Tory MP in our opposition to the Bill, it appears that those Tory MPs that we know are opposed to significate parts of the Bill are unwilling to break the party whip.

I know you discussed the bill yesterday and I won’t go over all aspects of this nasty and vindictive piece of legislation proposed by a nasty and vindictive Government.

But this is a Bill that has implications for our counrty that go way beyond trades unions and industrial relations.

It is a Bill that should alarm not just unions and their members but anyone concerned about democracy, human rights and civil liberties.

The first thing to say is that the bill, like most of the policies of the Tory government is bereft of evidence.

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.

It is worth nothing that the legitimate tactics used by unite during the Ineos dispute have a long tradition trade union struggles. I was reminded recently of the approach of the National Federation of Women Workers, who organised and represented the female workforce in alexander’s cotton mills at Neilston, just outside Glasgow.
In 1910, a strike, protest march and demonstrations successfully defeated attempts the mill owners to impose a pay cut on the workforce. One of the demonstrations saw crowds of women walk to and gather outside the mansion of one of the mill owners, in Polllokshields, with much noise, making very clear their views on the pay cut and seeking to shame them into changing their decision.

Leverage is nothing new. But they didn’t have an inflatable Rat!

The links between those millworkers in Neilston and elsewhere with the predominantly female workforce in the jute industry and the mills in here in Dundee were strong and supported struggles not just for better working conditions but on housing, on childcare, on health and for women’s suffrage to give a voice to women in local government and in parliament.

These are all issues that require our movement to have not only good workplace reps and strong trade union structures, but also to make our voice heard in the political arena.

The attack on facility time, on the political fund, on the right to strike, are all attacks on our right as a movement to speak out against low wages, for equality and 50/50, against violence against women, and on international injustices. It is our voice, in and out of the workplace, that the Tories want to silence.

They hope that by tying unions up in endless bureaucracy though a level of interference in our activities that goes way beyond what is reasonable in any democracy they will severely restrict our ability to properly represent our members and to provide an effective voice in the workplace and beyond.

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 UK 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 through the creation of the Fair Work Convention and a more positive attitude to unions.

All of this makes the case for the powers over employment protection to be devolved at the earliest possible opportunity all the more compelling.

The intention to make check off arrangement illegal for public sector employers and to restrict the amount of time public sector workplace reps can spend representing their members 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 Scottish councils, the Scottish government or the NHS in Scotland, can invest in ensuring effective industrial relations arrangements with its recognised unions.

I welcome the commitment from Councils to resist the implementation of any instructions issued from Westminster on facility time or check-off if this Bill becomes law and not to use agency labour during a strike.

And while I welcome the Scottish Government’s strong opposition to the Bill I would urge it to go further and state now it’s intention not to comply with this legislation.

We need to defeat this bill 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 I am confident would not be forthcoming.

We will of course use every means to oppose the bill including 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 unions say on twitter and Facebook to check if it matches what they said they would say 14 days earlier? It is a preposterous and impractical proposition which you might expect to find in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.

We have no desire to break the law. But if that is what it takes for unions to effectively represent their members then so be it.

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. We know that the best way to defend and advance union and workers’ rights is by building union membership and organisation at the workplace and that needs to be our task in the weeks and months ahead.

Colleagues, thanks again for inviting me to speak to you today and enjoy the remainder of the conference.


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