President's Address to 2018 STUC Annual Congress

April 16th 2018

President's Address

Satnam Ner, Prospect, President of the STUC

Good morning Congress. Welcome back to Aviemore. I can honestly say that it is a delight, an honour and an absolute privilege to address you as STUC President. It has been a whirlwind year, but would not have been possible without the support, in equal measure, of my trade union Prospect and my employer Babcock Rosyth. We are quick to be critical of our employers when they fall short of the mark, so I think we should be just as quick to recognise and acknowledge them when they are encouraging and supportive of trade unions and of our role and value within the workplace.

I wasn’t too sure how far back I need to go to trace the major steps and milestones that got me to the point of presiding over the biggest and most important annual event in Scotland’s trade union calendar.

So I will start at the beginning, but I will be brief.

Looking ahead, there are a whole host of issues and challenges that we face and so in this address, I do also want to comment on those. First, I want to state, up front and proudly, that I am a migrant. A migrant who has chosen to make Scotland a home for myself and for my family. I am the son of a proud and honourable migrant worker. I came to the UK as a young child in 1968, having been born in India. My late father was a skilled worker, a train driver who had served on the East Africa Railways throughout the 1950’s. But in the UK of the 1960’s, he found himself working in the sawmills, the foundries and the factories of England. So, from an early age, I knew all about the struggles of the working classes. But, my father did all he could to make sure each of his 7 children got a good education. Out of so many of his legacies, I believe that the fruit of his focus on our education remains one of his proudest. I don’t know how he did it. I do know that the unwavering support of my mother, now into her 80’s, played a considerable part. My father somehow even financed me an education for 2 years in a boarding school, back in India in the foothills of the Himalayas. ere during the mid-1970’s, I learned to read and write Hindi and Punjabi but, just as importantly, I learned about international poverty, extreme inequality, and about the centuries old institutional caste system of India. A system that is nothing less than an oppression of the poorest working classes, which is ignored and, therefore by inference accepted, by the state. So, aer graduating from a university on England’s south coast, I came to Scotland, at the beginning of 1986, to work at Rosyth Dockyard in Fife as a Scientific Officer. I joined my trade union straight away and it could only have been weeks or months before I became the local union representative. So, I have been a lay rep for Prospect and its predecessor trade unions for well over 30 years.

There is room in everyone’s life for more than one passion. I am passionate both as a scientist and a trade unionist. I have been fortunate enough to have had concurrent careers that have allowed me to pursue both of these passions. I will gloss over my career as a scientist; suffice to say that if I had been given the chance as a schoolchild, I could not have created a better job for anyone as enthused about science as I was then. I am a Health Physicist working for Babcock Marine in the nuclear defence industry. What exactly is a Health Physicist? It is a profession involving the unique convergence of radiochemistry, radiation biology and nuclear physics, but with tangible and practical applications in terms of protecting the health of workers, the safety of the public and ensuring that there is no harm to the environment. So, when you look at it in that way, my career as a scientist hasn’t really been too different from my vocation as a trade unionist. My five children are grown up and settled across Scotland’s central belt. I guess this being Aviemore, I should also declare a local interest. My other half is from the North-East, from Aberdeenshire. She’s a bonnie McAllister lassie fae Turra’. She is a distant past chair of the STUC Youth Committee so very much shares my values. Her parents still bide in Turriff and we visit them regularly. So I’m well versed in the Doric tongue, as the Aberdeen Trades Union Council delegates here will well know. I was there with them earlier this year celebrating their 150th anniversary.

As a lifelong trade unionist, I have often reflected on what first got me involved and importantly what has kept me active over the decades? I’ve come to realise that it is all down to my firm belief that the trade union movement remains the best and most democratically accountable vehicle there is for tackling inequality, unfairness and injustice both within the workplace and outside of it. As a lay rep, I am spurred on by the visible difference that the work of trade union branches makes to the lives of individual workers. But outside of the workplace, I am just as motivated by the trade union movement as a force for social change. Which is why I oen remind lay reps that they don’t stop being a trade unionist when they clock off from work and walk out of the factory gates.

Of course nobody does anything on their own. For me there have been swathes of supporters, inspirational role models, mentors from across the UK. Too many to mention individually. Yes, it’s true to an extent, that you can’t be what you can’t see. But in my time as an activist, I have seen strong Black leaders, both men and women. Vaughan Gething and Amarjite Singh, Black Presidents of the Wales TUC. I have seen Bill Morris, Gloria Mills and Mohammed Taj, Black Presidents of the TUC. So I now feel as though I am in exalted company.

Some of my role models are here as delegates at this Congress: fellow comrades from the STUC Black Workers’ Committee; reps from Prospect and its National Executive Committee; and not forgetting lay reps from my own Rosyth Branch, which has been the common thread that has grounded me throughout, kept me loyal and driven my grass roots activism.

The trade union movement in Scotland, like our movement across the UK, has its challenges in terms of declining membership. Amongst others, these include the Trade Union Act, which I will speak more of later, the trends away from collective bargaining and the issues of organising transitional, precarious workforces. But, I want to share a particular positive story that fills me with hope. This is about the success of my trade union Prospect. During the last calendar year, Prospect UK turned round years of declining membership and actually had more members at the end of the year than it did at the beginning. At the end of December 2017, Prospect in Scotland recorded its 5th consecutive annual increase in membership. I am not claiming credit for any of this, but could there have been a better year for me to be President of the STUC?

So I want to send out a very clear message to all affiliates of the STUC, which is that if my trade union can do it, all trade unions can. We can be the leaders that take the responsibility here and now for turning our movement around. But we won’t do it without modernising our methods, without working from a solid foundation of financial stability, or without holding onto all of the traditional socialist values that created us.

I’d like to mention a few other important reasons why 2018 is a good and special year to be President of the STUC. It’s the Nelson Mandela centenary year. It is also the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Glasgow to collect the Freedoms of nine UK cities.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that that there are a lot of plans for 2018 in relation to Scotland’s unique relationship with Madiba. Annie Shanahan from Action for Southern Africa is here at Congress with her colleagues and I urge you to visit the ACTSA stall to see how the plans to celebrate these events are developing and in particular how the campaign to have a statue in the centre of Glasgow in Mandela’s memory is coming along. It is 50 years since that famous Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics. Who could forget, on 4 April this year, it was 50 years since the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. These events are neither distant nor irrelevant. These fights against apartheid and the struggle of the Civil Rights movement against Black oppression happened within my lifetime and yours. You just have to think about Palestine and the Black Lives Matter movement to realise that even today, in some form or another, similar wrongs continue across the world and trade unions have to give support and solidarity to all those who fight against these injustices. All of which brings me back to our Congress theme this year. I really like our theme: Educate, Agitate, Organise. It is a simple message which hits at the heart of how we operate as trade unions. History and education equips us. Anger and passion at injustice drives us. Organising and mobilising collectively will take us forward as a movement. Whilst seemingly simple, Educate, Agitate, Organise, will take sustained effort to properly implement. Let me be truthful. I don’t think anyone is going to argue with me that trade unions are not as inclusive as we would like to be or indeed as inclusive as our values say we should be. I’m not going to delve into some of the debates that will be taking place here at Congress over the next few days.

But when we do look towards growing our movement, I urge all of you to look beyond the usual demographic. To look at all of the talent that exists in Scotland. The leadership of trade unions will tell you that it is always their intent to be more inclusive. But there is a clear mismatch between intent and impact. Almost 5% of Scotland is not white. Do we see that represented in our trade unions? Either in our lay rep base or within trade unions as employers? Look around you; do we see that in this Congress here?

Black, Asian and minority ethnic representation in all aspects of trade union and public life must be increased. We must be prepared to face the stark reality – which is that Scotland is not as inclusive a country as we would like to think. We all need to look at what we do and how we do it differently, because what I have seen trade unions do over the past three decades of my involvement has not made enough of an impact. In that regard, I remain encouraged and optimistic that the restructuring of the STUC as an organisation, most of which has taken place over the past year under the governance of our General Council, will deliver on equality from every angle. This restructuring has seen the creation of an Assistant General Secretary position with specific responsibility for operations and equalities. We must see this translate into the structures and activities of affiliate trade unions. As affiliates, are your trade unions just doing the same old same old or are you looking strategically at the changes that you need to make as to how you operate.

What of today’s political and economic climate? Well first I think it is fairly obvious that we are living in difficult times. The financial crisis that began a decade ago has been followed by year on year of damaging and unnecessary austerity. It is clear that these economic pressures have spilled over into the political sphere.

Unfortunately, in the last few years the left has been under pressure and the right seems to be rising, using populist and racist arguments to further its cause. We have seen Trump sweep to victory in the US, on promises of stopping immigration, building a wall on the Mexico border and banning Muslims from entering the United States. Across Europe we have had a series of near misses. In the Netherlands and in France, we have seen the far right candidates a whisker away from holding high office. In Germany, only in the last month or two, we have seen the far right move into second place in the polls, polling ahead of the centre left SPD, the social democratic party of Germany. In Austria, we mustn’t forget that the far right have now entered Government and hold ministerial portfolios covering infrastructure, the interior ministry and defence. In Hungary, another EU member state, the party of Government has brought in a range of disgraceful and racist policies, including the mandatory detention of all asylum seekers and the erection of a border fence with Serbia.

It has closed down liberal press outlets that were challenging its authoritarian rule; it has passed laws limiting the rights of its citizens and talked openly about the creation of an ‘illiberal’ democracy. This is a dreadful situation made worse by the fact that the main opposition is a fascist party with a paramilitary wing. Facing these challenges, there is a temptation to downplay them. There is a temptation to see these challenges and to say that the far right are not that much of a threat. That Trump is a one off, Hungary an anomaly, that, where the far right are in opposition, it’s OK because they are a long way back. It’s tempting to make clever points about polls and about voting systems and make a credible and intellectual case about why the world is still fine, and why we should not worry.

But we should resist this temptation. We cannot ignore the signs of pressure in our system. We cannot ignore or downplay the challenges that the left faces. That trade unions face. Look at how easily racist and populist voices have been normalised in our own political debate. Go back a couple of weeks and look at the “Punish a Muslim campaign”? Over the course of the EU referendum campaign, often fought on the basis of anti-immigration rhetoric, we saw a return to overt racism as a political tool. Statements that would not have been tolerated a few years ago, electoral campaigns that would never even have got off the ground, are now being accepted and used in the mainstream: from Nigel Farage’s shameful poster of refugees, so reminiscent of Nazi propaganda; to the cancelling of the scheme to take unaccompanied child refugees; to the use of the Prevent agenda. Racism and racist policies are playing an ever greater role in our society and in the policies and actions of the shameful Tory Government. That poses a challenge to all of us here. Firstly, it challenges us to speak up. It challenges us to take a different course. And it challenges us to look soberly and clearly at the problems that exist within our country. We know that there are serious problems in our economy. There are issues of inequality and poverty that are ingrained within our economic model. The Scottish Government talks about Fair Work and about inclusive growth, and that is positive and it is helpful, but it is not enough. When we meet the Scottish Government, we are clear that talking about Fair Work is not enough. We need to create Fair Work. We need to turn it into a reality for workers all across the country. Poverty in Scotland is rising. While employment remains high and unemployment low in relative terms, the quality of work continues to decline and living standards are falling.

Too many businesses in Scotland and the UK rely on a low-road model of economic development, where costs and risks are offloaded to workers and where value is extracted to shareholders and executives, rather than invested in workers’ skills and innovation. More than 70,000 people in Scotland are currently working on zero hour contracts. More than 200,000 workers in Scotland are under-employed. We also have seen significant increases in low-paid self-employment, an increased dependence on the gig economy and a rise in part-time work.

We need for change is clear and well recognised, but tinkering around the edges is not enough. Our role in this agenda as trade unions, particularly around enforcement of rights, should not be underestimated and trade union organisation and collective bargaining will always be the best way for workers to protect themselves from exploitation. The growth in precarious work practices and insecure employment is also connected with a decline in productivity. We know that flat-lining productivity and low-paid, insecure work are inherently linked. We also know that many of the practices associated with high quality work are more prevalent in societies with higher productivity and higher rates of business innovation than Scotland or the UK. Whereas poor work drags down productivity, innovation and growth.

Trade unions can help counter these low-road strategies. In the UK, productivity increased at an annual rate of 2.6% between 1945 and 1980, but only 1.5% between 1980 and 2015. This coincides with the decline of trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage. As trade unions, we must rise to the challenge created by the changes in the labour market. We must organise workers in all parts of the economy, leaving no one behind.

Our trade union organising strategies must also address the issue of precarious work. Precarious workplaces across Scotland have huge migrant populations. We need to put money, time, and human resources into organising these precarious workers who are at the sharp end. Too many migrant workers face serious and systematic exploitation. Often the law fails to protect them, trade unions fail to organise them and our political debate fails to include them.

And of course, we cannot expect any support from the Tory Government. It only adds to the hurdles we already face, the Trade Union Act that came into force last year being a classic example. It was specifically designed to thwart efforts to organise and represent workers and although much of its original intent was diluted, it still puts up significant barriers which do not in any way serve our aims.

But Congress, before I move to conclude my address, I would like to talk about one further issue, possibly the biggest issue of our time. Like it or loathe it, we find ourselves facing the turmoil and uncertainty of Brexit. What happens over the course of the next few months will shape the structure of our economy to come. And the jobs and livelihoods of workers, already suffering in our broken economy, depend on the decisions made. Yes, we must remember the need to defend workers’ rights, to defend social and environmental protections and to secure jobs. But, we must also not forget that people need to be heard and communities need to play a role.

Our future cannot be decided in a backroom negotiation or an opaque trade deal. The populist right feeds on discontent. On the left, we have a duty to offer a different vision and the need for this alternative has never been greater. We must seek to foster greater ambition for the millions of workers that depend on the outcome of this deal.

We must not simply accept that the choices are the rack and ruin of a hard Brexit or a return to some form of the status quo. For so many the status quo means insecure work, austerity hit public services and a reliance on foodbanks.

As difficult as it might be, trade unions and the political left must rise to the challenge. We must offer a better vision of an economy that works for all. And we must tackle head on the racist and populist views that are taking root in our political debate.

I’d like to finish by giving my thanks and acknowledging my trade union Prospect. All leadership and HQ staff has always been encouraging and supportive. This past year, I’d like in particular to mention Richard Hardy, National Secretary Prospect Scotland and a fellow Fifer.

STUC Vice President, Lynn Henderson, has had quite a time juggling her leadership responsibilities within the STUC and PCS, but has always found time for a supportive comment or message. All staff at the STUC have been amazing too. To finish, a quick story about STUC General Secretary, Grahame Smith. When Grahame and I were guests at the Basque Workers’ Solidarity trade union conference in Bilbao, Spain last year, we found a short window one evening and decided to take a look around the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I have to say that, despite our best efforts, some of the art exhibits were just far too abstract for the both of us. As we moved ever more confused from display to display, things got too frivolous. I started staring intelligently at an empty curator’s stool in the corner of one of the gallery rooms, making comment on the artistic value of the display. Finally, Grahame politely and for the first and only time ever, asked me to behave myself. It looks like neither one of us appreciated the artistic significance. Grahame has seen more of me and learned more about me than probably anyone else and I’d like to think that I’ve been able to offer him even a fraction of the support that he has, without question, given to me.

I wish you all a successful Congress.

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