Activists must be equipped with the right political arguments. Trade unionists are best placed to provide that, writes JOHN STEVENSON
THE value of many public service workers’ pay has plummeted by £4,000 since 2010. Tens of thousands of jobs have gone from public services in Scotland. The need for services hasn’t gone away but the jobs that provide them have.
Those left behind struggle to carry on with fewer resources. It is sad to see workers who used to pride themselves in their service looking increasingly demoralised. No wonder there is a queue when it comes to voluntary redundancies.
So why aren’t public service workers furious? Why did not enough members even vote in Unison’s Scottish local government pay ballot to reach the Tories’ cynical 50 per cent threshold? Perhaps comments on social media give a clue. Of course there are the career-Facebook “I-know-my-place-and-proud-of-it” brigade whose solution to their own rubbish pay and conditions is that everyone else should have rubbish pay and conditions too.
But others recently have been posting phrases like “what’s the point? — I’m disillusioned.” Some are angry but ask: “Where is the money going to come from?”
It’s a case of “where’s the magic money tree?” I love the answer: “It’s in the tax avoidance forest.” But we have clearly not yet won the argument that Britain is not broke, it is just that the money is in the wrong place.
The temptation is to blame apathy in the workforce but I am reminded of the story of Michael McGahey’s rebuke to someone who criticised workers when a ballot went down: “Don’t blame them, they weren’t ready. It’s our job to get them ready.”
Members know the disgrace of the cuts in wages, conditions, and jobs but they need hope to do something about it.
The “for-the-many-not-the-few” election message created some of that hope south of the border but was more muted in Scotland. The complex politics of the centre-left across two parties and the constitution dominating — or being allowed to dominate — contributed to that. That’s the elephant in the room that softens the anti-austerity message in these parts.
However, behind the scenes, Scottish trade union activists in the Labour Party played a key part in campaigning for a manifesto to be proud of. We need the same willingness from SNP activists to campaign in their party.
But I wonder how much that really matters when it comes to the pay fight. Lifting the pay cap is within the gift of the Scottish government (to an extent) but should public service workers be waiting for the gift of a smidgeon over 1 per cent?
Or should we be learning lessons from Scotland’s further education workers, whose strike brought significant victories on pay — not just in the year they took the action but also in the pay round after. The effect of flexing muscles lasts longer than one dispute.
They got there because they were mobilised around the injustice of being treated as second-class workers — an injustice that was deeply and widely held. They realised that no-one was going to gift them a decent pay rise — not even an ostensibly sympathetic Scottish government. They had to demand it and act to get it.
To achieve that deeply and widely held sense of injustice, we need to build the anger on the ground. For that, activists need to be equipped with the political arguments.
The problem is that so many branches and activists — good as they are at representation and negotiation — lack political focus. There is a lost history of political education, political lobbying and of explaining the part politics play in the injustices faced by workers.
Activists need the tools to make the arguments and the confidence to ride out the inevitable conflicts they will face in the workplace. It’s not about lecturing people about Antonio Gramsci but it is about linking workers’ real-life experiences to the political decisions that affect them.
Because only when people grasp that it is political decisions, not any economic necessity, that has created austerity will they find the confidence to act.
As activists, we run the risk of only speaking to ourselves. Too often, with rousing speeches, we out-radicalise each other at meetings and rallies and head off to the pub knowing delivery on the ground is a much different scene. Many will never even attempt the delivery. That has to change.
As much, if not more, effort needs to go into engaging members in formulating claims they can unite around, as goes into building for action.
When it comes to action, we need to respect the challenges members face. In these days of mortgages and rising household debt, going on strike is a much scarier prospect than it used to be. We need to ask how far they are prepared to go and build from there.
Successful action only ever comes from the ground up. Leaders have to create the atmosphere but the anger needs to build from the front line. It is a long-term investment because when people discover the solidarity and empowerment of collective action, they never look back.
As recently retired Unison NEC member Jane Carolan likes to say: “It’s not about getting the best possible deal in the circumstances. It’s about creating the circumstances to get the best possible deal.”
John Stevenson is chair of Unison Scotland communications and campaigns committee.