As the COP26 conference opens in Glasgow the SNP-Green government faces an upsurge in militancy among organised workers. Already, workers across the Stagecoach group, the monopoly which dominates the nation’s road-passenger services and RMT members working for Scotrail have scored significant victories. There are also significant disputes with council unions, as well as with RMT members on the Caledonian Sleeper rail service. Many more industrial struggles loom throughout the private and public sector, particularly in NHS Scotland, over the winter and into 2022.
RMT Scotrail Victory
RMT conductors had been in dispute with ScotRail for 6 months, during which strike action paralysed services every Sunday. In the face of intransigence from management and the government, 84% of workers backed a wider all-out strike throughout the conference in a new ballot in September.
Dragged to talks, ScotRail’s initial response, fully backed by Holyrood ministers (who after months of refusing to intervene finally agreed to participate in negotiations) was a ‘new’ offer, described by the union as ‘nothing new – just the same numbers repackaged… loaded with strings that… amount to a… pay cut’. When the union rejected this deal, which even the government claimed, only amounts to 4.7% over two years compared to the RMT claim for 5.2% this year, ministers and ScotRail shut down talks in order to implement strike breaking ‘contingency plans’.
Management felt emboldened in this strategy by the fact that three smaller unions, Unite, TSSA and ASLEF all accepted this poisoned chalice. It was the failure of this betrayal to break the resolve of 2,000 RMT members that forced them back to the table and secured a deal beyond the ‘final’ deal on offer. There can be little doubt that if the other unions had not broken ranks in this way, even more could have been secured. The rank and file of these unions need to hold their leadership to account and ensure a united front in the future.
Nonetheless, this is a significant victory: the pay freeze imposed at the start of the pandemic has been broken. Management’s strings, and the trap of a two year deal, which would have eroded many gains through inflation, have also been shown the door. Most importantly, agreement to three hours extra pay for rest-day working, the issue which fuelled the historically unprecedented six months of action by the conductors, was a major breakthrough. The icing on the cake is that every rail worker will receive a one-off £300 payment for working during COP26, something any half-decent employer would have offered up voluntarily given the strain that this millionaire junket and media circus is bound to put on Scotland’s run-down transport system and the work-life balance of the low-paid workers who keep it running day to day.
RMT members are under no illusion, however, that whilst the battle has been won the war goes on. Battle plans must be laid for the new negotiation round ahead of April 2020. Key to these must be building links with other workers in struggle and planning for co-ordinated action.
In this context the council workers’ dispute is particularly significant. Council workers, in key workgroups across Scotland (school cleaners, school caterers, school janitors, waste, recycling and fleet maintenance service workers) voted for strike action from 8th to 12th November. This was in support of the demand for £2,000 or 6% across the board, a moderate response to years of austerity and cuts from Tory, SNP and Labour politicians in Westminster, Holyrood and local government.
At the time of writing the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), the bosses’ negotiating body, has suddenly found enough money down the back of the sofa to up their ‘final’ offer, in response to the claim, of £850. They have now placed a new package, which they claim is worth £48 million and would lift pay by at least £1062, on the table. The response of the leaders of the two largest unions, GMB and Unison, has scandalously been to suspend the strike, without balloting members, a whole ten days before action was scheduled. This suggests that they simply do not have the nerve for the fight, the polar opposite of the stance shown by the RMT in the face of government and management threats. The third union Unite has, correctly, responded that they ‘will follow democratic processes and consult internally before making any decision on what further action to take’.
It seems possible, given the undemocratic grip which right-wing bureaucracies hold on GMB and Unison that this ‘deal’ could be forced through in the short-run. But the rank and file should not draw pessimistic conclusions from this. The fact that Cosla, who claimed for months that cupboard was bare, have been forced to up their offer from £800 to £1062 before a single worker had taken any strike action shows what could be won by seriously planned and coordinated action across the whole of the public sector, especially including the NHS, in the 2022 pay round.
This action will not just be about pay, it is also an essential first step to defend health and care services which have been debilitated by austerity. The NHS is under threat, not due to the pandemic, but because capitalist politicians refuse to adequately fund it. The pandemic has highlighted the poor conditions workers live under. Full-time nurses, care workers, and auxiliary staff are using food banks to get by and feed their families. The pressure of these jobs has always been difficult and demanding but with an underfunded healthcare system due to SNP and UK Tory rule, staff are burnt out, struggling on poverty wages, and are expected to go over and beyond their paid duties. With the 1.25% increase of National Insurance in April 2022, it has yet again been left to workers to fund government incompetence. Covid has intensified the anger of the workforce and this anger needs to be mobilised to defend care services.
Key to this will be the role of the newly elected left leaderships in the unions: the Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham, and the new left Unison NEC majority which is struggling to restore democracy and break the hold of unelected officials on the union’s structures. But the fight must not just be organised in the board-rooms and offices of the union structures. Councils of resistance should be built in every working-class community, linking growing workplace struggles to the wider resistance to austerity.
Capitalist politicians have no answers to workers’ case
The response to both the rail and council struggles from Green, SNP and Labour politicians has been contemptuous towards the workers and their unions. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly refused to meet with council workers’ negotiators, despite holding the purse strings in this dispute. This reveals that all three parties, wedded as they are to working within the profit system and playing within the rules of the ‘austerity game’ dictated by the Westminster Tories, are incapable of defending the livelihood of the Scottish people. They have revealed themselves to be totally out of touch with the voters who delivered a massive mandate for anti-austerity politics and independence from Westminster at the Holyrood elections in May.
The SNP have repeatedly delayed taking ScotRail back into public ownership. It is now scheduled to take place in 2022. But rail workers and passengers must be asking the question: if their handling of this strike is an indication of what is to come, will this bring about any meaningful change to the way the railways are run?
Moreover, how can the SNP/Green government even begin to tackle the climate crisis whilst the vast majority of public transport in Scotland remains in private hands? Much of the bus network is controlled by one company, Stagecoach, whose workers have won significant pay increases following strike ballots in Scotland and other parts of the UK in recent months. Stagecoach is owned by brother and sister; Brian Souter and Ann Gloag Their empire was built taking advantage of Tory ‘deregulation’ policies in the 1990s. These allowed them to accumulate a combined personal wealth of £740 million by buying up and cannibalising, publicly owned bus services. Over the years they have been major donors to the SNP. Relations may have cooled a bit lately (Souter is close to disgraced former First Minister Alec Salmond), but SNP ministers show no intention of tackling the stranglehold of profit over transport policy, or challenging the Stagecoach’s monopoly.
Not content with becoming a mere ‘Dame of the British Empire’, Gloag has invested much of her millions in a bid to join the Scottish landed aristocracy. She is now ‘laird’ of two castles and their expansive estates: Beaufort in the Highlands, ancestral home of Lovats, and Kinfauns in Perthshire, purchased from the 17th Earl of Moray to pay for death duties. In 2007, she gained a court ruling to bar the public from woodland in the grounds of Kinfauns Castle. This proved how feeble New Labour’s ‘right to roam’ laws are in the face of capitalist wealth and power. This is precisely the same power SNP and Green politicians now refuse to confront. It must, however, not only be confronted but overthrown, if the crippling effects of global warming are to be halted, and poverty ended in Scotland.