The SNP/Green coalition at Holyrood is facing growing resistance to its strategy of forcing Tory cuts on Scottish workers. A ‘Mexican Wave’ of strike ballots across the public and private sectors in the run up to the COP26 conference won significant improvements to pay and conditions. Ministers were forced to abandon their ‘arms-length’ approach to disputes and take part in negotiations, rather than see transport and other services grind to a halt as millionaire dignitaries flooded into Glasgow. This demonstration of their economic and social strength has emboldened workers who are now planning action on pay, conditions and service levels across the nation. Strike ballots have been held, or are in the offing: on railways, in councils, schools, the NHS, universities and many other workplaces.
This confrontation revealed the hollowness of Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish National Party’s claim to be ‘anti-austerity’. For years the SNP has offered workers’ ‘just enough’ extra to appear more generous than the Tory regime in Westminster, whilst progressively tightening the purse-strings strangling front-line services, especially in local government. This cynical strategy worked whilst many local authorities in the poorest areas remained under the control of right-wing Labour administrations, who tamely passed on these cuts. But following Scottish Labour’s collapse after the 2014 independence referendum, most councils now have SNP leadership.
In Glasgow, this propelled the SNP council leader Susan Aitken into direct conflict with women workers striking for equal pay in 2018 and GMB members in the cleansing department, who struck for five days during COP26. Aitken’s administration has been anti-union to the core: threatening to use scab labour and Tory trade union laws against cleansing workers and consistently dragging her heels over implementing the 2018 equal pay deal.
SNP’s ‘window dressing’ opposition
Most of the SNP’s anti-austerity politics have been flimsy ‘window dressing’ and much of this has not even been delivered! When school students forced exams to be abandoned in 2020 amidst covid, teachers were promised a £400 one off-payment for the extra assessment. Many teachers have still not been paid this, despite running teacher assessment again this year. Next year, exams are meant to resume, but Unite members at the Scottish Qualification Agency (SQA) face redundancy as the SQA is due to be abolished in late 2022. Ministers and SQA management have yet to open negotiations over job security, so strike action could scupper exams for a third year running.
Across Scotland’s public services, Covid and the SNP’s determination to stick within budget limits set by Westminster Tories have combined to create a perfect storm for service users and workers. Workers are increasingly recruited on temporary contracts with fewer rights. The number of temporary agency workers recruited by the Scottish Government in the first year of the pandemic rose from 258 to 432.
Workers are fed up with increased ‘precarity’ in the workplace, and wages lagging behind inflation. To add insult to injury, they are exhausted by delivering front line services, whilst dancing to the tune of senior managers and ministers entirely detached from reality in working class communities: the Chief Medical Officer resigned at the start of lockdown after she was caught visiting her second home, 40 miles from Edinburgh, on consecutive weekends. On the first occasion Sturgeon, simply allowed her to remain in office, just asking her to withdraw from press conferences!
‘The biggest show of workplace resistance for years’
This situation provoked huge anger, fuelling a series of strike ballots in the run-up to COP26, which had employers running scared. RMT workers, employed by ScotRail won significant gains by stepping up their action after 6 months of weekly Sunday stoppages. Similarly, after weeks of stonewalling in negotiations, and a ‘final’ offer of £850 in response to Council workers’ demand for a £2,000 wage rise, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and government ministers suddenly found an extra £48 million, enough to offer £1085.
Unfortunately, this was accepted by the leaders of GMB and Unison, over the heads of workers. Anger at the manner in which this deal was foisted on members was one factor triggering the Glasgow cleansing strike. There can, however, be no doubt that employers were terrified by the biggest show of workplace resistance for years. As were the bosses of Stagecoach, the privatised monopoly which dominates bus transport across Scotland, who granted significant pay rises in response to strike ballots in regions across Scotland, as well as many of their English operations. Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that, given the strategic significance of the ‘pinch point’ granted to workers by COP26, even more could have been won by co-ordinated strike action, these disputes represented a significant step forward for Scotland’s workers. Trade unionists should organize from below within our unions to apply the lessons of these struggles – action gets results!
2022 carries the possibility of even wider strike action. Ballots are underway or anticipated in a number of sectors. The University and College Union has already obtained a mandate for action on both pensions and the ‘four fights’ campaign against casualisation and precarity in Higher Education in most Scottish Universities (part of a wider campaign across the UK). NHS workers’ unions have still not accepted the Scottish Government’s 2021-22 pay offer (4%) and the traditionally conservative Royal College of Nursing has already delivered a 60% majority for strike action in a consultative ballot. ScotRail and Council workers both have new pay rounds due in April 2022, when ScotRail will no longer be run as a franchise, but will be back in public ownership. The Education Institute of Scotland, and other teachers’ unions are also consulting on action over pay.
All this opens up the possibility of co-ordinated action across the whole of the public sector to reject the SNP’s austerity agenda. Such action cannot just be left to unelected full-time officers in comfy offices, but must be organised and led from below. Conferences of resistance, involving shop stewards, rank and file union members and service users should be set up in all parts of Scotland. Across education, staff and students should start planning joint campaigns to defend jobs, pay and the quality of teaching. Unions should not just campaign amongst existing members but mount active campaigns of recruitment, not just in the public sector but amongst private industries. The watchword should be: ‘organise the unorganised: the resistance starts now, 2022 is the year to fight back!’