England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Workers in Scotland fight back against Tories and SNP austerity

The slogan “Scotland deserves a pay rise” drew thousands onto the streets of Edinburgh on 8 September. Banners and placards stretched the length of the High Street, joining a rally outside the Holyrood Parliament called by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).

The previous night, massive queues snaked through Glasgow’s streets eager to join the Scottish launch rally of the Enough is Enough (EiE) campaign. Both events show the growing resistance to the cost of living crisis sweeping workplaces and communities across Scotland and the rest of the UK. Most importantly, they show that workers are drawing clearer conclusions: only struggle will win gains from the ruling class. 

EiE rally reflects desire to struggle

At the EiE rally, Annie Craig, a single parent caring for her disabled daughter, spoke on behalf of the tenants’ union Living Rent. Craig made the crucial point that, without years of tenant organising and workers’ struggle no concessions would ever be won. It was no coincidence that, just a day before the rally and two days before the STUC demonstration, the Scottish government announced a temporary rent freeze and a pause on evictions. 

Alongside freezing fares on Scotrail, and the pay rise offered to council workers days before, this represents a significant, if temporary, retreat from £3.5 billion of cuts to working class living standards proposed just four months before by the SNP’s Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes. These gains wrung from ministers by mass action, however, remain a drop in the ocean of the cost of living crisis.

STUC demo falls short of full potential

It may be the case, as STUC’s General Secretary Ros Foyer told both rallies, that the offer from the government and local authority bosses to council workers was ‘worth putting to the workforce’. Costing roughly 6% overall, it represents a significant advance on the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA)’s initial 2% offer.

However, if Foyer was suggesting this justified local authority union leaders’ decision to suspend, not escalate, the strike action pending a vote, she could not have been more wrong. Even the £2,000 flat rate element, worth 10% to most workers, fell far short of the initial demand for £3,000. The hourly minimum wage offered, £10.50, was way below the £12/hr claim, drawn up in January when inflation was barely 5%. It is now over 10% – expected to double again by January 2023!

Suspending the council strike also weakened the Holyrood march. While the size and enthusiasm of the crowd were impressive – made all the more so given the best part of 2,000 participants stood in torrential rain – it could have been far larger. It had been planned to coincide with what was meant to be day two of renewed action by council workers. Refuse workers from 26 of Scotland’s 32 authorities would have been joined by school janitors, teaching assistants and meals staff from 12 councils. 

“Go for what we not only deserve, but what we are worth”

The ranks of striking BT and Royal Mail workers, among others who took time off work to march, should have been swelled not only by these strikers but also by families from the hundreds of schools due to close across Scotland’s central belt: what would have been an impressive display of the size and power of working-class anger.

The council unions’ decision to recommend COSLA’s offer, compounded this error. Members of all three unions, Unison, Unite and GMB, took to social media in anger: “All for one and one for all, reject this offer, go out on strike and go for what we not only deserve, but what we are worth”, read one of the many comments that expressed workers’ frustration. Unfortunately, however, the leaderships’ retreat led to most members accepting COSLA’s offer. No doubt many did this through gritted teeth, and significant minorities (a third in the case of Unison) voted to reject. 

The cost of living crisis will not go away however, and a new pay claim will have to be submitted in three months time, giving workers an opportunity to make up for this lost ground.  An opportunity that is sorely needed, even the final line of the Unite press notice heralding the ballot result pointed out that more than half of Scotland’s 250,000 council workers are still earning less than £25,000 a year for a 37-hour week.

The confusion caused by this retreat was compounded by the abrupt cancellation of planned strikes by CWU and RMT following Queen Elizabeth’s death on the day of the Holyrood demonstration, a decision which makes even less sense in Scotland than the rest of the UK given the monarchy’s record low support here.

SNP: What it gives with one hand…

The SNP government on the other hand lost no time fighting back. Announcing the rent freeze, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the £700m cost of her local government pay offer meant “hard choices”. The next day her Deputy John Swinney, standing in for Forbes, announced “emergency” budget cuts to claw back half a billion of this. Claiming “every penny more on one policy is a penny less on another”, Swinney callously slashed services left, right, and centre, including £37m from concessionary fares on transport, £42.7m off education and more.

The SNP lay the blame for cuts solely on Westminster Tories. Sturgeon told Parliament her tax and borrowing powers were “woefully inadequate”, repeating that “we cannot do everything we want to”. However, her hands are not tied. A genuinely anti-austerity and pro-worker administration at Holyrood, rather than attacking Scottish workers’ living standards, would join them fighting the Tories and their system. Mobilising the full power of the working class wouldn’t just win greater fiscal powers: it could pave the way to a socialist independent Scotland. And, by linking up with workers in England, Wales and Ireland in a struggle to break with capitalism, such a movement could end poverty forever. Union leaders should be fighting for that, not recommending that we accept mere crumbs from Holyrood or Westminster.

So far, their confused response to SNP austerity has only temporarily weakened, not destroyed, the fightback. More public sector workers are poised to join the struggle: two days of strike by RMT members on Scotrail has linked their struggle to that of their their siblings working for English rail companies. NHS Scotland workers are balloting for strike action after rejecting a 5% offer by 9 to 1 in consultative ballots. So are members of EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union whose consultative vote, announced on 16 September, produced a 78% turnout and 91% backing strike action. 

The potential for a public sector general strike across Scotland remains enormous, but we cannot rely on the Scottish TUC to provide the leadership to see this through. We need a strong and united struggle by workers, built democratically from below.

Socialist Alternative says:

  • Coordinate action across the public and private sector, prepare for a Scotland-wide general strike, linking up with workers in England, Wales and Ireland to smash austerity and poverty.
  • Organise democratic strike committees representing all unions and workplaces in every local authority and ‘conferences of resistance’ involving stewards, rank and file members and service users to coordinate industrial action and build the fightback against cuts and the cost of living crisis
  • Build the days of action planned by EiE on 1 October in every city and town across Scotland as the launch-pad for an ‘autumn of discontent’ in Scotland, and throughout the UK to strike down Tory and SNP austerity.

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