Jim Sillars: Unions need to get real by 2014

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My background is trade union. The 1956 railway strike. Fire Brigades Union. A senior official at the Scottish TUC, responsible for organisation and social policy. Grandfather, father, elder brother all staunch trade 

It is with concern, therefore, that I have watched the movement become dominated by public sector unions, leading to a loss of the broader outlook once characteristic of the TUC and STUC, when the balance in membership between public and private sectors meant all were required to address the realities of our mixed economy.

Today, trade unions in the public sector give the impression of having only one policy – urging governments to spend more, as though there is no crisis, where wealth is shrinking not growing, and where public debt is soaring to £1.5 trillion by 2017-18. We shall be fortunate if, by that time, we again reach living standards enjoyed in 2007.

Against that economic background, the public sector unions in Scotland, in their demands on the Scottish Government, are chickening out of their responsibilities, and avoiding the hard choice between the UK and independence.

That accusation will upset them. But nothing illustrates its accuracy better than the exchange between Unison and health minister Alex Neil over the issue of pay and pensions when he addressed their conference last week.

The prime, but not the only duty, of a trade union is to advance and defend its members’ pay and conditions. Unison has cause for concern. Members’ pay is moving from deep freezes to only one per cent increases. With inflation higher than that, it means another cut in living standards. On top of that there is to be a 1.9 per cent increase in pension contributions. Between freezes, low increases, inflation, and higher pension contributions, the overall cut in real terms in members’ incomes is ten per cent. Public sector pensions, contrary to myth, are not “gold” standard. The average pension for a male is £5700 and £3700 for a female; not levels to send them holidaying to Barbados every year of retirement. Unison is not alone. The Fire Brigades Union is angry at the hit its members are having to take, as are others in the public sector such as teachers.

Unison wants the SNP Government to defy Westminster and cancel the new pension contribution level. To this, Mr Neil explained that Westminster would impose a severe financial penalty if the Scottish Government did so. He also told them that if they wanted to escape from a political economy that will in future years destroy jobs and continue to grind down members’ living standards, then they have the chance next year to vote for independence, and thereafter proceed on a very different economic course. It was pointed out on Monday that staying in the UK will cost another 36,000 Scottish public sector jobs.

Here we come to a double-barreled charge against Unison and, indeed, other public service unions. They are shirking responsibility of the consequences of the Scottish Government doing what they want – which is that the SNP lift the Westminster stick from off their pension backs. At the same time as falling in with Labour’s campaign of Better Together in the UK, they want to wriggle out of it on pensions and pay, by action demanded from the independence movement’s government. Ironic, is it not?

Wanting it all ways isn’t on. If Unison and the rest want the Scottish Government to defy David Cameron’s coalition over pensions, and face a £100 million per year penalty levied by our Westminster paymasters, exactly where do they want those £100m cuts to be enforced? It is a flight from responsibility if the union says that isn’t its decision to make. If the consequence of that demand is a cut of £100m in the Scottish Government’s budget, then as the people whose demand would lead to that cut, they have to tell the rest of us where it will fall. On pensioners, schools, on the health budget for medicines, housing, council tax?

I was not there when the health minister met Unison, but I doubt Mr Neil (son of a miner) put it to them in such a no-holds-barred manner. The SNP, which has a trade union group but not deep roots in the movement has, since the debacles of the 1970s, been afraid to be dubbed anti-union, and so handles issues raised by them with kid gloves and soft words. As my trade union credentials are as good as anyone else’s, I have no such reservations or anxieties

I was brought up and worked with a generation of great trade union leaders for whom their policies for members were always balanced by concern for the public good, and who were willing to face wider responsibilities. I am for trade unions, but I want them to face their responsibilities. It is time public sector workers were told the blunt truth: you have no decent future inside the UK, and if you want one, then face up to the fact that only through independence will you get it. There’s no hiding place for anyone next year.