Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have shared a rally platform for the first time. Despite their differences over Scottish independence, both spoke at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall last week against the Conservative government's Trade Union Bill.
The rally was attended by 1,000 or so Labour and SNP supporters, trade union officials and union members, who greeted most speakers with whoops and cheers.
The Trade Union Bill contains measures only previously seen in police dictatorships. The legislation will outlaw strikes supported by less than 50 percent of union members in a postal vote. Strikes in health, education of those aged under 17, fire, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security services will require the support of 40 percent of all those eligible to vote, regardless of the margin in ballots actually cast. Unions must give 14 days notice before a strike.
Pickets must wear an armband or badge that identifies their supervisor, who must provide official written trade union authorisation to the police. A government-appointed certification officer can demand the names and addresses of any union members involved. Unions are required to inform employers and police of their “picketing and protesting strategy,” and any deviation from it can lead to civil action.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is considering broader use of existing civil and criminal law against strikers and protesters. Most alarmingly for the trade union bureaucracy, however, the bill proposes to end the “check-off” system whereby union dues are collected from pay slips.
Because the bill threatens to lay bare the real relations between the trade unions and the working class, legally enshrining their role as an industrial police force, sections of the political establishment fear it will hasten the day when workers seek other methods and other organizations to assert their interests.
For this reason, there are calls to restrict, or tone down the bill’s impact, particularly regarding measures directly impacting the trade union apparatus. This was put forward at the Glasgow rally, which despite Corbyn’s attendance was primarily a showcase for Sturgeon and the SNP’s growing relationship with the trade unions.
Introducing the rally, leader of the Scottish Trade Union Congress Graeme Smith lambasted Tory Chancellor George Osborne’s economic “mismanagement.” Smith cited German, Norwegian, and French examples of the close relations preferred between government and trade unions. “The UK,” Smith complained, “is conspicuous in refusing to recognise the importance of constructive industrial relations.”
The regional secretary of the Unite trade union, Pat Rafferty, called for Sturgeon to “send a clear message to Cameron and the Tories that this Scottish government will not comply with the clear attack on our people and will stand by them in defiance of this bill.”
The SNP view opposition to the bill as an opportunity to deepen their relations with the union bureaucracy, while exploring means of deepening legislative divisions with Westminster.
The SNP’s October conference voted to oppose the bill. Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish government’s Minister for Fair Work, Skills and Training, told the conference that the bill will “change the relationship between unions and organisations negatively, and lead to greater confusion amongst employees ... I believe this is not a constructive platform upon which we can pursue our ambitions for Scottish workers.”
The SNP initiated moves in the Scottish parliament to make the bill subject to a constitutional device known as a Legislative Consent Motion. This is a motion passed by any of the devolved governments in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland when Westminster is considering legislation applying to a devolved area, where there is deemed to be overlap between the responsibilities of Westminster and, in this instance, Holyrood.
At the Glasgow rally, Sturgeon was introduced as “our comrade and friend” to rapturous applause. But after the obligatory “total unequivocal opposition to the anti-trade union bill,” she made clear her support for the trade unions is based on their suppressing of the class struggle.
According to Sturgeon, “Trade unions are not our enemies, they are our partners in building a better society ... trade unions contribute to better industrial relations, you reduce the threat of strike action, you do not increase it.”
Sturgeon promised to defend the interests of the union bureaucracy stating, “We will not allow this bill to undermine relations with the trade unions. We will find a way to continue to allow check-off and facility time.”
She promised to raise the bill in forthcoming discussions with Prime Minister David Cameron.
For his part, speaking two hours after Sturgeon, Corbyn stressed that stopping the bill depended on a Labour victory in 2020. “Labour opposed this Bill in the Commons and our peers will oppose it in the Lords.”
But he declared in the next sentence, “I have to tell you in all likelihood, the Bill will become law—and we will have adapt to the new realities it brings.”
Corbyn pledged only closer relations with the trade unions and a future Labour government. “We are setting up a commission for workplace rights, it will be led by my shadow minister for trade unions, the former President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Ian Lavery MP,” he said.
Corbyn's refusal to articulate any serious opposition to a ferocious assault on workers’ rights, even the token opposition normally associated with the Labour “left,” only serves to give encouragement to the Conservative government. Fittingly, his visit to Glasgow followed his allowing a “free vote” to Labour MPs on war in Syria, with 66 of them backing the Tories and clearing the way for RAF airstrikes.
His cowardice is also a gift to the SNP. In conditions of deepening economic crisis, with never-ending assaults on public services and public sector workers, with both the entire North Sea oil industry and the remaining steel industry under threat of destruction, the SNP feel themselves dangerously exposed.
Aware that a sharp intensification in the class struggle is inevitable, the SNP are convinced they need the warmest relations with the trade unions. This is to ensure that the Scottish bourgeoisie’s interests are best served, with the skills and resources of the union bureaucracy deployed in suppressing the class struggle.
The bogus nature of Sturgeon's stated convictions over democratic rights is clear from one of the items on the agenda for her discussions this week with Cameron—the Conservative government's new Investigatory Powers Bill.
The SNP’s only difference with Cameron is that judges, rather than politicians, should control the right to grant interception warrants on Internet traffic and hack computers. Speaking before meeting Cameron, Sturgeon proclaimed that the bill was an “important opportunity” for the two governments to discuss how to work together more closely.