Fair Work must be a demand not a political fix

At the STUC public service conference, I opened a debate amongst public sector trade unionists about how we enlist the Scottish Government’s fair work framework to genuinely win for workers.

In the context of ongoing cuts, pay caps, office closures, service decline and failures, some delegates responded robustly that we shouldn’t be apologists for the SNP government or enter into cosy partnerships with public sector management to preside over cuts.

I agree.

There is an absolute responsibility for public sector trade unionists to reject sweeteners when the poison of austerity is so devastating to workers and their communities. We require to show leadership and inspire confidence amongst organised workers to demand the change. Since the high point of the 2011 co-ordinated public sector pensions disputes, too many of our members have felt defeated by imposed Tory pay caps, and been told by politicians, including SNP MSPs and Labour councillors that they should feel grateful for at least having a job. Unless our movement acts to demonstrate that that there is an alternative, then we will have failed our members and our class.

The five objectives of the Fair Work Framework are: effective voice; opportunity; security; fulfilment and respect. The easy thing for trade unions to do would be ask employers to agree to support these principles. I don’t know a single public sector employer who wouldn’t sign up to three principles on paper. This approach might create a nice list of Fair Work public sector employers in Scotland but in effect would change absolutely nothing for the workforce.

Instead, I propose a more dynamic industrial approach to Fair Work to recapture the Spirit of 2011. Simply by engaging workers at their work about their work we can drive a new challenge to the imposition of austerity on public services and poor workplace management. Stimulating demand for change doesn’t just come from clarion calls by inspirational leaders calling out Tory and SNP austerity budgets, or writing blogs like this, or leaflets, or trades council street stalls, or motions to STUC congress. These all have their undeniable place in mobilising our members. Central to our strategy is the necessity to sustain face to face contact with workers in the workplace, seeking out their concerns and issues, and demands, and empowering them to act to win change.

Wee wins for big gains provides leverage at sectorial collective bargaining level with the support, raised expectations and demands from an engaged and focussed membership.

There is nothing new about this. It has been an active industrial action strategy of many public sector unions recently. Our movement is winning locally, focused disputes with single employers or sections of services, yet we focus our gripes and energies on the lack of co-ordinated industrial action, the defeat of austerity pay cuts and political failure to allow austerity-lite to be palmed off as anti-austerity by the politicians.

By taking the Fair Work Objectives into workplaces, unions can give workers voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect. Workplace discussions about fair and unfair work can establish what the issues are what these workers might be willing to fight for. This way, the organised union members in the workplace themselves determine those issues and identify the demand for Fair Work, and begins the challenge Unfair Work.

Without a workplace strategy, our public sector workers are left with the hopelessness of Hammond’s Autumn statement. £122bn worse off – austerity won’t end in 2020, so called public sector debt to soar, and plans to hold down the pay cap. Worse still, the institute of Fiscal Studies has said this week that worker pay growth prospects are “dreadful”. Hammond continues with cuts like Brexit has not happened, and in spite of the recorded need for 30,000 additional civil servants, when one fifth has been lost since 2010. Scotland has lost 30,000 local govt workers and 7,500 civil servants in the same period.

After the 2011 pensions co-ordination, PCS continued with a national dispute against austerity cuts to pay, pensions, jobs and services. Time and again, our members took industrial action, sought out co-ordination with other workers in dispute, often to find ourselves alone on the picketlines. The contemptuous Tory government response was to seek to dismantle our union firstly through facility time cuts, then removing check off. We have retaliated by a sustained campaign of workplace organising, and our union is stronger for it.

Look back to recent Scottish industrial disputes in which we won fairer work or fairer pay for workers. National Museums of Scotland, Scotrail, Dundee hospital porters, FE colleges and take inspiration. The ongoing dispute in Glasgow, Justice4Jannies is a high profile example of effective targeted and focussed local industrial campaigning.

So it seems that even in these bleak times of austerity, workers are prepared to rise up and take action, against unfair work where they believe they can win. If our movement can raise expectations in the name of Fair Work, then we will begin to win actual Fair Work.

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