I’m on strike again today which is giving me a little time to ponder the industrial relations and political situation, particularly within Scotland.
I drove into Stirling to attend my picket line and on the way there I had to drive past an entirely unrelated picket line at the school. Strike action is like the bus it would seem.
It’s not the first time that’s happened to me this year. It was the bin men the first time and then my colleagues at BT the next time.
They say a watched pot never boils and it sure feels like we’ve been watching a pot of frustration at our political impotence do absolutely nothing for a very, very, very long time since the indyref.
You ever notice though, how, when a pot is just about to come to the boil and the surface begins to roil and churn a little, that if you turn your back to do something else for a moment, because you’ve been waiting ages for it to boil after all, that before you know it it’s completely boiled over and there’s that starchy pasta water all over the top of the cooker again?
This feels like that sort of moment. Everything is starting to come to a head, people are fed up with the cost of living, energy bills, mortgages, and the general complete incompetence of the Tories and they are pretty much at breaking point.
Enough is enough.
Yesterday’s “you’ll have had your democracy” from the UK Supreme Court will very much be the last straw for a lot of us. It might take a while to sink in but I think this was precisely the wrong moment to tell the people of Scotland that their opinion is of no interest to those that run the United Kingdom.
I cannot speak with any real authority for the organised labour movement as my focus is on political agitation rather than union organising but I see enough from within my own union, the CWU, and from being a member of the SNP Trade Union Group to have some inkling of what is going on.
Scotland is an unusual situation for the Trade Unions and particularly for the public sector unions. I imagine it is much more difficult to negotiate with an employer that does not control their own purse strings. Even if they are minded to make concessions on pay they may not be in a position to do so because they have a fixed budget and just do not have any more money to invest in paying staff what they deserve.
From a political perspective things are a bit odd too. Traditionally Trade Unions have close ties to the Labour party because they help them get stuff done where they are in power. But Labour are a busted flush in Scotland and where they do have any power they are usually in hock to the local Tories who will keep them on a short leash.
The principal duty of any Union is to do their best to represent their members and to get the best deal on pay and conditions they can. In Scotland however they all know that there is only so much pressure there is any point putting on the Scottish Government or Local Authorities because their budgets are fixed. And with a toothless Labour party and the Tories in power at Westminster their only possibly ally on a legislative front is that same Scottish Government.
Privatised industries are weirdly in a slightly better position, which I’m sure is not what Thatcher had in mind. Scotrail for example, it might now be publicly operated again but it remains a stand-alone commercial enterprise that controls its own budget. Scotrail can simply borrow or raise prices if it needs to in coming to an understanding with its employees. What limits Trade Union success in this sphere is the harsh Tory restrictions on organising. Those that can get some leverage against the bosses usually manage to make progress but that is increasingly difficult and with the UK Labour party becoming ever more neo-liberal in their economic thinking there is no sign that is going to change any time soon.
So I think Scotland presents a quandary for the Unions. On the one hand the Scottish Government can’t really give public sector Unions what they want because they have one hand tied behind their back, and on the other hand they can’t really give private sector Unions what they want because they have that other hand tied behind their back too.
So the reality is that the Scottish Government is relatively friendly towards the Unions but can’t really do anything about it and the UK is increasingly hostile to them and even the direction of travel in the Labour party is going the wrong way.
Unions are now ahead of a recalcitrant Labour party on a number of policy issues, including PR, and have every incentive to decide that actually supporting Scottish Independence is in their best interest. It is manifestly in the best interest of Scottish Unions and Scottish members of UK Unions and actually the break up of the UK may now be their only hope of reforming UK political structures in a manner that shifts power back towards workers.
I think that as this pot starts to boil over this winter more and more Trade Unions will admit that publicly and, if not support independence outright, support the democratic right of the people of Scotland to make that decision for themselves.
It is our job as independence supporters and Trade Union members to throw a handful of salt into that pot at just the right moment and ensure that it does indeed boil over and that when it does that it snuffs out the flame of the United Kingdom for good.