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LAST WEEK I chaired the Our Class, Our Culture event for the Morning Star, looking at how the trade union movement defeated anti-trade union laws and an anti-working-class government 50 years ago and the lessons we can learn for the present day.
It was inspiring to hear from Davie Cooper and George Kerr, both veterans of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, about their experiences 50 years ago and how unity was won across the yards, across the trade union movement and across wider civic society.
Brenda Carson, a GMB convener and current chair of the STUC women’s committee, bridged the gap between then and now, speaking from her own experience of how memories of the past can inspire the present.
As the daughter of Sammy Barr, a respected shop steward during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute, Carson described her memorable experiences as a child back then and how that had sown the seeds of her current trade union activism.
She highlighted the growing numbers of women in unions and how female trade unionists are starting to fight back.
As Unite’s Jackson Cullinane pulled together the lessons for trade union movement today, it was clear that we are in a very different place with major challenges ahead.
Two key messages stood out for me in the trade union wins of 50 years ago.
The first was the real sense of working-class unity. Not just trade union unity but solidarity — right across civic society, from churches to shopkeepers to politicians to the STUC and the TUC.
Both Cooper and Kerr said that this was the overwhelming strength in the work-in and why all the yards were saved. The Tory government could not win in face of that mass movement.
But as they both said, the right wing learned from their defeat. From Thatcher onwards, they set about a deliberate policy of divide and rule. They are still doing it now.
The Tory government and the powerful vested interests that bankroll them, and the mass media that they control, demonised the poor and benefits claimants.
They changed the popular understanding of the welfare state from a safety net in a civilised wealthy society for those who needed it, to a system where people got something for nothing — the scroungers and workshy.
They turned poor people into deserving and undeserving.
They demonised immigrants and asylum-seekers, changing the popular narrative from people fleeing war or poverty or oppression to people coming in to overwhelm the indigenous population, “taking over” our houses, our schools and our health and public services — conveniently forgetting that many of the “indigenous” population had themselves been immigrants and conveniently ignoring the fact that it is many of these workers who deliver our health and our public services.
They demonised people because of their race, their religion, their disability, their sexuality, setting worker against worker, one against the other.
They demonised trade unions. This is what faces the trade union and labour movement now. And we on the left must be as good as the right in fighting back.
The second thing that stood out to me was the sense of ownership that the workers had of their trade unions.
They recognised that collective action was the only way workers could defeat the bosses.
And they had exceptional leaders from among the workers who inspired unity of purpose.
As one contributor said, these days unions can barely get quorate AGMs, never mind collective action.
However, there are some signs for optimism. As the Morning Star reported recently, trade unions have seen the fourth consecutive rise in membership with total union membership up to 6.6 million.
Some of that has come as a result of the pandemic, when thousands turned to trade unions to protect their jobs, safety and employment rights.
My own union, Unison, saw high numbers of joiners, many of them female workers in low-paid but essential jobs.
And that’s the other thing about modern-day unions. There is a large and growing number of women members, including in my own union where around three-quarters of our members are women.
During the pandemic we saw momentum among civil society in support of the workers who kept communities afloat throughout the pandemic.
Workers who put their lives at risk continuing to provide services to the sick and the most vulnerable, as well as providing other essential services like transport, food sales and deliveries, to name but a few.
It was recognised that the lowest-paid workers, many of them women, had among the most crucial roles.
Communities began to re-evaluate the worth of these jobs.
We need to build on this before it completely slips away. As Jackson said, workers must not be left to pay the price of this pandemic with more austerity.
In Scotland it is good to see the STUC seize the initiative with a call for a people’s recovery, calling on the Scottish government for measures to create a democratic and green economy and a society in which workers and their families have fair work, decent housing and a proper safety net.
It’s a great vision for workers and for the communities they live in.
As the trade union movement we now have a job of work to engage our members around this vision and to create the working-class unity and sense of ownership that served our comrades so well 50 years ago.
Kate Ramsden is chair of Unison Scotland’s communications and campaigns committee.
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