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LIVING in and representing an area with such a proud industrial heritage, there is little wonder that I have been involved in the trade union movement.
I was raised in Rutherglen and I could see the Clydebridge steelworks in Cambuslang from my bedroom window — when the steel industry was at its peak. Growing up, everyone knew someone working in the sector, and it was engrained in the DNA of the area. Scotland has a long, successful history of steelworks, however it has been no stranger to challenges over the years. Anger still reverberates locally against Thatcher’s demolition of the industry, with thousands of jobs lost due to her anti-industrial policies.
The rapid growth in mass industrial workplaces in the nineteenth century provided great wealth to those who sought to develop new sectors, like steel or coal, and often at the expense of their workers. Such wealth did not trickle down, and low pay and poor working conditions often prevailed. Injury and death in factories and mines were commonplace.
Accidents on the scale of the Blantyre explosion in 1877, a town at the other end of my constituency, saw at least 215 men and boys lose their lives in Scotland’s worst ever mining disaster. This accident was not unique, and the scale and frequency of mining and other industrial accidents across Scotland and Britain during that era was horrific.
The trade union movement was born of a desire to combat such exploitation, and without our trade unions, workers wouldn’t have nearly as many protections and rights as they do nowadays — however I concede that we can always do more.
Prior to becoming the MSP for Rutherglen, I was a mental health nurse with over thirty years of experience. Mental health is my absolute passion; however, workers’ rights is another. Until very recently, I worked in Leverndale Hospital, and I was a Divisional Convener at Unison — proudly representing the NHS Glasgow Clyde & CVS Branch, of which I am still a member. The NHS Glasgow Clyde & CVS are a tremendous group — and were the proud winners of the STUC Organising Award at last year’s conference.
As an active trade unionist for many years, I have fought discrimination and unfair working practices. I have represented workers who have been accused of wrongdoing, and I have been on strike and manned picket lines to try to protect NHS pensions.
Becoming an MSP, I wanted to use my skills, both as a mental health nurse and as a trade unionist, to bring the two issues to the forefront of Scottish politics. Indeed, in my very first speech as an MSP I criticised the Tory government for its pernicious Trade Union Act, and before I became Scotland’s Minister for Mental Health, I was the convener of the regular SNP Backbench Trade Union Group — chairing frequent meetings with the STUC, Unison, FBU, RMT and other unions.
Unlike the Tories in Westminster, the SNP Scottish government does not see trade unions as the opposition or the enemy; rather, it sees them as our partners in delivering a fair work agenda. Scotland’s proud trade union heritage is no longer the preserve of any one party; it belongs to all of us, regardless of the sector or the demographic.
Whilst mental health and fair work are top priorities in the Scottish Parliament, we need the powers to do more. That’s why I fully support the devolution of employment law to Scotland. There’s a lot we agree on with other parties when it comes to workers’ rights but the vast bulk of the powers we need to make a difference are reserved to the British Parliament. Despite repeated calls, our attempts have been blocked by other parties, including Labour.
If employment laws were set in Scotland, just think of the positive changes we could make. We could raise the minimum wage to a real living wage — lifting people out of poverty pay. We could ban exploitative zero-hours contracts. Give workers in the “gig economy” better rights and protections. Ban unpaid trial shifts. Properly tackle the gender pay gap, and much more.
Trade unions play a key role in our society and having such a strong trade union movement benefits all workers in Scotland.
Delegates and visitors, I sincerely hope you enjoy your time at this year’s STUC conference, in what I am sure will be another great success. Hopefully, I will be able to join you at one in the near future.
Clare Haughey is SNP MSP for Rutherglen and Minister for Mental Health
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