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STUC Conference ’21 We can make work better

GMB Scotland secretary GARY SMITH writes that although the unions have been in decline, the last 12 months have shown the collective power we have when we fight back: let the year of Covid-19 be a turning point

IT HAS been a year like no other — and a wretched one at that for millions of working people. The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked a devastating trail of sickness and death in our communities. It has isolated us from our loved ones and has fundamentally challenged almost every aspect of our everyday lives.

Although the vaccination programme is being rolled out quickly and efficiently by the NHS, it is clear that we are going to be living with the effects of this virus for the foreseeable future.

The impact of Covid-19 on the world of work has been dramatic. What the pandemic has ruthlessly exposed are the many underlying weaknesses in our economy and workplaces after a decade of disastrous ideologically driven austerity.

This meant that when Covid-19 struck and we were told by political leaders that the country was prepared nothing could have been further from the truth — and millions of workers were left to carry the cost of that failure.

The scope of that political failure was illustrated by the health and social care staff who were left to tackle the first wave of Covid-19 without proper PPE or testing regimes, food and drink manufacturers ignoring safety guidelines and furlough support to force their workers to report to assembly lines, the warehouse operatives having to risk their health at work or face a slide into poverty — and should they fall ill, they would only receive statutory sick pay. Every worker will have a story to tell.

What compounds the anger is that government understood these underlying weaknesses in the economy and left them unchallenged for years: the crisis in social care, the overworked and under-resourced services in the NHS and local government, the chronic decline and divestment of our manufacturing supply chains and the “cut and gut” approach to basic employment rights and standards.

The real-life consequences of this failure are that many of our members have fallen sick, some have died, livelihoods have been lost and millions are working under extreme duress.

It has got to be better than this. The Covid-19 pandemic is re-shaping our working lives, but the big question is: how are we going to respond to this unprecedented peace-time challenge?

If the trade union movement does not properly influence and lead the response to these challenges, then our future will be decided for us by others. A return to “normal” will be back to pre-Covid conditions of permanent austerity and cuts in public services: a “race to the bottom” in terms of wages, pensions and conditions — a prospect no trade unionist should entertain.

It is against this backdrop that delegates from across the Scottish trade union movement come together next week for our 124th STUC annual conference, which has taken on a greater significance than it has in recent years due to the pandemic. It represents a crossroads moment for this great movement of ours.

Despite Covid-19 thrusting the unions into the public consciousness and the media spotlight, our movement and our relevance have perhaps never been more precarious.

Our density is in chronic decline, our memberships are ageing and fewer workers are benefiting from the coverage of a collective agreement.

I don’t want to be part of the generation of trade unionists that oversees the decline of our membership to its lowest levels since World War II. I want to be part of a collective response that resolved that this pandemic would be a moment of change and after confronting our greatest challenge since that war, went on to arrest the decline and rebuild our movement, from the grassroots up, for future generations.

I am sure all delegates to the STUC conference and all trade unionists across the country share these sentiments and goals.

But actions speak louder than words. Strong rhetoric from the podium won’t recruit a single member to our cause, won’t organise in the workplace and won’t negotiate a penny more for the people who join us and stick with us, in order to improve their lives.

And if Covid-19 has demonstrated anything, it’s that we need start flexing our industrial muscle and get back to the basics of what we are all about: because the challenges facing us here in Scotland are replicated across the rest of the UK, Europe and the world.

What we stand for are: proper value for workers, job creation, stronger employment rights, social justice and a sustainable environment.

We certainly can’t let politicians who were applauding key workers while making decisions that undermined their safety at work shape the future.

The political tail has been wagging the industrial dog for too long and this has to be consigned to the dustbin of history. And whatever your constitutional and political persuasions, no leader and no flag is ever going to deliver these objectives for us. We will have to do it ourselves.

We will embrace new strategies and fresh thinking — but our response needs to be rooted in the struggles and experiences of our members, rediscovering the spirits of social solidarity and grassroots activism.

Our movement was built from nothing, through struggle and sacrifice, by those who wagered all that they had in the faith that socialism and organisation would deliver a better future for their fellow women and men.

Too often we have seen those monumental gains bargained away through cowardice, expediency and dreams of personal advancement.

We need to believe in ourselves and in our collective strength and vision. A better way is achievable and it is within our grasp.

We already hold that power — through the shared insight and endeavours of our own members — in our hands. We’ve shown that we can do it, not just throughout our history but in the last 12 months alone.

Look at the difference we’ve made in the social care sector after government and employers failed our members. We succeeded in securing the delivery of proper PPE guidelines and provision by trade union campaigning.

The introduction of workplace testing for Covid-19 for residential care and home-care workers was delivered by trade union campaigning. And the creation of a government sick pay support scheme for the social care sector was delivered by trade union campaigning too.

Trade unions exist, campaign and organise to make work better. It has to be our priority for the post-Covid recovery. It’s a mission statement for our future, a beacon of hope for workers who want to organise under our banner and a clarion call for all our union delegates joining us for STUC conference next week.

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