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AS the 122nd Scottish Trade Union Congress assembles in Dundee, the conference agenda reads as a guide to all those areas of Scottish society that demand change.
From anti-austerity to anti-racism; from a charter of trade union rights to public-sector pay; from peace in the world to an industrial strategy at home, the STUC’s decisions at the Caird Hall will demonstrate how vital the labour movement remains in our public life.
William Morris famously wrote of “How we live and how we might live.”
At the moment too many working women and men are living in a state of discontent. Not just with their material conditions but with their overall quality of life.
As a result, many people feel that their lives lack meaning and direction. A drive to raise wages and tackle unemployment is necessary but not sufficient — because a feeling of powerlessness has set in too.
Economic power is increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, with the result that working people’s lives are dominated by decisions over which they have no control.
Work becomes increasingly dehumanised and alienation is rife. Female-dominated work continues to be systematically undervalued. Pay inequality and other forms of exploitation by gender and race are chronic.
Zero-hours contracts have become an established feature of the economy, weakening rights and income security, especially for younger workers.
We have seen the emergence of an economic model that challenges the essential gains that the labour movement has always fought for — fair and equal pay, employment security and democratic workplace rights.
As the STUC’s history has shown, the role of the labour movement is not only to react to this state of affairs but to project new horizons for working people based on compelling alternatives.
So while the labour movement of course responds to each and every immediate challenge or threat, we also have to set out, collectively, the long-term vision of radical change.
This places some requirements on the labour movement industrially, and also at the political level, if we are to change the balance of power in the economy.
STUC affiliates have made strides towards reaching out to unorganised workers and unleashing the energy of young members. Combined with a renewal of political education inside the trade union movement, this has the capacity to start to build a more progressive social and economic order.
Since I became the leader of Scottish Labour I have brought to bear my own experiences as a trade union organiser with the objective of translating the industrial work of the labour movement into the political priorities of the Scottish Labour Party.
We have begun to set out some of the core elements of that alternative.
That involves ending austerity. It means investment in our people, communities and industries and equipping the next generation to face the challenges of the future.
At the heart of this is an industrial strategy and a plan for jobs with the rekindled goal of full and fulfilling employment.
But this is also an approach based on concrete outcomes in the here and now.
So Labour MSP Claire Baker is proposing a member’s Bill to reform Scotland’s culpable homicide laws to better protect workers and improve justice for the families of workers whose lives are lost as a result of the recklessness or gross negligence of individuals, companies or organisations.
New legal avenues for prosecution and the introduction of statutory punishments would send a clear message to employers that health and safety must be the number one priority.
Labour MSP Daniel Johnson has secured cross-party support for his proposal for a member’s Bill to give greater protections to workers applying or enforcing an age restriction in relation to the sale or supply of goods or services. If enacted this will make a real difference in the retail sector.
Both are working with trade unions to promote workers’ rights. It is no coincidence that both are Labour: it is only Labour members in the Parliament who are initiating legislation aimed at extending rights at work.
As Scottish Labour develops its policy programme we will target ending low pay, and reversing the rise in poverty, homelessness and inequality.
We will build the homes we need to end the housing crisis and control private sector rent rises. Scottish Labour’s Pauline McNeill MSP is currently working on a member’s Bill that would tackle rip-off rent rises — a modern-day Mary Barbour law.
And we will put people before profit through the common ownership of public transport. A network of affordable, reliable buses is long overdue in Scotland.
Decent public transport is not only a prerequisite for connecting the country and providing links to jobs and communities: it is a crucial element of a greener transport policy.
That is why at the Scottish Labour conference last month I announced plans for wider access to free buses and called for changes in the law to usher in a new era of municipalisation, so that we can have public ownership of the bus network.
And we will apply the labour movement’s long-held belief in shifting the balance of wealth and power to ensure that the wealthiest pay more to fund our public services.
A wealth tax would unlock the resources to invest in collective services and make a step-change in the transformation of power in Scotland.
Twenty years on from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, we need to recapture the founding spirit of ambition that it would lift people out of poverty and transfer power to the people.
Only by our own endeavours and organisation, building from the bottom-up, will working people secure a richer and fuller life.
These are challenging times but we should not fall into pessimism.
Remember, when trade unions were formed working people didn’t have the vote. So we need to renew our commitment to the goal of building a socialist society, using the engine of democracy — economic as well as political — to propel us there.
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