This year was the 121st annual meeting of the Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC) ended on Wednesday. Jack O’Neill reflects on an inspiring week and argues that the big lesson to be drawn is to what extent our movement places under-represented groups to the forefront…
Hosted in the Highland town of Aviemore, the setting for this year’s Congress offered a change in landscape to those more used to organising in industrial towns and cities. But the landscape wasn’t the only notable change – there’s a marked shift in how the wider Scottish trade union movement wants to conduct itself, particularly in terms of representation of groups often missing from the forefront of its campaigns and internal structures.
The theme of the Congress was: Educate. Agitate. Organise. It’s a mantra of trade unions and the left more generally, but one that’s not usually adhered to in its strictest sense. For too long, we’ve not been educating, agitating and organising in the sections of society worst affected by capitalism and the divisions it creates. Discriminated groups have long been relegated to supporting roles in the trade union movement and that’s to the detriment of our collective power. This Congress showed encouraging signs that changes now seems inevitable.
This year’s Congress was the first in the STUC’s history to be chaired by a black president. On day one, delegates were happy to welcome Satnam Ner, who laid out his vision for society, the economy and the Scottish trade union movement. He also drew attention towards racism within society. He proudly declared himself a migrant from India and reiterated his belief that the trade union movement remains the “best and most democratically accountable vehicle” for creating change in both industrial and social spheres.
He continued in this truthful vein, state that the movement had suffered a decline in membership over recent years and that to turn this around we need to acknowledge the movement is not as inclusive as it could be, which rings true across the left. It highlighted the need for us to encourage more workers from BAME backgrounds so they’re better represented in the movement and across public life.
His address also acknowledged that while modernising the trade union movement is necessary, it’s important that we hold on to the traditional socialist values that underpin the movement. It was an emphatic address that set the tone of the Congress, which saw great contributions from workers hailing from a variety of underrepresented groups.
Youth workers are the future of the trade union movement and it seems we’re now being taken more seriously, a trend which started a few years ago and is now ingrained the workings of the STUC. The Better Than Zero campaign, which campaigns against zero hour contracts and is led by young trade unionists, has trained countless numbers of young trade unionists and galvanised countless others into becoming activists, not just members. It has changed public discourse, with a real focus upon precariousness as well as issues affecting young workers. The STUC youth committee delegation were granted front row seats for the Congress, alongside the black workers committee.
The support shown for the motions they spoke in support of and seconded was unanimous. In addition to this, the Congress called for the abolition of youth rates, a motion which the youth committee supported to great applause. It suggests the STUC is now looking to address the view that the labour of a young person is not equal to that of an older worker. It challenges the very foundation of age discriminatory pay and sends a message to companies who employ young people to maximise profits and reduce trade union participation.
Better Than Zero also joined forces with the Living Rent tenants union and hosted a fringe event discussing and proposing practical solutions to the precarious nature of our lives. This fringe event was particularly important in ensuring young voices were heard by an older audience. It also strengthens the bond between industrial and social organising, which tackles capitalism in all of its areas of production. A holistic approach to improve the lives of workers is completely necessary and it’s heartening to see it being forged by the young activists of Better Than Zero and Living Rent. It helped ensure that issues like housing and homelessness were at the centre of much the debate this week. The Congress concluded with myself, 20, and Anthea Koon, 22, being elected to the STUC’s General Council. We will be charged with ensuring that the views of Scotland’s young workers are heard and acted upon.
The Black Worker’s Committee has worked tirelessly over many years to educate allies within the trade union movement as well as push for greater representation and equality of BAME workers. This work is exemplified through the election of the STUC’s first ever black president, but the General Council and Congress also supported a motion calling for equality of representation within union structures.
Going further than strengthening unions’ black worker committees, it’s now STUC policy to conduct regular audits of all affiliates to look at the shortcomings of equality assess what assistance can be provided to increase representation. This is a major step forward for minority workers in Scotland as the movement aims to become exemplars of inclusive leadership.
This will result in a committed from unions to organise black workers, with support being offered centrally. Movers of this motion are confident we can begin to truly overcome barriers to true representation. Cutting across barriers like race, the trade union movement will be able to increase its membership, better represent all workers and promote the kind of equal society that we wish to see. It’s a commitment that was reiterated by black worker’s committee General Council member Suki Sangha, who quoted Fred Hampton in her passionate speech.
The black workers were also well represented by Anita Shelton, who addressed the President’s dinner. She raised the death of Martin Luther King Jr as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement and one we should remember, not least because he died whilst visiting striking Memphis sanitation workers. It served as a key reminder that race and class struggles have always been intertwined and always will be. Anita also praised the Better Than Zero campaign, which has helped to organise in low paid sectors of the economy such as hospitality, and has resulted in a higher engagement from migrant and black workers who are now better represented.
As this was the first STUC Congress since the Hollywood sexual harassment scandal and the emergence of the subsequent #MeToo movement, which was driven by working class women around the world, it’s no surprise so much of the debate focused upon issues which directly affect women. The Step Aside, Brother campaign was hailed in particular and some of the most well received speeches dealt with the issue of sexual harassment.
The trade union movement is unequivocal in its assertion that this is an issue of power and abuse. It’s systematic and will take huge efforts to be addressed. Similarly, the Congress called on support to be put in place to allow more female workers to organise collectively and be better represented throughout our movement.
Practical solutions – such as including explicit anti-sexual harassment policies in all collectively bargained contracts – have been adopted to address prevalent issues like lack of accountability and lack of support for victims. Additionally, a call for sexual harassment training to be included in equalities training was also made. These solutions will aid the trade union movement in protecting and supporting its members in both their work and social lives.
On the final day, the STUC Congress announced Lynn Henderson as the new President for the year. Just as Satnam Ner was able to bring issues of race to the forefront during his time as president, it’s hoped Lynn will be able to do similar for gender issues.
LGBT workers attended the Congress as members of a wide number of delegations. This was great to see as it meant they were able to contribute to a variety of motions. Speeches made by LGBT delegates made clear that we still have a long road ahead it comes to the right of LGBT people within society, and that equal marriage or equality under the law do not make for an LGBT panacea.
A number of LGBT workers hold strong positions within the trade union movement, but it remains the case that they appear to be among the most under-represented groups in our movement. Members shared stories about shocking abuse, particularly towards trans comrades. It served as a clear reminder that the movement must be unequivocal in its support for all workers and must make serious headway in stamping out hate crime towards all LGBT workers.
The LGBT committee went on to pledge its international solidarity with allies still criminalised throughout the world, particularly highlighting those competing at the Commonwealth games who were criminalised by their home countries. The Congress was urged to support safe spaces for LGBT workers such as “Pride House” in Glasgow.
The main conclusion that can be drawn from this year’s Congress is that marginalised groups are beginning to make their voices more heard in the trade union movement, and that’s good for society as a whole. It’s important our movement welcomes their voices if we’re to change and modernise in a way that advances our class interests in work and wider society.
I felt inspired by this year’s Congress because it demonstrated that the efforts of groups like Better Than Zero and the Black Workers Committee are being recognised. The movement is changing for the better and it’s being led by minority groups who are highly trained, highly determined and getting results. This is going to be necessary in reversing weakening union power in the long run. Based on this week, I’m encouraged that it can be done.