The Glasgow cleansing strike revealed much about the realities of industrial relations in Scotland. David Jamieson argues that the real force behind anti-union measures is the government and wider establishment.
The Glasgow cleansing strike, which concluded it’s solid, week-long schedule of stoppages on Monday (8 November) has once again exposed the anti-union and anti-working class dynamics at the top of Scottish society.
As with the equal pay strike a few years back (the causes of which remain unresolved despite the victories of that campaign), the city council, Cosla local government bosses and the Scottish executive were backed-up by an element within Scottish nationalism which portrays strikes as a Unionist conspiracy to do-down Scotland.
Trade unionists and supporters of the striking workers have pushed back against the smear merchants, challenging them to speak to the workers in dispute, and see if they are the dupes imagined in the conspiracy theories. Having spoken to some strikers, I can attest their detractors would be schooled on the motivations for the action.
Naturally, not a shred of evidence has been provided that the strike took place for any other reasons than those repeated many times by those on strike: low pay, unfair pay grading, and worsening conditions as a consequence of cut-backs and management bullying. Evidently, offers made during negotiations were not sufficient, and talks continue.
Those who know anything about industrial relations in this country know that unions will pursue any tactic short of a strike, and that a week-long, solidly observed strike with large picket line and protest mobilisations doesn’t happen unless the workforce itself is driving the strike. To imagine trade union officials as puppeteers who can declare action at will is to completely misunderstand the current position of the trade union movement.
That said, and much more could be said about the irrationality of some vocal nationalist subcultures, in any situation like this it’s always worth noting who isn’t talking.
Repeated threats of the use of Tory anti-union laws, and of deploying scab labour to try and break the strike have been a sharp reminder of the real policy of a governing element that likes to tout its partnership with unions. So have false briefings to the press, and SNP politicians helping to whip-up anti-union narratives on social media.
The idea the Scottish Government didn’t know about the draconian response to these strikes before they were made public is absurd.
But everything we see and hear about is only the beginning. Glasgow City Council is Scotland’s largest local authority by population. It is run by the SNP. The idea the Scottish Government didn’t know about the draconian response to these strikes before they were made public is absurd.
In any case, threats of the courts and organised scabbing are a national scandal – not a little local dispute. If Sturgeon is quiet on the matter, she backs these methods to the hilt.
As for silence, are the Scottish Green parliamentary group a mime act? They’ve successfully maintained conspicuous silence on most major questions since they began their negotiations to join the government early this year. Their press releases betray no sign of any concern about the strike or the strike-busting methods.
One of the modern traditions of Scottish politics, which makes so much sense of the scene here, is thoughtless deference towards the government. This seems to be a product of several different pressures, among them the patronage model of devolved administration, and the tendency to make ritual self-affirming comparisons between Holyrood and Westminster. Scotland is better so long as Westminster is worse, even where this involves an effort of imagination about what’s actually going on in London.
One of the consequences of this phenomenon is that political criticisms tend to deflect elsewhere. Scotland’s problem is Unionism or Nationalism. Other times it’s the Labour party – either its legacy or its continued existence. On still more occasions our problems are ethereal – ‘sectarianism’ or machismo, self-doubt and the ‘Scottish cringe’.
These ideas might be tedious when they remain lifestyle magazine talking points. When applied to real political and social conflicts they are a disaster. A strike can be blamed on Unionism or dinosaur trade unions. Anti-union sentiment can be blamed on wayward nationalism when those really behind the campaign of disinformation and attempted strike breaking go without challenge.
The force – the real legitimacy – behind the anti-union campaign spent the weak of the cleansing strike wearing fashionable specs and talking plastics with John Kerry over a soy milk latte. Not tweeting their outrage.
With such vicious tactics developing a precedent in Scotland, it will be necessary to shift the burden of responsibility back where it belongs – to the powerful.