Drew Smith MSP, Chair of the Trade Union Group of Labour MSPs, speaking in the debate on the Trade Union Bill, 10 November 2015
Drew Smith (Glasgow) (Lab):
I support the motion in the name of the cabinet secretary and, indeed, the Labour amendment, and I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
This Parliament was established on the back of a campaign for democracy that had the trade union movement at its heart. Without the activism of generations of trade unionists, none of us would be gathered in this place; and I know that without the support of my trade union I certainly would never have had the opportunity to serve here.
The Conservative amendment before us today states that
“trade unions are valuable institutions … with a long history of promoting workers’ rights, improving health and safety … and representing members … in need of support”.
If we accepted the sincerity of the Scottish Conservatives in believing that trade unions are key social partners and a force for good in society, there would indeed be more common ground between us than the introduction of the Trade Union Bill suggests.
I have made the point here before that, although there are good employers and not-so-good employers, there is a fundamental truth borne out by the history of workers’ struggles that the selling of our labour has the potential to be exploited. Trade unions are voluntary associations of individuals who simply seek to collectivise their interests in order to rebalance that potential for exploitation in favour of partnerships between groups of workers and partnerships with employers, in order to minimise the risks that exist at work: the risk of ill-health, injury and even death; the risk of exploitation through unfair wages and working practices; and the risk of insecurity of work through short-termism and the tendency to put pursuit of profit above the interests of the community.
It is sometimes said that trade unions represent a gathering of optimists, which is what my colleague Johann Lamont said, when she was leader of my party, to the annual congress of the Scottish trade unions. It is the optimists who have struggled for safer workplaces, fairer wages and decency and respect, not just for workers but for all in our society. This bill is an attack on the fundamental optimism of organising for a fairer world. It is for that reason that it is being proposed by a Tory Government that stands opposed to the advancement of working people in this country and in defence of every privileged interest that the Tories enjoy and believe they are entitled to.
To require working people to achieve ballot thresholds that the Conservatives have no intention of applying to themselves is nothing short of hypocrisy; and to do so while denying unions the ability to access the tools to achieve higher turnouts with online or secure workplace balloting is nothing short of vindictive.
The attack on trade union finances is a completely illiberal move and a direct attack on the ability of working people to achieve the aims that the Conservatives’ amendment claims to support. It is, of course—Willie Rennie was right to say so—the Conservatives’ ultimate hope that the result will be financial penalty to the Labour Party, which is supported by some trade union organisations and which exists to further the interests of those who bear the cost of economic injustice.
Neither the Labour Party nor any trade union, whether affiliated or not, is a perfect institution, but the proposed changes are designed to make the cause that they serve less achievable and less efficient to organise. What a poverty of ideas and what weakness of confidence in their own arguments there must be among the Tories to use government to diminish the organisational ability of those who oppose them.
I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s support in opposing these outdated and mendacious attacks on organised labour. This Parliament was created with the aid of trade unions and the aim of improving the lot of working people. The Scottish Government’s fair work agenda is an important step on that long road.
It is the lot of progressives, and of the labour movement in particular, not just to advance the cause of fairness but to continually defend each of our achievements—the achievements of generations of trade union organisers—against the continual efforts of conservatives to roll back, to look back and, if the bill becomes law, to take industrial relations back not to the 1970s but to the 1870s.
I hope that Labour, SNP and Liberal members, and other members in the chamber, will unite against the bill, but I also hope that we will do more than that. I recognise the calls from nationalists and others for the devolution of employment protection. That debate is worth having, not least because this vicious legislation makes the case stronger. Those who support that option have a job to do to achieve a consensus in favour of it, not just with the Opposition in the chamber but with those trades unions in Scotland that are unconvinced, and with trades unionists throughout Britain who seek to build solidarity against regressive law and not exclusion from it.
There is another question that those of us who will unite today in opposing the bill must consider: what will we do? I support those local government employers who have made clear that they will not pay the cost of removing check-off facilities—which is a privilege for which public sector unions actually pay the taxpayer—and nor should they be forced to abandon facility time, which is used to reduce conflict in the workplace. The Scottish Government must be clear that it will follow that lead in the national health service and across the Scottish public sector.
The Scottish Parliament must make it clear that the bill is not just bad law but a law that seeks to illegitimately interfere in the right of this place to make decisions about how public money is spent once it is in our control. To allow the law to be passed without the consent of this Parliament would be to fail to defend the power that we already have to take decisions in the best interests of those whom we represent.
For those reasons, we must demand the right to deny our consent to this desperate bill. I tell those members opposite, on the Conservative side of the chamber, that their amendment makes clear how uncomfortable they are rather than a case for supporting the bill.
If the Scottish Conservatives allow themselves to be dragged along with this policy, they will demonstrate themselves to be not optimists but a party whose weakness is there for all working people to see: exposed, and to be opposed.