Don’t believe the hype! Unions can win in difficult times

14 Jun

Alexander Dennis Enviro 300 - photo by Graham Richardson

– by Peter Welsh

The anger and initial defiance among trade unions to the opening shots of the Con-Dem austerity agenda has also been more than tinged with a sense of foreboding; a worry about the longer-term impact of a renewed right-wing assault on the terms, conditions and rights of ordinary working people

History tells us we should be worried.  The cold calculation of Thatcherism cracked the collective spirit of many communities across the country and her governments strategically installed a legislative agenda that significantly contributed to the halving of UK trade union membership over the last thirty years.

But let’s also be honest, areas of the trade union movement didn’t help themselves either.  Factionalism and inertia emerged.  We all know the story – sweetheart deals, the servicing model of trade unionism, union competition and the undercutting of collective agreements to secure membership.  When we look back on our response to the era of globalisation up to the financial crash, it won’t be with any sense of achievement.

What we should do is learn the lessons of the not too distant past which in turn should compel us to be more strategic and collective in our bargaining, campaigning and politics.  That’s a broader challenge and one that deserves more oxygen than can be provided in a simple commentary like this.

However, consider this for now:  If the cut and gut agenda will largely be implemented at the local level, then surely local level collective action will be a crucial component in the fight back?  Furthermore, can we analyse our workplaces and sectors forensically and bring forward compelling arguments to counter the cuts agenda before it happens?

Unite Scotland has spelled out the importance of local campaigning previously.  Trade unionists shouldn’t be daunted by this; after all good examples have been set already by Scottish-based comrades.

We can take inspiration from recent trade union victories where campaigns were conducted from the shop-floor up, lay- member led and achieved under the radar of mass media.  Perhaps you don’t know about them because no strikes were involved and no tense negotiations conducted in the public domain.  There was only a pro-active, informed campaign ran by ordinary working people that demonstrated to politicians and employers alike that there was a better way to the alternatives of redundancies and closures.

The Alexander Dennis (ADL) story charts a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of Scotland’s only bus manufacturer.  In Christmas 2009 its 900-strong workforce voluntarily agreed to undertake a three day working week in response to the economic difficulties faced by the Falkirk based company in the post-financial crash period.  With significant gaps in the order book and having already suffered job losses in previous years, ADL’s future looked bleak.

The workers’ frustration was exacerbated not only by the bespoke production line operating under capacity or by the highly skilled workforce desperate for more work, but also in the fact that they were sitting on the potential of a winning lottery ticket they could not cash in the form of the hybrid bus technology they could offer – cleaner, greener and more accessible buses that would fulfil all future emissions and legislative demands for the industry.

The workforce and their union representatives took their plight to the Scottish Parliament and to lobby the MSPs on the need for investment at ADL to secure world-class jobs and skills in Falkirk for future generations.  The Green Bus Fund incentive scheme was the hook.  Bus service operators in England & Wales were benefitting from a £30million funding pot that allowed them to tender for additional monies required to purchase hybrid-tech vehicles so why couldn’t Scotland have a pro-rata equivalent of £3million?

This would allow Scottish transport authorities and commercial bus operators to phase-in low carbon and accessible buses and give ADL an opportunity to meet market demand with their hybrid bus technology. The workforce brought the force of their argument to Scottish Parliamentarians, emphasising four key principles to save their factory:

  • Fresh orders for a new generation of Scottish bus build;
  • World-class bus manufacturing at ADL in Falkirk;
  • Quality Scottish jobs and skills for future generations; and
  • The provision of world-class transport for the Scottish public.

Despite gaining extensive cross-party support and also securing a parliamentary debate on their campaign, the Scottish Government initially tried to kick the workers’ demands into the political long grass by shuffling figures in the Scottish Bus Service Operators Grant.  After being slammed by trade unions and the wider bus industry, the Scottish Government then u-turned their position in June 2010 by announcing the launch of a £3.4 million subsidy scheme.  By November the scheme closed to bidders with £4.4 million being confirmed in subsidies to bus operators to buy green.

With funding provided for fifty buses, ADL is the prime beneficiary of the Green Bus Fund, as the workers always believed it would be, with forty-six of the fifty orders placed with the Falkirk manufacturer for their hybrid technology buses. Furthermore, following the announcement in January that ADL secured a £25million contract to supply vehicles to New Zealand-based operator NZ Bus, the future outlook for the workforce looks significantly better than it did only eighteen months ago.

The basic principles that ran consistently throughout the ADL campaign were:

  • Active, organised and educated memberships with niche knowledge of their own particular workplaces and industries;
  • Strong Unite official representation with the confidence and experience to let the members lead;
  • Political campaigning and research support facilitating every step of the members’ campaigns, on demand and time-bound; and
  • The crucial principle that politicians are encouraged to engage with and support union campaigns – but not lead.

And while these principles may not be universally applicable to every campaign or dispute, they should provide Unite members in Scotland with some food for thought in how they can carry forward a pro-active agenda in their own workplaces, industrial sectors and in their communities.

This is set against the backdrop of a harsh reality.  Employers remain subject to the same volatile market conditions we have seen across the economy in 2010 and will continue to experience throughout the rest of 2011 and beyond.  Government will intensify the cuts  in the coming months and years – it’s the political ideology they have committed themselves to.   We have a hell of a fight on our hands.  There can be no room for complacency with the real impact of austerity yet to hit in both the public and private sectors.  All workers are under threat, it’s the only thing we are ‘all in together’.

However, the ADL campaign shows what pro-active and informed lay member activism can achieve.  It should serve as a positive example to trade unionists across Scotland who are already feeling embattled in their workplaces and communities by the cuts and the threat of cuts.

Trade unions can still win when we set the agenda.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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