Standing on the shoulders of giants

2 May

By Pat Rafferty, Unite Scottish Secretary

Recent events have compelled many of us in the Scottish trade union movement to look to our past achievements as inspiration for the struggles of the present and, indeed, the near future.

This is crystallised in the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute which have been taking place over the last six months. The UCS work-in continues to be a symbol of everything that is good about the Scottish labour movement, a now legendary collective of working-class people successfully defending their jobs and communities in the face of a hostile government.

The enduring example set by these proud people, cannily and eloquently led by two immortals of the Scottish labour movement in Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, resonates stronger today than ever before. Today’s trade unionists can learn much from the UCS work-in.

Resisting the austerity agenda of this Con-Dem government across the UK, and fighting for an alternative to a dying neoliberal agenda across Europe and the rest of the world, is the challenge that falls on this generation. The current political terrain means that our task couldn’t be more difficult but organisation, education and agitation – key tenets of the UCS campaign – can change hearts, minds and policies.

The UCS campaign touched all facets of community and country – from people of fame to people of faith, a working-class struggle that transcended the class divide, outmanoeuvred a mouthpiece media and laid bare the corporate greed agenda of a Tory government.

The game hasn’t changed much since 1971. The opponents are still the same, using the same underhand tactics. But the giants of the UCS have left us a legacy that demonstrates how we can still win and it’s a template that can be followed locally, nationally and internationally.

In the build-up to the 2011 STUC conference in Ayr, I argued that trade unions needed to get back to our roots. We need to reinvigorate our lay members in our communities and workplaces by giving them the campaigning, education and organising tools to tackle the cuts agenda themselves. As delegates gather in Inverness for the 2012 STUC conference I believe we are working towards achieving this objective, in small steps maybe but we’re making progress.

On November 30 over two million public-sector workers across all occupational sectors, from the cleaner to the speech therapist, marched to protect their modest pension entitlements. Throughout the autumn and winter workers across the British construction sector ran a robust grass-roots campaign to defeat the Besna cuts which would have reduced terms and conditions across the industry by up to 30 per cent.

Increasingly, ordinary people across the country are taking on governments and billion-pound corporations with the clear message that they will resist ideological and opportunistic cuts to jobs and conditions and they will fight for what is right and fair.

And when we do this we are standing on the shoulders of giants who have shaped our labour movement, giants like Reid and Airlie and the workers of the UCS.

I strongly believe we are witnessing the revival of people power. People, not politicians are creating change wherever it occurs. Like the Besna dispute, we are seeing examples every day across our workplaces and sectors in Unite.

And the need is urgent because the challenges are significant and plenty, locally and globally.

Just look at youth unemployment which is spiralling out of control with more than one million 16-24 year olds (over 22.5 per cent) across the UK out of work, the highest levels since comparable records began in 1992.

But the national average merely hides geographical and demographic variations which paint a far bleaker picture which we in Scotland feel more acutely than others. Geographically, economic black-spots in Scotland like North Ayrshire have been burdened by youth unemployment rates averaging at more than 30 per cent over the last two years.

Yet such are the new depths being reached across Europe, so-called “experts” have argued our crisis is fortunate compared to others. In Greece and in Spain youth unemployment hovers around or above 50 per cent. That’s a catastrophe, not a crisis, and as champions of social justice it is a burden we all share whether we live in Ayrshire or Athens.

Ultimately, the struggle is the same and we should never forget that as the forces of divide and rule constantly conspire to undermine us. So what we as a movement do today will undoubtedly resonate tomorrow.

The labour movement is very much on the right track once again, we’re reinvigorated with a fresh and much-needed focus on lay member democracy and transparency. Yes, the challenges are massive but recent trends in our movement should also encourage and inspire.

With this in mind I reiterate the call I made 12 months ago in this very paper: Let’s keep doing everything we can to empower our trade union grass-roots to lead themselves, industrially, socially and politically. Keep learning the lessons of history, just like the example of the UCS, and use it to stoke the fires of activism which can deliver change today and in the near future.

And above all organise, educate and agitate.

This article was first published in the Morning Star, Monday 23rd April 2012 –



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