Fraternal greetings to Northern Irish trade unions fighting for “better work, better lives”

Lynn Henderson, STUC Vice President and PCS National Officer, at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Northern Ireland Committee on Wednesday 11th  April 2018.

Each time I’ve visited your conference, I’ve been grateful to learn from your debates, your drive and, this year especially, your commitment to making sure that workers’ rights remain at the top of the agenda, even in these most difficult of times.

So I want to begin by offering not only my gratitude, but by bringing a message of solidarity from the Scottish Trade Union Congress and our trade union movement in Scotland.

I also want to extend a message of hope, to tell you about our movement’s successes in Scotland and to share our recent experiences of building workers’ power.

And yes, there are differences between us: no one could have predicted the cloud that now covers the 20 years celebration of the Good Friday Agreement.

But I think there are great similarities between us too. Because the issues faced by workers here are the issues faced by workers at home and Better Work, Better Lives could have been our own Congress’ theme too.

Like in Ireland, North and South, Scottish society suffers from an inequality so grotesque it is unimaginable.

Our political leaders talk merrily about healthy unemployment statistics and stable government. Our politicians offer ‘national discussions’ on tax progressivity and workplace fairness. And now, with our new powers, the parliament is awash with chatter about this ‘brave, new Scotland’.

But if you were to listen, like I do, to the quiet conversations between ordinary people, then you’d hear about a very different nation.

Scottish society is still fundamentally divided between the world inhabited by our millionaires and billionaires – we have nine billionaires now, a record for us – and the world inhabited by 250,000 children who living in poverty. Our landowners are the most privileged in Europe; their experience is a world away from the 1 in 6 Scottish pensioners who live in poverty. Overall, the wealthiest 1% in Scotland own more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. And tragically, two thirds of Scottish people in poverty are working – with many of them are educated to a level our grandparents could only dream of.

Low growth, stagnating wages and falling living standards are not unique to Scotland, but they are undoubtedly part of our country’s landscape.

It is a cruel irony that one of the biggest contributors to modern poverty, is work. Poverty wages and precarious work are on the rise. Workers’ wages now just won’t stretch to the end of month. The use of bogus self-employment business models is increasing, with reliance on agency work becoming widespread.

Poor quality work and unfulfilling jobs shamefully dominates social care, in hospitality and in construction. These workers routinely face: low pay; insecure work; long hours; and unsafe workplaces.

PFI is literally crumbling in Scotland. Oxgangs primary in Edinburgh, where 9 tonnes of masonry in a school wall collapsed into the playground due to failings in construction.

The Cole report revealed systematic failings in the construction sector, with workers chronically deskilled by the approaches taken in the industry. Practices like ‘paying workers by the brick’ created perverse disincentives and directly led to the school wall’s collapse. The report also found that poor practices were widespread across the sector.

19 other PFI buildings in the city have been identified as having the same safety issues. These include our schools, libraries, community centres, care homes and a nursery. That’s 20 unsafe public buildings, where serious injury or the loss of life is a very real possibility, as a direct result of unfair work practices. And this is only in Edinburgh alone. Let me be clear: PFI is theft, nothing more, nothing less. Edinburgh’s new Royal Infirmary, cost a private firm £148 million to build, but will be paid for by the people at a cost of £1.26 billion– and we’ll still never own it.

Imagine taking a huge mortgage on a house only to find out that at the end of the loan, you still don’t own your home and the walls are falling down around you.

These problems are not just Scottish problems, nor are the answers. So I hope I can now tell you about some of our solutions, and share with you some of the lessons we’ve learned.

Firstly, to tackle the rise in precarious work, the STUCs ‘better than zero’ campaign, led by teenagers and twenty-somethings, has focused on call centres, shops and hotels, the private businesses that have boomed in our low wage economy. Better Than Zero gives a voice to young workers to expose poor practices; raises awareness of insecurity through imaginative direct action and campaigning; and encourages young workers to organise themselves.

And best of all? They’re winning victories. During the recent extreme weather, the STUC BTZ Facebook Survey “how cold is your boss” got tens of thousands of “hits” and thousands of rich examples of Jack Frost bosses. By knowing their rights and having some confidence, workers have been able to challenge bad practises and discover the power of collective action.

What began as a leverage campaign is now a genuine grass roots organisation, with young people joining unions and beginning to organise their own workplaces.

Secondly, to challenge the scourge of poor quality jobs, unfulfilling work and anti-union practises the STUC negotiated a Fair Work Agreement with the Scottish Government. Fair work is about ensuring a workers’ voice in their workplace, high levels of training and skills and good quality public services and infrastructure. It doesn’t sound particularly radical. But it gives us a framework to challenge the Scottish Government where it shows any complicity with the worst employers.

Thirdly, the STUC is delivering a renewed organising agenda that helps affiliate unions organise workers. With Scottish Government funding, our Union Modernisation Fund offers a direct and positive response to counter the Tories’ Trade Union Act. We are supporting unions across Scotland to raise workers voices for Fair Work outcomes.

The projects are creating space for conversations with workers that need to be had on the power of unions, on the value of effective voice and on the need for increased and a more diverse trade union membership and higher collective bargaining coverage.

And one way of doing this is to seriously having a look under-representation of women, BAME, LGBT, disabled and young workers in our movement.

I am personally committed to developing a new initiative which I have named “Step Aside, Brother”.  It is about asking all those experienced male trade union reps to consider stepping aside from just one of their many, many important positions in order to mentor a woman or someone from an under-represented group into a more active role. Leading from the front, brothers!

Fair work is also about collectivising our response to sexual harassment in the workplace. The Me-Too campaign helped individuals speak up, but workplace harassment will only stop if we as trade unionists organise workers to demand better treatment at work.

Raising workers voices against sexual harassment, for reproductive rights and equal marriage is as important to our movement as demanding better pay and conditions.

Across the UK and Ireland, we must push back against the neo-liberal agenda: to reinvigorate our movement and to rebalance power away from the top and towards workers. And the stakes have never been higher. We’ve had nearly a decade of Tory austerity, which has reversed much of our hard-won post-War social legacy in Britain. But it’s got worse, because the disaster of austerity in Britain has helped give the DUP the balance of power in Westminster, threatening both the peace in Ireland and the religious and personal liberties of everyone in Britain.

In Brexit, we all face a serious challenge which will likely place further strain on our already fragile economy. I don’t need to tell you of risks, standing here in this city. You all know too well the inter-relationship of our economy with “a” or “the” single market.  A hard border will place trade, livelihoods and peace in jeopardy.

Add to that, questions around freedom of movement and the protection of wider social, consumer and environmental protections, not to mention workers’ rights. The situation is critical.

No matter what the future holds, our message is clear: strong trade unions means better work and better lives.

The best solution to our shared problems lies in building workers’ power. No politicians, no well-meaning reforms, and no amount of talk about being progressive will significantly improve our lives if we do not build power in every workplace, in every industry, in every town, city and country.

In every post-Brexit scenario the economy will contract. Ultimately whatever package is negotiated behind closed doors, our economy and our communities need strong unions that can protect the interests of workers, now more than ever.

In these times, we must maintain strong relationships between all the trade union centres across the UK, Ireland and Europe. Our struggle has never known any borders before, nor will it now. I’ve always believed that labour is labour regardless of where you sell it. Our skills are bought and sold as commodities, and, until we’re organised, we’re subject to the laws of the global marketplace. That’s why we are strongest as internationalists: that’s always been part of the DNA of the working-class as a movement.

With trade union strength, we can hold the powerful to account. That’s how we’ll turn around the challenges we face and win improvements for our class. Our task today is to rebuild that unity of purpose; to rebuild powerful workers collective organisations. If we want solutions to our economic and social problems, then it is the only effective route to dignity; to better work and better lives.

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