Do we still need trade unions? It’s a big question, but with a simple answer: of course we do. They’re hugely important because they promote rights in the workplace and good employment practice.
They’re a key contributor to social justice, to the prosperity of individuals, to economic competitiveness – indeed, to democracy itself.
Anyone who thinks trade unions aren’t relevant to rural areas such as the Borders should remember that the movement really started in 1832 with the Tolpuddle Martyrs – agricultural workers from a tiny Dorset village asserting their rights.
These days unions are built into the fabric of our society. But the Tory government at Westminster is trying to dramatically restrict their rights with a controversial bill which is currently going through the Commons.
I and the rest of the SNP are determined to oppose this legislation. It’s a vicious assault on the rights of working people, moving more power from the employee to the employer and attacking civil liberties. Indeed, the TUC General Secretary has said that it will make legal strikes close to impossible.
Of course, everyone wants harmonious industrial relations, and by and large, that’s what we have. The 704,000 working days the UK lost to strikes in the 12 months to April 2015 may seem like a large number until you look back to the 1970s, when the average figure was 13 million days a year. So relations are actually now pretty good.
It’s astonishing that, at a time when the economy is so fragile, our membership of the EU is in crisis, poverty is rising and food banks are everywhere, the UK government should consider this sort of attack on civil liberties to be a priority.
Some of the proposals are hugely restrictive. For instance, the planned requirement for a 50% turnout for a strike ballot with, in the case of essential public services, 40% of the electorate having to back a walkout before it can be legal.
It clearly hasn’t occurred to the government that many of their politicians, especially at local level, are elected on less than a 50% turnout, or that a whole bundle of their MPs elected last May couldn’t manage 40% of the vote – including, ironically, Business Secretary Sajid Javid.
The Tories are even consulting on making it compulsory for unions to tell employers and police in advance what they are planning to post on Facebook and Twitter during a strike. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in Stalin’s Russia, not the UK.
The legislation still has to go through committee stage in the Commons, and I and my SNP colleagues will be seeing if we can get it amended. We believe in a modern and progressive approach to industrial relations and trade unionism, rather than this draconian and damaging agenda.
Scotland is a cohesive society, built on tolerance, respect and democracy. Our way forward is the right way – co-operation rather than confrontation, with the unions given the place they deserve.
I’ll be doing everything I can to keep it that way.