Socialist Worker

We must force Dewar to listen

Issue No. 1716

Council workers in Scotland strike over pay

We must force Dewar to listen

"THIS SHOWS what we can do if workers stand united. I want to see the unions calling more action like this."

So said a bin worker in Edinburgh as a second one-day strike by local government workers in Scotland rocked council bosses on Wednesday of last week. About 80,000 members of the UNISON union who work for Scotland's 32 councils were on strike.

"The anger over the councils' offer of a 2.5 percent pay increase is immense," Robin Taggert, UNISON's services and conditions officer at Inverclyde council, told Socialist Worker.

"The strike has gone even better than the one three weeks ago. There has been strong support from workers in other unions. Members of the TGWU, AEEU and UCATT unions have refused to cross picket lines."

The union is demanding a 5 percent pay increase or �500 a year, whichever is greater. A striking nursery nurse from Falkirk told Socialist Worker, "We need that kind of increase. Our training takes two years. We start on just �9,500 a year. I've been doing this job for 12 years and I get �12,000 a year. You saw the truckers' protests last week. Well, you'd better keep a look out, because there'll be protests like that by nursery nurses if they don't listen to us."

The striking Edinburgh bin worker also spoke about the fuel blockades. He is in the TGWU union and was one of 30 workers who refused to cross a UNISON picket line at the Russell Road depot.

He said, "It's all very well TGWU leaders telling people to cross the lorry owners' pickets. But this is a picket by fellow trade unionists. When are our leaders going to instruct us not to cross picket lines rather than leave it up to us all the time? In fact, when are we going to be fighting for things we need?"

Over 5,000 people have joined UNISON in Scotland over the last month in order to be part of the strike. But their enthusiasm is not reflected by the union leaders.

They called a national demonstration for Wednesday in Edinburgh, the site of the Scottish Parliament. But there was no attempt to turn that into a blockade of the parliament, or even into a major demonstration.

Some 2,500 strikers joined the march. Five coaches came from Glasgow. Many more strikers and their supporters, such as users of council services, wanted to go. "But getting a coach ticket was like getting in to a football cup final," said one worker.

"People's confidence has grown through the dispute. But there has been little attempt to build big pickets and protests," said Gordon Martin, a social worker in East Renfrewshire.

"People feel so betrayed by New Labour. The Scottish National Party will pick up support. So too will the Scottish Socialist Party." The union leaders are frightened of unleashing the bitterness of council workers and others in Scotland against New Labour.

Keeping the battle against low pay and council cuts contained has percolated down to some union branch officials and stewards who are worried about the Tories' rise in the opinion polls.

One shop steward in Edinburgh told Socialist Worker, "We've got to take on the employers. But I don't want to see the Tories picking up from the turmoil."

Matt Smith, Scottish secretary of UNISON, told the rally in Edinburgh, "We are fighting the employers-the councils-and they are controlled by all parties." But New Labour dominates Scottish councils and the Scottish Executive.

Bitterness with New Labour has not benefited the Tories in Scotland. The SNP has risen in the polls. It is seen to be to the left of New Labour.

"We have got no alternative but to fight," one striker from Fife told Socialist Worker. It will lift everyone's confidence if we win. It can force New Labour to listen to our concerns, not to big business. The public know we are taking on politicians like Donald Dewar. That's why they support us."

Scottish finance minister Jack McConnell announced an extra �1.2 billion for councils in the future. He says there is no new money to meet this year's pay claim.

UNISON has called another day of action for Wednesday 11 October. It says it will announce indefinite strikes by particular sections before then. These steps are welcome. But more militant strike action is needed to win the full pay claim.

"We should be getting people who use our services to join us in blockades and protests," said two strikers who made their own way to the Edinburgh demonstration from Midlothian.

Activists need to build on those feelings at work and fight from the bottom up for that kind of action.


New leader pulls to right

THE NEW Scottish National Party leader John Swinney wants to move the party to the right in search of the votes of "Middle Scotland".

Swinney won decisively against Alex Neil at the party conference last week. In his victory speech Swinney spoke about "enterprise society" and used other pro-business language.

Neil began his campaign with a more left wing platform. But by the end the big difference between the two was the question of the possible road to independence. Swinney wants a generally New Labour set of politics and a gradual move to independence. Neil wanted more emphasis on a quick break from the union with England.

The election dominated the conference. But in the background was a distinct move rightwards. On fuel tax the SNP gave full support to the hauliers and farmers. Not one speaker mentioned oil company profits, who owns and controls North Sea oil, or the need to develop a publicly-owned transport system.

Transport spokesperson Kenny MacAskill pronounced the fuel tax would prove to be "Labour's poll tax". But that ignores the different class forces involved in the poll tax revolt and the fuel blockades.

Most leading people in the SNP know their best chance electorally is to try to focus disillusion with New Labour by offering a more left wing alternative. On some issues the difference is clear. Delegates unanimously passed a motion condemning the scapegoating of refugees and calling for cash benefits, not vouchers.

The SNP supports restoring the link between pension and average earnings, although with no backdating of the money. The party called for a higher minimum wage-but did not put a figure on it. The conference unanimously condemned New Labour's plan for mass stock transfer of housing out of the public sector.

Executive member Tom Chalmers said tenants should not be "blackmailed, bribed and bullied into accepting a change of ownership".

But in general the conference was more right wing than previous years. The party made great play of putting an anti-poverty strategy at the centre of its work-but, in contrast to previous years, there was no detail.

The biggest cheers at the conference were for speakers who called for independence without any reference to class issues.

There was hardly a mention of the council workers' strikes even though most of the delegates support the strikers' case. It is an indictment of New Labour that the SNP, with all its weaknesses, is leading in the polls and winning the support of workers who do not share the nationalists' vision of the world.

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Sat 30 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1716
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