Meeting date: Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 15 June 2016
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Economy, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Trade Union Membership
- Portfolio Question Time
- Point of Order
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Trade Union Membership
Trade Union Membership
The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-00246, in the name of Clare Haughey, on the increase in trade union membership in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament welcomes new figures showing that trade union membership in Scotland grew by 42,000 between 2014 and 2015; understands that Scotland was the only nation in the UK to see a proportional increase in trade union membership in this time period; considers that trade unions play an invaluable role in Scottish society, which should never be allowed to be diminished, and notes calls for workers in Rutherglen and across Scotland to ensure that they play their role in continuing the fight for workers’ rights by joining a trade union.17:08
As an active trade unionist and formerly a divisional convener with Unison, it is particularly satisfying for me to open tonight’s debate to welcome the recent increase in trade union membership in Scotland.
The trade union movement has a proud history of protecting workers’ rights that was born of a desire to combat exploitation and ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The rapid growth in mass industrial workplaces in the nineteenth century provided great wealth to those who sought to develop the new industries of the industrial revolution—be it textiles, iron, coal or steel—and the onset of mass manufacturing.
Those new industries were labour intensive and, being based mostly in larger towns and cities, drew much of their labour from a changing agricultural population. All over Europe and Britain people were moving. Towns and cities were growing and goods were being manufactured to feed the expansion of empires.
However, although great wealth was being created for some, life was often cheap. Poor working conditions prevailed and injury and death in factories and mines were commonplace. Who could forget accidents on the scale of the Blantyre explosion in 1877 in my constituency, when at least 215 men and boys perished? Indeed, the scale and frequency of mining and other industrial accidents across Scotland and Britain during that era was horrific.
It was from that background of poor pay, poor conditions and disregard for the value of workers’ lives that the first workers co-operatives and unions grew. However, every stage of the trade union movement’s development was to prove to be a struggle. As the number of trade-based unions grew—supporting members who could exercise their right to withdraw their labour for fair treatment—so gradually pay, terms and conditions improved.
The legacy of those hard-won benefits remains with us. Trade unions and collective bargaining have given us many of the benefits that are now so often taken for granted: a standard working day with paid breaks; the minimum wage; pay for overtime; paid holidays and public holidays; sick pay; paid maternity and, recently, paid paternity leave; the right to withdraw one’s labour when in dispute; and the right to representation.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will, if Neil Findlay will let me carry on a wee bit longer.
One of the greatest achievements of the trade union movement was ensuring the basic right of a safe place to work. Health and safety at work legislation would not be as rigorous as it is today without the work and sacrifice of trade union members over the past 130 years. Of course, terrible accidents can still occur; I ask Parliament to be mindful of the approaching 28th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster on 6 July.
The member listed a range of benefits that have been introduced as a result of pressure from the trade unions. Will she take the opportunity to congratulate the Labour Governments that introduced almost all those things?
I think that I will move on from that point.
At its peak in 1979, trade union membership in the United Kingdom stood in excess of 13 million—double the current figure. Of course, the industrial landscape has changed and, sadly, the traditional industries that I mentioned have declined—a decline that was outrageously mismanaged by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, with the underlying objective of undermining the trade union movement.
The shift to a more service-based economy has given us new high-turnover workplaces. There are also challenges there, with the increase in part-time work and zero-hours contracts. Those modem workplaces are more difficult to organise in and are notoriously resistant to trade union recognition. Nonetheless, employees in those workplaces benefit from the entitlements that were won by historical trade union pressure.
Although overall trade union membership is down significantly since 1979, it is pleasing to see the recent increase—in particular, in Scotland. The recently published statistical bulletin on trade union membership from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows a rise of 42,000 members in Scotland, from 688,000 to 730,000—just over 6 per cent—between 2014 and 2015. There are some interesting and welcome points among the bulletin’s key findings: that women are now more likely to be trade union members than men; that, in the teeth of Tory cuts, public sector membership is up; that private sector membership has increased for the fifth successive year; that trade union presence in the workplace is higher in Scotland than in the UK as a whole; and that employees in Scotland and Wales are more likely than workers in England to be trade union members.
There are, however, some points of concern: that older workers account for a higher proportion of members, with 39 per cent of membership over the age of 50; that full-time employees are more likely to be members than part-time ones; and that middle-income earners are more likely to be members than lower paid earners.
Trade union membership in post-industrial Scotland is as relevant and beneficial today as it was in the past. However, all the achievements that I have listed are now under threat from the current Tory UK Government’s Trade Union Bill, which I am proud to say this SNP Government, and our SNP members of Parliament in Westminster, with the support of this Parliament and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, have pledged to resist. That totally unnecessary proposed legislation is a threat to the fundamental rights of workers and threatens to undermine Scotland’s approach to industrial relations. There is no evidence to support the need for the legislation. The UK Government has made no attempt to consider the impact of the legislation in Scotland and, in particular, on our public services.
Although the Tories have been forced into various concessions as the bill has progressed, due to strong opposition from SNP MPs and the Scottish Government, it is still a regressive and vindictive proposed legislation that will undermine the positive employer-employee relationships that we currently enjoy in Scotland.
The achievements of the trade unions are also endangered by the threat of a leave vote in next week’s European Union referendum. Many employment benefits that we currently enjoy are enhanced and underpinned by EU legislation. I therefore urge trade union members across Scotland and the UK to vote to remain in order to ensure that those benefits are not eroded by the current Tory Government and future Tory Governments.
I am proud of the relationship that the Scottish Government has fostered with the unions and the STUC to ensure that we deliver a fairer deal for workers in Scotland. Unlike the Tories in Westminster, the Scottish Government does not see trade unions as the opposition or the enemy; rather, it sees them as our partners in delivering a fair work agenda.
Scotland’s proud trade union heritage is no longer the preserve of any one party; it belongs to all of us, regardless of the sector or the demographic. The benefits of trade union membership have helped to lay the foundations for us to work together to take Scotland forward, and we should encourage employees in all workplaces—especially younger employees—to join a union.
Strong and constructive trade unions are an essential element of a successful nation. They play a vital role in protecting workers’ rights, fighting for fair pay and building a better society. That is why I very much welcome the increasing trend in trade union membership.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Can you clarify whether the Parliament is in purdah for the EU referendum?
I will reflect on what was said during that speech and come back to you on that. Yes—we are in purdah, but I did not notice anything in the speech that breached that. However, I will reflect on it with the other Presiding Officers.17:16
I congratulate Clare Haughey on securing this debate on trade union membership.
I declare my interest as a member of the GMB and Unison.
I am, of course, whole-heartedly in favour of trade unions and the important role that they play in advancing rights in the workplace, and in delivering social and economic change across the country. They contribute hugely to the wellbeing of our country in defending the rights of individuals, collective bargaining for workplaces, influencing civic society and, indeed, influencing Government policy and action. I am therefore pleased that trade union membership has increased by 42,000 in Scotland, which takes the total up to 730,000. We have noted similar increases in the east midlands and the west midlands, as well as in the south-east of England.
Unions are as important now as they ever were, and people join them for a myriad of reasons. A person is likely to be paid 8 per cent more if they are in a union than if they are not for a comparable job, and a person is twice as likely to be low paid if they are not in a trade union. The job security of a person in a trade union is better—non-union firms are two and a half times as likely to sack workers—and they get fair treatment and representation should things go wrong.
Although their primary focus is on their members and their workplaces, of course, unions are about much more than that. Yes—they are a voice at the workplace, but they are also about improving lives for families, their communities and the country. Trade unions make a difference in every part of life, and they are at their best when they campaign for economic and social justice. We need only look at the better than zero campaign, which has been organised by young trade unionists and supported by the STUC, to see the truth in that. Those young trade unionists are taking on the issues of insecure work and low pay for young people across Scotland, and I commend their work to Parliament.
We cannot forget the role that trade unions played in shaping the Parliament through the constitutional convention, of course. We are grateful to them for that, too.
I want to pick up on two issues that were raised in the STUC’s comment about our debate. It is right to challenge us to do more than simply offer warm words. There are issues with procurement. Time after time, the Scottish Government rejected Labour amendments to the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Bill about issues including companies that blacklisted employees, paying the living wage, equal pay and more besides. [Interruption.] There was an opportunity to make a practical difference to workers across Scotland who are engaged in delivering £10 billion of public contracts each year. I regret to say that that was an opportunity missed.
The STUC also points to employers that actively prevent trade unions from recruiting. Surely we should not be awarding huge public sector contracts to companies that are anti-union, so I would be grateful if the minister would take that away for consideration. I should also say that I regret the mutterings from some of his colleagues behind him.
Finally, I am aware of the restrictions on members commenting on the EU referendum, but I simply want to make this observation: trade unions working across Europe have, with member Governments, fought for and secured a package of workplace rights—maternity rights, paternity rights, rights for part-time workers and much more besides—that have improved conditions across Europe. Let us remember that when we consider what to do on 23 June.
Presiding Officer, I must apologise to you and Parliament for leaving early—I have to chair a cross-party group meeting—but I want to finish by again congratulating Clare Haughey on bringing the debate to Parliament. Unlike her, however, I want to pay tribute to successive Labour Governments that have in the past, in partnership with trade unions, delivered rights for workers across the country, and will do so in the future.17:20
I thank Clare Haughey for lodging the motion, which welcomes an increase in trade union membership in Scotland and supports its continued growth.
Throughout history, trade unions have played an important part in employee rights and have successfully adapted to immense political and social changes. For decades, trade unions have served as arenas for open communication and bargaining to promote development not only in the economic sphere, through industrial organisation and wage negotiation, but in the social sphere, through the promotion of workers’ rights and responsibilities.
I congratulate trade unions on the immense progress that they have made in recent years on achieving a significant increase in membership from 688,000 in 2014 to 730,000 in 2015. I also recognise that the salaries of trade union members are 14 per cent higher than those of non-members, and I encourage the continuation of that progress, despite the economic hardships that Scotland may face.
Most of my working life has been spent in manufacturing as an engineer, so it was only natural that I became a member of the GMB. Many of the changes in working practices and conditions in the sector over the past 20 years can be attributed to constant pressure from the trade unions, especially the GMB. Indeed, in my last 10 years in manufacturing, I had the privilege of being a shop steward in the GMB—and I have to say that the ability to assist and help my fellow members made it one of my most rewarding experiences.
There is a lot at stake for trade union members on 23 June. I commend the European Union’s support for workers in initiating legislation that has enhanced employment protection, especially for part-time, temporary and migrant workers. I cannot stress enough that, as migration has increased, unemployment in Scotland has decreased. The EU has played a crucial role in implementing legislation on paid annual holidays, improved health and safety protection, the right to unpaid parental leave and the right to equal treatment to protect working people from exploitation and discrimination. The future of workers in the UK lies partly in the positive developments in EU employment law, and I encourage UK trade unions to continue to work hand in hand with their European partners and to build alliances to advance their social and political objectives.
We also need to take economic consequences into consideration. EU membership ensures access to the European Court of Justice and other human rights institutions. Without its protection, the security of workers’ rights for thousands of UK citizens could be eroded.
Although we live in a society that has more working women, those women are more likely to be paid less and often do not have a guarantee of job security. As a result, I praise trade unions’ recognition of the extremely important part that women play through ensuring that they have not only equal opportunity in the workplace but access to work itself. Women now make up the majority of trade union membership, and the gap between male and female employment is at its lowest ever, especially in comparison with the rest of the UK.
I also commend the offshore unions Unite, the RMT, the GMB and Nautilus International for creating the offshore co-ordinating group as a quick response to the collapse in oil prices that has happened since 2014. Although that collapse has had devastating consequences for the oil and gas workforce, the OCG has, since its establishment, been extremely successful in co-ordinating campaigns in relation to safety conditions, policy development and job security to ensure that trade unions make a positive contribution to achieving the objective of the UK and Scottish Governments to maximise economic recovery.
I again thank Clare Haughey for securing the debate. The voice of trade unions should not be ignored, and I encourage the Scottish and UK Governments, employers, regulators and agencies to listen. The existence of strong trade unions is vital to society in stimulating communication between workers and management, in providing advice and support to avoid major conflict and—most of all—in representing employees who do not, as individuals, have a voice.17:25
I, too, thank Clare Haughey for lodging the motion. I am sure that she will forgive me for focusing on supporting the motion rather than dealing with the wider debate on the UK proposals.
I appreciate that it might make Clare Haughey feel rather uncomfortable to hear that the Scottish Conservatives support her motion on trade union membership. My reasons for supporting it are a response to misconceptions that exist about the political leanings and endgames of the union movement and the Scottish Conservatives.
The commonly held caricature of trade unionists is not one that I recognise, nor is it one that I have really seen in my extensive dealings with them in more than a decade of practising employment law in the oil and gas sector. I do not accept that most people join a union because they are particularly political or of the hard left. On the contrary, I agree that the union movement is built on and was built by the workers—hard-working people who believed and still believe that there must be a floor of job security and workers’ rights as a counterbalance to the unfettered ability of an employer to source labour at the lowest price.
The modern union movement is about so much more than that. As well as campaigning for workers’ rights, it plays a vital role in defending health and safety in the workplace; ensuring vital representation for employees at disciplinary and grievance hearings; training its members to be more productive and better at what they do; and providing advice on everything from safety to pensions and continuous professional development. The training that the union movement provides is considerable, and I can say from personal experience that some, if not most, of my most formidable and impressive opponents down the years have been the regional organisers.
Let us not forget that the motion talks of union membership increasing in specific areas. In 2015, 55 per cent of union members were women, compared with 45 per cent some 20 years ago; the proportion of union members aged over 50 is increasing; and around 30 per cent of union members are professionals. As always, those who have the least voice are being given one by the union movement, and that is something that we can all celebrate.
Representing hard-working people, encouraging trade, creating opportunities and enabling people to work together in communities and groups to represent themselves and to give others a voice are Scottish Conservative values. It was Mrs Thatcher who cut the basic rate of tax from 33 per cent to 25 per cent to ensure that all workers could keep a higher proportion of their wages. It was today’s Conservative Party, with its long-term economic plan, that has brought in the national living wage, which will be subject to a mandatory rise and will reach more than £9 per hour. It was today’s Conservative Party that has lifted those who earn less than £11,000 a year out of income tax altogether—
Will the member give way?
Not when I have only four minutes.
The Conservative Party has done all that while increasing childcare provision south of the border, encouraging a renewed focus on apprenticeships and slashing unemployment to its lowest level ever.
There are many who claim the union movement as a Labour creation, but people often forget that it was the original one-nation Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, who initially gave workers the right to sue companies if they broke employment contracts and who allowed picketing. It was he who so memorably said:
“Power has only one duty—to secure the social welfare of the people.”
Mrs Thatcher herself held her first political office with Conservative trade unionists, and she created 250 branches across the country. In Scotland, it was the Scottish Conservatives who, in 2015, called for the Scottish Government to use the business rates system to incentivise firms who were prepared to pay a living wage.
Therefore, we support Clare Haughey’s motion. The Scottish Conservatives welcome the increase in union membership, we agree that the trade unions play and have played an invaluable role in Scottish society, and we look forward to them continuing to do so.17:29
I, too, congratulate Clare Haughey for placing the motion before us. She is a member of the SNP and a Unison activist. I am a member of the GMB union, Unite the union and, of course, the Labour Party.
In light of Clare Haughey’s comments, I reflected on the fact that, when I first joined the Transport and General Workers Union in 1985, the Tory MP Peter Bottomley was often in the union’s publicity, reminding us that it was possible to be a Tory and a trade union member, even during the Thatcher era—although I say to Liam Kerr that I am not quite sure that the workers at GCHQ or the National Union of Mineworkers would recognise his description of Margaret Thatcher as trade union friendly.
I recall that Walter Osborne—a Liberal Party member—took his union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, to court. That lead to the infamous Osborne judgment by the House of Lords in 1909, which gagged the trade union movement for three years; it also led James Keir Hardie to reflect that, with the trade unions gagged,
“one class can make the law, the other cannot.”
Anyone who believes that trade unions do not need a political voice needs to look at the Trade Union Act 2016. Politics is a legitimate concern of trade unions because places such as this Parliament determine the social and economic framework in which unions function. The 2016 act is a shadow of its original form but still carries with it profound questions, such as whether it is right for the Government of the day to deploy the whole apparatus of the state—the UK Parliament, the judiciary and the courts, a certification officer with new powers of inspection, and even the police—to wage an attack on working people’s ability to organise both to defend themselves and to advance their interests. For the avoidance of doubt, the legislation is not anti-Scottish; it is anti-working class. That is why I hold the view that we should stop separating people on the basis of nationality and start uniting them on the basis of class.
The imposition of a 50 per cent turnout rule and an additional 40 per cent support requirement for workers in health, education, fire, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security stays, too. That is not a matter of trade union administration or procedure; it is an attack on the basic universal human right to withdraw one’s labour. At its root, there is a moral question about the kind of society we live in. Many of the concessions around notice for industrial action, extensions to ballot mandates and even the check-off facility still require an employer’s agreement.
I have questions for the minister. What is his instruction to the parts of the state apparatus for which he has responsibility, including Police Scotland and the judiciary? In the devolved parts of the public sector for which he has responsibility as an employer, how will he stand up against any move to crack down on trade union facility time? How will he stand up to maintain check-off arrangements? If we want trade unions in Scotland to grow and flourish in future years, we need to know the answers to those questions.
It was Aneurin Bevan who said that the job of a Labour MP is not
“to plead mercy for the poor”
but to get
“political power for the masses.”
I firmly believe that real democracy will not be won, radical inequalities will not be ended, and the good society will not be built without strong trade unions and a major redistribution of power from the owners of wealth to its creators. I hope that we can all agree on that.17:33
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, which notes that I am an associate member of the National Union of Journalists. Although it is not a registrable interest, I should also put on record the fact that my party is a happy tenant of the STUC at its building in Glasgow.
I want to recognise not only the historical but the continuing role of trade unions, as many other members have done. It is very clear from the evidence—not just in this country but around the world—that at periods of high levels of trade union membership, and in a framework of strong trade union rights, there is greater economic equality in society. A smaller proportion of the national wealth is hoarded by those who need it the least, and a greater proportion goes into the pay packets of people on ordinary salaries and incomes. That is what we should be seeking to achieve and we should be under no illusion that we can build a more equal society without the trade union movement playing an important role.
Unlike others, I give recognition and credit where it is due to the actions of previous UK Labour Governments—as Neil Findlay suggested—in building the labour movement. I hope that he will agree that it would have been desirable if the Labour Government in the 1990s had reversed some of the anti-trade union legislation of the Thatcher era.
That agenda of undermining trade union rights continues. As Mr Leonard just mentioned, the Trade Union Act 2016, which was passed by the UK Parliament this year, betrayed the Conservative Party’s desire to continue undermining the rights of people to organise together. I was dismayed but not at all surprised to hear Mr Kerr use this debate to defend the UK Government’s divisive policies such as the sham living wage, which will only increase the labour exploitation of younger workers and which I have never heard defended by any trade union.
Whatever the result next week—I do not intend to stray over the line, Presiding Officer—
I thank you for that.
Whatever the result next week, those are still the people in power at the UK level. Those of us who want to have a strong trade union movement and to defend the rights of trade unions to act collectively must act together, overcoming the distrust that too often exists between political parties in Scotland.
There are other actions that we can take in Scotland. SNP members know that I give credit where it is due for the fair work agenda and the business pledge, but both need to go further. In particular, there is a need for greater conditionality in the fair work agenda. We should say clearly that—along with employers that pay poverty wages or exploit their employees with zero-hours contracts, employers that use tax havens and employers with a poor environmental record—employers that refuse to acknowledge and work with trade unions when their employees wish to join one should not have access to publicly funded support services, grants and loans. It is not rubbish, as a heckler suggested previously, to say that companies such as Amazon that have enjoyed such support in the past should be denied it in the future.
I wish that Scotland were able to legislate for itself to restore rights that have been taken away from the trade union movement. Until then, we must use every power that we do have. We should do more than make speeches about the value that trade unions create in our society. We should listen to their views on the decisions that we make here and we should oppose in every way possible those employers that refuse to build strong and respectful relationships with the trade unions that represent their employees.17:37
I declare my membership of Unite the union and the Educational Institute of Scotland.
I welcome the motion being brought to Parliament; I just wish that we had been allowed to debate the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill and that the Parliament had had the opportunity to vote on it. Sadly—wrongly, in my opinion—that opportunity was denied us. Clare Haughey raised the issue of the SNP’s opposition to the Trade Union Bill. I welcomed any opposition to that bill, which is now an act, but the reality is that it was campaigning outside Parliament by a broad coalition of people—trade unions and others—and by Labour members in the House of Lords that got rid of the worst aspects of the bill.
Trade unions are a force for good in society. All the major progressive social and economic policies that have been introduced over the past century and more have been supported and, more often than not, driven by the labour and trade union movement. Early trade unions campaigned to end the Combination Acts—the ban on collective organisation. They promoted the original people’s charter and the right to universal male suffrage and, later, votes for women. They achieved reductions in the working week, factories legislation, pensions, sick pay, holiday pay, time off at weekends, maternity pay, health and safety at work and all the rest of it. They have also played a key role in fighting fascism and supporting anti-racism campaigns, whether that be in Cable Street, in Barking and Dagenham, in Chile or in apartheid South Africa. All those things and more were achieved and driven by the labour and trade union movement, and almost all those key progressive workplace policies were introduced by Labour Governments, advancing the cause and rights of my class.
Patrick Harvie asked me to condemn the Labour Government in the 1990s for not doing more—or at least to comment in that regard. Of course it should have done more; I said so then and I have said so many times since. However, would it not be novel if anyone on the Government benches in this place criticised a Scottish Government policy? Let us see whether that happens in this session of Parliament; it certainly did not happen in the previous one.
There are so many ways in which we have all benefited from trade union campaigns, actions and victories. As members said, trade unionists, including women, and including workers in the private sector, earn more than non-union members.
That is all to the good, but if the Government truly believes that unionised workplaces are safer, happier and more productive, it must take concrete action to increase union membership. In taking such action, it will absolutely have our support. We welcome the fair work agenda, but there must be real commitment and action on the ground to bring about change.
What practical initiatives have been taken to help trade unions to recruit members? For example, are Scottish Government departments proactively encouraging regular trade union recruitment initiatives and going out of their way to facilitate recruitment? Does the Scottish Government make it clear to agencies and publicly funded bodies that they should facilitate recruitment? Do we put conditions on the award of grants to businesses, as Patrick Harvie said that we should do, to promote collective bargaining and unionisation?
During the previous debate, Richard Leonard said that out of more than 300,000 businesses, 272 have signed the business pledge. That is a tiny proportion, and the vast majority of those businesses are not unionised. I welcome businesses signing the pledge, but it is a drop in the ocean.
Employee forums, staff associations, toolbox talks, team meetings and intranet sites are no replacement for trade union representation and free collective bargaining.
I welcome the increase in trade union membership, but I add a caveat: membership density is higher in Wales and Northern Ireland than it is in Scotland. We should all do what we can to increase membership in Scotland and across the UK. As an internationalist, I think that we should do what we can to increase membership across the world, too.17:42
Like other members, I thank Clare Haughey for highlighting, in her first members’ business debate, the valuable and important role that trade unions play in making our workplaces fairer, more innovative and more productive—indeed, in making them better places in which to work.
Today we heard many examples of unions not only changing the lives of individual workers who had been treated unfairly but being instrumental in protecting the pay in people’s pockets and making strides towards improving safety at work. Clare Haughey mentioned the Blantyre explosion in 1877, and as a member who represents what was formerly a mining area, I know how deep the scars from such industrial accidents are. There have been massive improvements in workplace health and safety, largely because of the pressure that trade unions have applied. Tragedies still occur, but I am thankful that they are much rarer than they used to be.
Neil Findlay was right to talk about the international reach of the trade union movement. We have seen that in Scotland in the past. He talked about Chile, for example. We remember the action that workers at Rolls Royce in East Kilbride took in the 1970s, to reach out to people who were facing repression in Latin America.
Unions have shown leadership as they have worked to protect jobs when the economic climate meant that company closures and redundancies were on the horizon. We saw such activity bear fruit when Ferguson’s shipyard was threatened with closure. Many people gave the yard little chance of survival, but the Scottish Government set up a task force, with trade unions playing a pivotal role, and, two years on, Ferguson’s has not only survived but is winning orders, including public contracts, and there are plans for the workforce to increase tenfold. The shipyard is taking on new apprentices, who represent an investment in the future of the yard and in the future of our young people. Unions played a critical role in enabling that to happen.
More recently, the Scottish steel task force—this is relevant to Clare Haughey, as it affects her constituency—succeeded in finding a buyer for the two threatened steel plants at Dalzell and Clydebridge. Throughout that process, the Government worked closely with the Community union. That shows that, when the Government, industry and trade unions work together, we can achieve results. Our shared values and goals are set out in a memorandum of understanding with the STUC that captures our commitment to partnership working on strategic issues.
I am sure that we all welcome the general sentiment, but I am keen to understand the Government’s position on a point of principle. Does the minister agree that it should not be up to employers to decide whether to recognise a trade union and that it should be up to the employees to choose whether to organise in that way? Does he accept that employers should have a responsibility to recognise and work with unions if their employees wish to form or join one?
I was making the point that it is much better to have such an environment. Employers play a critical role in allowing trade unions to have the full capacity to organise on the basis of allowing workers to associate freely with one another.
I was going to make the point, which I might re-emphasise in a slightly different context, that I very much agree with a point that Patrick Harvie made earlier. It would be better if this legislature had significantly more leeway and discretion than it has in exercising its legislative competence. In that way, we could influence things better. However, in the general terms that he laid out, I am happy to say that it is important that workers are allowed the capacity to come together collectively, which relates to our partnership working with trade unions.
We operate a partnership approach. It is perhaps unfair to pick up on a brief remark by Liam Kerr, but I thought that it was telling that he said that many of his most formidable opponents have been trade unionists. That is probably true, but the comment speaks somewhat of a certain mindset. This Administration views our trade union colleagues not as opponents but as valued partners.
Will the minister give way?
As I named Liam Kerr, I am happy to give way.
As I was an employment lawyer who acted principally for companies, regional organisers were typically my opponents. I meant no slight by my wording.
I am happy to have facilitated the opportunity for Mr Kerr to clarify his remarks, but he might forgive my previous cynicism, given the general outlook of many of us about the Conservative position on trade unions and trade unionists.
As an Administration, we recognise that the STUC and trade unions are vital partners in taking forward our vision for a wealthier and fairer Scotland. In a statement today, Grahame Smith welcomed the approach that the Scottish Government takes to trade unions. I believe that that spirit of co-operation has contributed to the increase in trade union membership in Scotland from 2014 to 2015. That increase is interesting and is in stark contrast to the overall decline in the past four decades.
Will the minister take an intervention?
I am coming up against my time limit, but I have a little leeway.
There is a little time in hand if the minister wants to give way.
Did the Scottish Government regard itself as opposing the trade unions when it resisted the idea that people who benefit from public contracts should pay the living wage and the idea that organisations that exploit their workforces, such as Amazon, should not be given Government grants? Was that opposing or supporting trade unions?
That issue has been picked up by a number of members. Perhaps they are a little behind the times, because we have published statutory guidance on the selection of tenders and the award of contracts, which addresses fair work practices in procurement, including the living wage. We have also laid regulations in relation to concerns about blacklisting—I know that Neil Findlay, who is sitting right next to Johann Lamont, has done a lot of work on raising those concerns. We have laid regulations on how companies that have been found to have been guilty of blacklisting can be prohibited from receiving public contracts. There has been some work—
Will the member take an intervention?
I must allow the minister to wind up.
I am being told to wind up, but I would be happy to speak to Mr Findlay at any time about any of these matters.
Before I finish, I want to refer to the Trade Union Act 2016. I am delighted that the opposition of this Administration, other legislatures and, primarily, the trade union movement itself led to some concessions from the UK Government. However, I do not think that those concessions go far enough. I say with respect to Liam Kerr that what are perhaps misconceptions about the Conservative Party in relation to trade unions do not come out of nowhere. The Trade Union Bill was nothing short of an attack on the right of labour to organise itself, so we can see that those misconceptions do not come from nowhere. We set out our opposition to the bill.
It would be better if this legislature had greater leeway and legislative control over trade union matters. Sadly, we do not. Short of that, I look forward to Scotland’s unions continuing their role in representing their members’ interests and I look forward to their continued partnership working with this Government to advance the fair work agenda.Meeting closed at 17:51.