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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 17 April 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, NHS Tayside, Air Quality, Burntisland Fabrications, Decision Time, Aberdeen Trades Union Council


Aberdeen Trades Union Council

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-10859, in the name of Lewis Macdonald, on the 150th anniversary of Aberdeen Trades Union Council. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.


Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

It is an honour to mark the 150th anniversary of Aberdeen Trades Union Council today, just as it is a personal honour to be designated as a consultative member of the ATUC.

I am grateful to members from across the chamber who have signed my motion, and to all those who will speak in the debate. I am also delighted that Donna Clark and Laura McDonald from the executive committee of the ATUC are here with us today. The ATUC president, Kathleen Kennedy, and other colleagues would have been here too, were it not for the fact that this debate coincides with the annual gathering of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Aviemore, which they could not miss. My party leader is there, too, otherwise he would no doubt have hoped to take part in this debate.

I know that Richard Leonard would want me to offer his congratulations on this important milestone, so highly does he value the contribution of all our trades councils to the wider labour and trade union movement. That movement had its origins in local societies of skilled crafts workers, bringing together members of a single craft in a town or city to protect wages, conditions and access to work. Such local societies made common cause with others in the same trade in other parts of the country, forming first federations and then amalgamated societies: the first national trade unions.

At the same time as those were being formed, an equally important development was taking place. Whereas trade unions were formed from the coming together of members of a single trade in different places, trades councils were formed by workers joining hands across different trades and industries in a single area. That joining of hands is symbolised in the badge of Aberdeen TUC. The trade union movement that we know today combines both those kinds of solidarity—industrial and geographic. Aberdeen Trades Council played a vital role in making that happen in the latter part of the 19th century. Even before then, Aberdeen was at the forefront of the workers movement. Local craft unions were active back in the 1700s; non-craft seafarers were combining to take industrial action as early as 1792; and an Aberdeen female operatives union led a five-week strike of textile factory workers in 1834.

Aberdeen trade unionists were among the first to organise across trades and among less skilled workers. In an industrial city many miles from other industrial areas, local solidarity was as important as national unions, and it was from that recognition that Aberdeen Trades Council was born. To this day, that matters for trade unionism in Aberdeen. The offshore co-ordinating group in the oil and gas industry, for example, brings together unions of crafts and catering workers, seafarers and helicopter crews, entirely in line with that long-established culture of working together across sectors.

The creation of a single trades council in 1868 was the culmination of years of effort in that direction. Aberdeen Trades Council soon had 50 delegates from more than 20 trades in such industries as construction, granite working and shipbuilding, as well as from a society of general labourers. It was thanks to the leadership of the trades council that non-crafts workers were able to join together in general and industrial unions earlier in Aberdeen than almost anywhere else. By the 1880s, when similar organisations were just getting started in other places, dock labourers, seafarers, gas stokers and farm servants were all organised and affiliated through local societies to Aberdeen Trades Council.

The Trades Union Congress representing trade unions and trades councils across Great Britain and Ireland met in Aberdeen in 1884, with the president of Aberdeen Trades Council presiding.

It was Aberdeen Trades Council that called a conference in 1895 to address the issue of solidarity across different trades in Scotland—an initiative that led to the creation of the STUC. It is therefore fitting that we debate the anniversary of Aberdeen Trades Council in the week of the STUC gathering, because the two have been closely linked from the outset. Not only that, but the STUC continues to represent local trades councils in a way that the TUC does not. Aberdeen Trades Union Council has three delegates at this week’s Scottish congress, who will be voting on the same basis as national trade unions. Jimmy Milne, who led Aberdeen Trades Council in the post-war years, went on to lead the STUC.

The distinctive character of the STUC, and of trade unionism in Scotland, owes a great deal to the history and character of trade union organisation and action in Aberdeen. The unique circumstances of the granite city and the need for local solidarity in the face of geographic disadvantage have been writ large, not just in Aberdeen but in a Scottish trade union movement that sustains the same principles of diversity and solidarity at both national and regional level.

So, too, with political action. The Rev CC MacDonald, the Gaelic-speaking minister of St Clement’s parish church in Fittie, told the TUC at its Aberdeen congress in 1884:

“It is not enough for you to exercise the franchise ... You must represent yourselves”.

Aberdeen Trades Council was one of the first in Britain to put forward independent working-class candidates for school boards, for the local council and for Parliament.

That tradition, too, remains strong. Leading lights in Aberdeen Trades Council in recent years, such as Ronnie Webster and Jurgen Thomaneck, have also been leading lights in the local Labour Party and local government—trade unionists working across trades; seeking political change; and looking beyond their own members, too.

Aberdeen trade unionists backed the recent action by local bus drivers in defence of their terms and conditions, just as the trades council came together to back the stonemasons in 1868 and to organise the general strike in 1926, but that solidarity is not with local trade union members alone. Just as Aberdeen Trades Council took action in support of the victims of Highland clearances in the 1890s, so the ATUC championed the cause of democracy in Chile and in South Africa in the 1980s, and it supports Syrian refugees in North East Scotland today.

Aberdeen trade unionists will mark international workers memorial day at the memorial garden a week on Saturday, we will march together for May day and we will come together to mark St Andrew’s day with a demonstration against racism and fascism. The vitality, solidarity and strength of Aberdeen trade unionism have played a major part in Scotland’s story for 150 years and more. I am certain that that will continue to be the case for many years to come.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I congratulate Lewis Macdonald on giving us the opportunity to celebrate an important milestone not only for Aberdeen Trades Union Council, but for the whole of north-east Scotland.

It is as well to remember what the world looked like in 1868. It was the year of the first Trade Union Congress meeting in Manchester, it was the last year in which penal transportation to Australia took place, and it was the last year in which there was a public hanging. Across the water, in the United States, the 14th amendment to the American constitution was passed, which gave freed slaves citizenship. It was a very different world from the one in which we live today, but the fact that the trades council continues to operate after 150 years shows that it is still relevant. It continues to promote and improve the economic and social conditions of working people.

Although it has witnessed a few name changes through the years, the council has remained active in campaigns for dignity, equality, and diversity in the workplace and beyond. Let us focus on the word “beyond” and what that means for the council’s campaigning. The name of the council might suggest that it is focused only on the working class of north-east Scotland, but the council is actually very much more than that.

On Saturday 7 April, the ATUC held a protest in St Nicholas Square to show solidarity with the people of Gaza after atrocities were committed against them on land day 2018. Even while celebrating its illustrious anniversary, the council found time to promote the dignity, equality and diversity of people outside Scotland.

The council’s involvement in foreign affairs goes back even further, as is evidenced by various memorabilia in its Adelphi office. There is, for example, a Spanish flag that was wrapped around the bodies of two Aberdonians who died fighting during the Spanish civil war.

The council was initially created, as is stated in its objects, to advance and protect the rights of labour and the wellbeing of the working class. To do that, the council took active roles, as Lewis Macdonald mentioned, in trade and municipal matters in Aberdeen, at a time when there were quite limited opportunities for ordinary folk to participate in the democratic process. Beyond Aberdeen, the council was a key player in the development of the trade union movement across Scotland, and helped to found the Scottish Trades Union Congress in 1897. The STUC is still very active today, as we have just heard, and Jimmy Milne and others have been senior officials.

Reference has been made to the May day rally, which has been occurring annually since 1890. It is known as international workers day, and people around the globe take to the streets in celebration of labourers and the working class. That solidarity has been demonstrated for many, many years.

As the council moves forward, the challenges that it faces change only slightly. As joint president Tyrinne Rutherford said at the Aberdeen City Council civic reception in March that

“their goal hasn’t changed ... their tactics have. They still want to pay us peanuts to maximise profit”

and they will do that to any they see fit to do it to. Victorian men who showed up to the factory with no guarantee of work or pay are not much different from the workers at Deliveroo who race one another to get people’s food orders.

Moving forward, I hope that the ATUC will continue to act as a catalyst for change and to support people in their time of need. It has been an important figurehead and a practical source of trade union organisation and representation in Aberdeen and the north-east.


Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

I remind members that I am a councillor on Aberdeen City Council and a citizen of Aberdeen.

I congratulate Aberdeen Trades Union Council on its 150th anniversary. It is fair to say that, as a Conservative, I do not always agree with the positions that the council has taken, but I am certainly willing to celebrate it, in particular because it has been part of the history and heritage of Aberdeen for the past 150 years. The politics and influences coming out of Adelphi—the street where the council is based—have been prominent over the years and have shaped many of the organisations and structures that we now have in Aberdeen. I was indirectly associated with the council via membership of the Educational Institute of Scotland for 20 years. Although I never quite thought that the union was on my side, I did have other interests that kept me as a member.

I find some elements of ATUC politics somewhat challenging to go along with—for example, attempts to protest at the Scottish Conservative Party conference. There have been occasions on which partisan politics has been given too high a priority. However, on the ATUC’s 150th birthday, I do not wish to focus on disagreement.

The anniversary has been marked by receptions from the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Aberdeen City Council, and by an organised rally on international women’s day. The ATUC’s having existed for 150 years is certainly no mean feat. The context that we use to consider past events is always valuable, so it is wise to reflect on the many social changes that have taken place over that time. When the ATUC was formed, the Prime Minister was Benjamin Disraeli, who was a modernising one-nation Conservative—which I say, if it is not too bold of me to mention it. In the late 19th century, working conditions for a significant percentage of the population were far more dangerous than any of us today could contemplate or entertain. One of the trade unions’ foremost achievements has been the change in conditions, especially around the turn of the 20th century and in the move towards sustained industrialisation.

Aberdeen has a proud industrial history. The granite city was at the forefront of shipbuilding and fishing in the 19th century, and that industrial trend continues to this day, when the importance of oil and gas is clear for all to see. I am proud to represent the area here in Parliament. Of course, where there is industry, there are people. Whatever our political differences, I recognise that people are at the heart of the ATUC’s aims and objectives, which arise from a desire to achieve change for the better for those people. We may disagree on how to get there, but if we can agree across partisan divides that we all seek such goals in good faith, that opens the door to an honest and civil discussion, such as elements of our politics have lacked in recent times.

In conclusion, being in existence for 150 years is an achievement for just about any organisation, and it is one that is worthy of congratulation. The ATUC has throughout its history been a part of many successes in Aberdeen. Where there are differences in opinion, I will do my best to engage, in good faith, to find solutions that benefit all the people whom we represent.


Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I join other members in congratulating Lewis Macdonald on securing debating time to celebrate Aberdeen Trades Union Council’s 150th anniversary. I am pleased to wear its badge in the chamber to help with the celebrations, which mark years of dedication and commitment to ensuring the highest possible standards in workers’ rights and working conditions across Aberdeen and the north-east. The impact that it has had on the wider trade union movement and the continued success that I know it will have for years to come are a real testimony to those who have been a part of it at all levels over the years. I wish it every luck for the future.

Many have made a contribution to Aberdeen Trades Union Council and the trade union movement in Aberdeen and the north-east. They are far too many to name—although Lewis Macdonald made a sterling job of doing that. However, let me single out one. Jimmy Milne was an Aberdonian, one-time secretary of Aberdeen Trades Union Council and general secretary of the STUC, who took the trade union message out from Aberdeen to all of Scotland. He made his mark in Aberdeen by working for safer conditions for fishing trawler crews, but his interests were much wider than that. I well remember him as the founder of Treesbank, along with Glasgow Trades Council. Treesbank was an educational facility for trade unionists—in Kilmarnock, I think—that was a forerunner of its time, as it believed passionately in educating trade unionists to take the argument forward. I and, I am sure, many trade unionists have many happy memories of Treesbank.

When Aberdeen Trades Union Council was set up in 1868, things were a little different—Stewart Stevenson touched on that. Workers had few rights, and their conditions were appalling. Women were confined to roles attached to their gender, and any hope of genuine representation for the working class in the world of politics was little more than a pipe dream. That is hardly surprising, given that the Labour Party had not yet been founded. The Labour Party was, of course, founded by the trade unions, and it was undeniably the Labour Party along with organisations such as Aberdeen Trades Union Council that paved the way for workers’ rights, transforming their conditions and giving working-class women in particular the voice that they desperately needed.

There are now some 14 trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party. They represent a wide variety of workers, from those in more traditional industries, such as steel and mining, which are represented by Community and the National Union of Mineworkers, to workers in manufacturing, which is covered by the GMB and Unite the union, and workers in retail, who are given a voice by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

Over the past decades, those industries have been faced with a number of challenges. It was a strong and united trade union and Labour movement that stood shoulder to shoulder with the striking miners during the 1980s, and it is Labour, alongside our colleagues in the trade unions, that is today fighting against exploitative zero-hours contracts that many workers have no choice but to work under, with a complete lack of financial stability or job security.

The world of work is changing. Workers and their patterns of work are changing. Unions are changing, too, because they need to deal with more uncertainty in the workplace, the rise of the gig economy and deindustrialisation. Trade unions and trades councils have a huge role to play.

Many moons ago, when I was slightly younger than I am now, I was a member of Strathkelvin District Trades Council. Now I am pleased to go along and support the trades council in West Dunbartonshire when it invites me. The partnership of trade unions and their local communities is powerful.

I again congratulate Aberdeen Trades Union Council on its achievements over the past 150 years. I look forward to its future over the next 150 years and, indeed, to strengthened trades councils across Scotland.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Like other members, I congratulate Lewis Macdonald on securing the debate. The topic is important because, as Jackie Baillie has just reminded us, it is vital to recognise the progress that has been made in the century and a half that has passed since the formation of Aberdeen Trades Union Council because of both it and the wider union movement.

The context in which the ATUC was founded was, of course, very different. The legal status of trade unions in the United Kingdom had been established only the year before by the Royal Commission on Trade Unions, which reported that their establishment was to the advantage of both employers and employees. It is interesting that 1867 was also the year in which Dundee Trades Union Council had its first recorded meeting.

The 10-week great strike of 1868 by Aberdeen’s stonemasons led to hardship and poverty for many of Aberdeen’s residents, but it also led to the coming together of 13 societies and branches of masons and prompted the formal establishment of the council, principally by the Aberdeen branches of the Associated Carpenters and Joiners of Scotland and the Operative Masons and Granite Workers Union. The year 1868 was also when the Trades Union Congress was established, yet it was not until 1871 that unions were legalised formally, through the Trade Union Act 1871.

Tom Mason mentioned Disraeli, who, in 1875, improved the position of the unions considerably when he introduced the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, which allowed peaceful picketing. The Employers and Workmen Act 1875 enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke employment contracts.

The north-east looked very different in those days, too. The railway had reached Aberdeen some 18 years earlier. In fact, it was only a few months before the ATUC’s formation, in November 1867, that Aberdeen joint station opened. Shipbuilding boomed between the 1850s and the 1870s. Granite continued to be produced and, shortly prior to the ATUC’s formation, a network of sewers was built in Aberdeen.

All that required labour, and that labour required a voice. The ATUC aimed to provide that voice, as is reflected by the simple statement in its objects referring to

“the advancement and protection of the rights of labour”


“the well-being of the working classes generally”.

For the next 150 years, the ATUC—a body that was made up of affiliated trade union branches and organisations in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire—would promote the interests of those affiliated organisations and seek united action, particularly to improve the economic and social conditions of working people.

The changing times were reflected in its location. Until 1956, the ATUC had spent most of its history in the trades hall in Belmont Street. Thereafter, it relocated to the Adelphi, off Union Street, where, perhaps very differently to 150 years ago, it is now bordered by a maritime museum, an outstanding Hungarian goulash restaurant, a letting agent, a mural that celebrates women’s suffrage and the Asylum Books and Games graphic novel store. My caseworker tells me that the hall is a social as well as a union hub—he has participated in live-action role-play games there as well as DJing at a wedding.

As Stewart Stevenson said, the ATUC remains as relevant today as it was all those years ago. For example, it played a key role in the formation of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in 1897; it provided council officers as elected presidents of that organisation; and latterly, when a Grampian Federation of Trades Council was established in 1973, it represented trades across the Moray and Banff and Buchan areas.

The ATUC also has a role through its full and focused annual calendar of events, which include, since 1890, the May day rally; since 1998, the workers’ memorial day; and since 2005, as Lewis Macdonald said, the St Andrew’s day anti-racism and anti-fascism march.

The ATUC has, over 150 years, become a powerful force in the north-east. Disraeli memorably said:

“Power has only one duty—to secure the social welfare of the People.”

I have little doubt that the ATUC will spend the next 150 years as it has the previous: using its power to do exactly that.


The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

I thank Lewis Macdonald for bringing the debate to the Scottish Parliament. As others have, I congratulate the members of Aberdeen Trades Union Council, past and present, on reaching their 150th anniversary.

When the council was established, in 1868, its mission, as we have heard, was the emancipation of the working classes. There has been mention of Disraeli and others, but it strikes me that that time was around 20 years after the publication of “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx. Perhaps some of that language owes something to Marx’s work.

Spanning three centuries, the council has worked continuously to represent workers, to constructively challenge working conditions and practices and to create the conditions for cultural and societal change. As the years have passed, trade unions, including those affiliated to Aberdeen Trades Union Council, have been instrumental in making our workplaces safer, fairer and more democratic. That is a fact that the Scottish Government recognises and for which it is extremely grateful.

Trade unions have played, and will continue to play, a vital role in improving our country’s health and safety records. Evidence shows that accident rates are lower where employees feel that they genuinely have a say in health and safety matters compared with workplaces where employees do not get involved. As a former shop steward for a number of years, I realise some of the points that have been made about the role of shop stewards and trade unions now. Difficult though that role still is, it bears no resemblance to the difficulties that people faced 150 years ago in trying genuinely to represent the interests of their members, not least on matters of health and safety.

Although Scotland’s health and safety record is now among the best in Europe, I am sure that the chamber will agree that one workplace fatality is one too many. International workers’ memorial day, which takes place on 28 April, allows us to remember all those who lost their lives or their livelihoods because of unsafe workplaces or practices.

This year, of course, marks the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. The destruction of that North Sea oil platform by an explosion that was caused by a gas leak is a poignant example, and the disaster significantly affected Aberdeen. On 6 July 1988, 165 offshore workers and two seafarers lost their lives. Immediately after the disaster, oil workers and union activists campaigned for safety improvements. The Offshore Industry Liaison Committee was set up and is now part of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, with around 2,500 members.

Beyond health and safety, our trade unions must be given credit for giving workers an effective voice, for supporting equality groups and for increasing productivity and innovation in workplaces.

For those reasons, the Scottish Government believes that every worker should have the right to an effective voice in the workplace and to union representation.

The impact of trade union representation is evident in Office for National Statistics figures that show that levels of industrial dispute in Scotland decreased by 71 per cent between 2007 and 2016 and that 11 days per 1,000 employees are lost due to industrial disputes in Scotland, which compares with 38 days per 1,000 employees when this Government came to power. That reflects, in part, our commitment to effective industrial relations in Scotland.

The Scottish Government is committed to protecting and enhancing industrial relations in Scotland. That is demonstrated by our relationship with the Scottish Trades Union Congress, which we see as a social and economic partner. At the opening of the STUC annual congress yesterday, the First Minister announced that we are maintaining funding of more than £2 million a year for Scottish union learning in order to promote workplace learning and enable members to access learning and training opportunities at a time that suits their needs.

We are also funding a third year of the trade union modernisation fund, which seeks to promote better working practices and to offset the burden of the Trade Union Act 2016. In 2018-19, the funding will focus on embedding fair work in sectors in which precarious work is prevalent.

It is clear that the efforts of the trade union movement in Scotland have contributed to significant progress on a number of fronts. However, challenges remain, such as the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts, the increase in precarious work, the fact that nearly one in five workers in Scotland is still paid below the real living wage and the fact that employment law, including power over industrial relations, is currently reserved to the United Kingdom Government.

I hope that all members who are here this evening will show their appreciation for the Aberdeen Trades Union Council and the wider trade union movement by supporting the devolution of employment law.

In the meantime, we must build on the significant progress that we are making in the delivery of greater fairness in the workplace. This year, we will work with Scottish Government partners including the STUC and members of the Parliament to develop and publish a fair work action plan.

Members just heard a statement about the Burntisland Fabrications takeover. I think that there is a direct line between the work that people in the ATUC were undertaking in the latter part of the 19th century and the partnership work that has had such a tremendous outcome at BiFab.

The fair work action plan will set out how the Scottish Government will utilise all its strategic levers to promote fairer working practices and realise greater inclusive growth.

Jackie Baillie rightly and proudly mentioned the links between the Labour Party and trade unions. It is fair to say that members of all political parties have played their part in trade unions in trying to effect change and bring about improvements for the workers whom they represent.

In June, we will announce our new national performance framework—the measures and targets that we use in assessing how successful we are as a country—and fair work will be adopted as one of our high-level aims. One of the new indicators that we will use will be the level of collective bargaining in the economy. That significant and progressive development recognises that collective bargaining is a sign of a healthy and successful country.

The UK Government, on the other hand, is determined to regress industrial relations. The Trade Union Act 2016, which the Scottish Government opposed and would like to see repealed, is a direct attempt to reduce the influence of trade unions. The Scottish Government and the STUC have worked together to combat the burden that the act places on public sector employers, including the legal requirement to publish information on facility time. Together, we have created a reporting template that is designed to minimise the reporting burden on the public sector. Crucially, it will set out the value that facility time brings to organisations through dispute prevention and improved employee wellbeing.

I again congratulate the ATUC on the valuable contribution that it has made to industrial relations in Scotland and, in particular, to improving the standard of living for so many workers and their families in the north-east.

Meeting closed at 18:04.