Bill Ramsay is currently vice-president of the EIS and its president elect.

WHERE unions have resorted or threaten to resort to strike action in the recent period, some in the independence movement have jumped to the conclusion that the threats or indeed the strikes themselves are part of a Unionist plot.

As I hope to illustrate in this article, that is not the case. Any links that bound the Scottish Trade Union movement to the Labour Party were rusting years before 2014. However, it's undoubtedly the case that indyref1 was a game changer in the attitude of the Scottish Trade Union movement to independence.

Given that the Labour Party was created by the trade union movement (in its earliest days, delegates to Labour conferences were drawn exclusively from unions affiliated to the Labour Party) the link to labour is an institutional historic fact.

However, over more than three decades of activism in the SNP and the Trade Union movement I have watched that Labour-union link wither and seen the emergence of a cadre of trade union activists who, in the main, do not espouse any significant institutional allegiance to any one party.

I have, at the same time, witnessed, and in my small way, been involved in, the story of the SNP, from fourth-placed party in the electoral contests of the 1980s to not far off an electoral hegemony that no other party in modern Scottish electoral history has achieved.

I first joined the SNP when it had two MPs, one MEP, less than two dozen regional councillors and ran only Angus District Council.

I have stood as a local government candidate in district elections. I stood as a rookie parliamentary candidate for Westminster in 1987 with the likes of Brendan O’Hara, now the MP for Argyle and Bute. I even came within 19 votes of winning a Glasgow City Council seat in the last, first past the post, election. I’ve served on the National Organisation Committee of the SNP (it's demise is a big mistake, but that's another story) and on three occasions the party’s National Executive (NEC).

Indeed, I stood down from the NEC when I was elected unopposed as vice-president of my union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, last year. At the EIS annual conference in June I will became the president of what is Scotland's biggest and, as far as we can ascertain, the world's oldest teachers' trade union.

So, if there is anyone who can opine on whether the Scottish trade union movement is anyone’s political stooge, it's me.

Only some unions are affiliated to the Labour Party – others are not. Progress for an SNP member is undoubtedly more difficult in some unions than in others. However, as I intimated earlier, the referendum campaign of 2013-14 saw a step change and an even further erosion of any glass ceiling.

Many senior Scottish trade unionists voted Yes and even in some unions with formal links to the Labour Party there was an understanding of how the winds of change were blowing. Subsequent to indyref1, some prominent, younger Yes activists have secured salaried positions, not only in the EIS but in unions with formal links to Labour and the STUC itself. Cat Boyd is of course the most prominent example, but there are others.

The advent of Corbyn has led to a bit of a resurgence in the Labour-Union link in some unions that are, or were, affiliated to Labour before the debacle of Blair and Iraq. Indeed, I recall attending a fringe meeting at the TUC in Brighton in 2017. Had I been able to switch to mute, the mode and demeanour of the attendees at the meeting appeared as exactly like a rally during "our" referendum.

However, at the grass-roots level, the Corbyn resurgence in Scotland has been nothing like that down south. This stemming of the Corbyn tide is a direct result of the indyref1 experience, which seems to have seriously blunted Corbynmania in Scotland. There is another side to the myth that the unions in Scotland are in the pocket of the Labour Party, though – the experience of many of those that propagate the myth.

Some are of a generation whose lived trade union experience was decades ago and others, of a more contemporary stripe, whose experience of political activism is within only one movement or institution and view the world through a particular focused conflictual lens.

To grow to adulthood in a political institution, to socialise mainly within that institution or movement, can affect one’s view of the political world furth of that institution.

I well remember my own very confused feelings at my first STUC Congress when I attended a fringe meeting addressed by the legendary Mick McGaheyof the National Union of Mineworkers. I felt at one and the same time “at home” in a room full of “the enemy”.

It’s true that for many years, in common with other activists, I experienced a political glass ceiling in relation to union activism. Crucially though, that glass ceiling had little to do with my SNP membership card and rather my prominence as a member of the EIS “left”.

I still have a cartoon published well over 20 years ago by the Scotsman during an EIS tussle with the then Labour Government. The cartoon caption referenced “a cabal of Nats and Trots”.

In common with the whole, pre-Scottish-Parliament Scottish trade union movement, there was considerable cross over between the Labour Party and trade unions.

Notwithstanding, even in the pre-Scottish-Parliament days, any EIS links to Labour were informal.

Indeed, although the oldest teachers trade union, the EIS only affiliated to the STUC in the early 1970s. Moreover, its conference, before my time I might add, saw off a couple of attempts to affiliate to the Labour Party and, I am told, many who argued for non-affiliation were Labour Party members. Having no party affiliation is pretty much hard-wired into the EIS.

A teacher by profession, I have, in recent years, prioritised my activist time in my union rather than my party. This means I have always worked with fellow trade unionists of all parties and none. This, in my view, helps give me a wider, less tribal, even, if I may say so, a less sectarian, perspective.

To be sure, tribalism is a feature of all parties and the SNP, and crucially, less politically experienced elements of the wider independence movement are not immune from it. I get the “SNP Bad” trope, which comes at times in spades, but the converse can also be true.

However, there is a feature of trade union activism that is not well understood by political activists who have no trade union activism experience (and it's important to understand that this can include some indy supporters who are union members, but not the minority who are activists in their union). 

Unions tend to be more democratic in their dealings than political parties. In political parties conference agendas are put together by committees. Though elected, they can and do use their political judgement to decide what is debated and what is not. Party leaderships, also elected of course, have their influence too. That’s perfectly normal and there is nothing wrong fundamentally with that. Delegates to a party conference can vote out the agenda committees, or indeed the leaderships if they wish.

Trade Unions are much more democratic than that. In the EIS for instance, any motion that is competent MUST be tabled for debate and the bar for competence is essentially twofold – coherence in language and it has to have some relevance to Scottish education and to the welfare of EIS members ... which, if you think about it, as some of our members do, is a low bar to achieve.

Additionally, the EIS, as is common with other unions, have an opportunity, again with no serious bar on who can speak, to debate motions submitted to the Scottish Trade Union Congress.

That's why many dozens of motions have been debated at the STUC Congress in Dundee and dozens too will be at the EIS AGM in June, attended by around 400 delegates.

Trade unions in general, and the EIS in particular, know that to be successful they need to connect with their members and this connection was the defining feature of the recent EIS pay campaign.

Moreover, when a union is in “battle mode”, it ALWAYS sees an upward spike in its membership. The EIS has grown its activist base during our pay campaign, moreover the EIS is reflective of Scottish society at large in terms of its members' political affiliations.

The impact of indyref1 on the Scottish trade union movement is not well understood by many in the independence movement. Literally dozens of activists in many unions with whom I was acquainted “came out” as supporters of Scottish Independence.

During indyref1, around half of the then EIS National Executive voted for independence, and many of its leading activists today are independence supporters and do not hide it. For instance, on Wednesday last, Pam Currie, current president of the EIS Further Education Lecturers section, spoke at a Yes meeting in Airdrie.

Among our salaried officials there some who favour independence and some who do not. Some are members of the Labour Party and some the SNP, and many more in no party at all.

The EIS today is as representative of modern Scotland as an institution can be. It’s younger than it has been for many years, with more than half the membership under 45. It's also overwhelmingly female, now over 70%.

However, it's important to understand that the pay element of our campaign just concluded has actually empowered the members, transformed their perception of themselves.

Teachers, like all working people, have multiple facets to their identity – as partners, as parents and as teaching professionals. Many viewed the union as something “other”, that they payed their dues to “just in case ”. Today, though, most of Scotland's teachers, because most of them are in the EIS, perceive themselves to be part of the union. For me, personally, that is the big win of the recent pay campaign.

This is no mere optimistic opinion on my part, as the EIS march that put more than 30,000 Scottish teachers on the streets of Glasgow graphically illustrated. On that sunny Saturday in October, more than half of the entire teacher membership of the EIS embarked on what may have been their first political act of their lives bar voting.

Though I could be wrong in that one, as I suspect more than a few had already crossed that experiential hurdle at one of the AUOB marches earlier in the year.