THE Scottish Trades Union Congress is 125 years old this week, and looking back through its history what strikes me most is that at no time has the STUC ever been formally affiliated to any political party and it is most definitely not the Scottish branch office of the TUC.

The STUC came about because of a dispute between Scottish trade union leaders and the TUC. The formation of locally-based trades councils – technically trades union councils – in the latter half of the 19th century had seen a growing clamour for political representation for working people, but with the Liberal Party hogging the centre of British politics, it was only in the 1890s that a genuine Labour movement emerged, with Keir Hardie one of its driving forces.

Trades councils in Scotland disagreed with the TUC over the issue of political representation and so it was on March 25, 1897, that representatives from the trades councils met in Glasgow and created the STUC.

Enter the redoubtable figure of Margaret Irwin, a remarkable person about whom we Scots should know more. A graduate of St Andrews University who also studied at Glasgow School of Art and Queen Margaret College, in 1891 she became the full-time Scottish organiser of the Women’s Protective and Provident League and in 1895 became secretary of the Glasgow Council for Women’s Trades, later the Scottish Council for Women’s Trades.

She had campaigned for the creation of the STUC and at that initial meeting 125 years ago she was elected the first secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the Congress, in effect its ruling body. All this at a time when women were being denied the vote. Irwin stood down as secretary in 1900 but would go on to be a very influential person in the trade union movement in Scotland as well as running her own fruit farm near Blairgowrie with model housing for her workers.

From the outset, the STUC was a campaigning organisation but its leadership shrewdly recognised that it was up the individual unions to run their own affairs such as bargaining, while the arrival of the Labour Party gave the various workers’ movements a political focus.

Economic and political issues have always seen the STUC take the side of workers. It had some successes in organising support for those involved in the General Strike of 1926 and lobbied hard for Scots during the Depression, while the STUC played a vital role in the post-war industrial revival in Scotland.

During the Margaret Thatcher era, which it started with a peak figure of more than one million affiliated members, the STUC had a prominent role in the campaigns surrounding the miners’ strike and the defeat of the poll tax.

Some of its many innovations have included the establishment of separate women’s and youth sections dating back to the early 1900s, and the Scottish Union Learning unit.

The STUC has had just nine General Secretaries since the full-time position was created in 1922 when the Parliamentary Committee became the General Council of the STUC. Some of them have been household names, such as George Middleton, Jimmy Milne, Campbell Christie and Bill Spiers.

What is striking about the list of Presidents of the STUC over the past 125 years is the sheer variety of their affiliations, everything from the Fire Brigades Union to the Scottish Horse and Motormen’s Association (later part of the Transport and General Worker’ Union), from the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to – in the person of the late James Dollan – the National Union of Journalists.

What is the relevance of the STUC to the modern era? Grahame Smith retired as general secretary two years ago after 34 years working with the STUC – current general secretary Rozanne Foyer succeeded him – and he wrote an excellent piece for the Scottish Left Review reflecting on the organisation and his role: “My overriding objective has been to ensure that my contribution has been true to the purpose of the STUC: ‘to co-ordinate, develop and articulate the views and policies of the trade union movement in Scotland reflecting the aspirations of trade unionists as workers and citizens’.”

Smith also tackled the conundrum that while the STUC doesn’t organise workers or strikes, it does have an active role on behalf of working people: “The STUC doesn’t recruit and organise workers or collectively bargain on their behalf. Indeed, its affiliates are explicitly in their view that its activity must not cut-across established collective bargaining arrangements.

“Similarly, the STUC has no locus in instigating industrial disputes. However, creating an environment that supports unions in growing their membership and extending collective bargaining and winning disputes when they are unavoidable is its core business “What happens in workplaces, the power relationships between workers and employers, and how they play out, is and has always been the central focus of the STUC. In that sense, the STUC has always had a defining class dimension.

“There has not been a major industrial dispute in my time, indeed throughout its history, in which the STUC had not played an important role … The STUC’s role has been significant.”

The STUC has had to keep pace with bewildering changes in trade unionism in the UK, but has always kept its Scottish name and distinctly Scottish identity. It has had its faults, but it has always been a force for the good of Scottish working people.

For those reasons alone this 125th birthday should be recognised generally in Scottish society.