DESPITE having declined, the trade union movement in Scotland is still the biggest movement-cum-organisation in civil society in Scotland. Its attitude to independence, therefore, will be crucial in the forthcoming referendum.

Best epitomising the union movement in Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) in 2022 has an affiliated membership of 545,840 from 41 affiliates. On top of this, there are other union members whose unions are not affiliated to the STUC, so that there was an overall total of 662,000 union members in 2021. This represents a density of 28% in 2021, having fallen from a 39% density with 776,000 members in 1995. The contrasting density figures for England are 31% (1995) and 22% (2021).

Putting together all the membership of all the other organisations in civil society (such as the National Trust for Scotland) might just about match the total number of union members in Scotland. In other words, unions potentially have the weight of numbers depending on what they chose to do with them – or what union members chose to do themselves as union members. Trade union members also have families, so partners, husbands and wives, parents, sons, and daughters are also potentially part of a wider union family. Union members also have friends, colleagues and workmates.

But it’s more than just a case of a numbers game here. Other than some left-of-centre political parties and think tanks, unions are the biggest organisations in Scotland that want change – and progressive change at that – whether that be in the economy, the political process of government or society itself. This means that unions have interests which are not just bound by the walls of the workplaces that their members work in.

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Unions want change in employment law that governs the employment relationship, especially on workers’ rights and unions’ rights. They also want more secure employment, less unemployment and so on. But unions also want changes in the social wage (welfare benefits, welfare provision), a ramping up of a green industrial strategy to create more green jobs, a more humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and more.

The list, quite rightly, is almost endless. All this means that unions are not just concerned with the pounds and pence of their members’ wages – important though they are in this time of a cost of living crisis.

So, unions are still key players in the political process. That means they necessarily are engaged in the ongoing debate about independence. For the outcome of a referendum planned for later next year, the “$64 million” questions become: where do the unions line up on being either pro or anti-independence, and why do they take such positions?

Before getting to that, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and most unions do support the right to have another referendum, seeing this as a basic democratic right after the securing of a popular mandate for a vote in successive Holyrood elections since 2014.

Roz Foyer, the STUC general secretary, told the Daily Record just before the organisation’s congress in April: “We absolutely support the right to self-determination for the Scottish people. At the end of the day, it should be up to the Scottish Parliament to determine whether there’s an indyref2.”

This echoed her predecessor, Grahame Smith, who stated in January 2020: “The democratic wishes of the people of Scotland need to be acknowledged. The Scottish labour movement should support indyref2.”

When it comes to how unions line up, we can start by recalling the situation for the 2014 referendum. Just a few took unambiguous and explicit pro or anti-stances after using different internal democratic processes of consultation and referendums to come to an agreed position.

For example, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) and the RMT transport union were for independence while the Aslef train drivers’ union and GMB general union were against independence.

Others, such as the PCS public services union, Unite the Union and UNISON did not take positions for or against.

This situation arose because they consciously decided not to, fearing divisions within their own ranks over the issue, or because internal polling of their members decided that the union should not take a position on voting Yes or No. These unions sought to provide members with a series of questions with which to interrogate the issues at hand and then make their own minds up.

What we do not know is exactly how much impact the overt stances by the likes of the POA, RMT, Aslef and the GMB had on their members. In the case of the RMT, its ballot of members in August 2014 had a turnout of 25%, with 44% voting for the union to take a Yes position, 40% a No position and 16% a neutral position. Unite’s internal research after the referendum showed members were evenly split between Yes and No in how they had voted.

All this means that it was wrong for some to think back then that just because most major unions were affiliated to the Labour Party that they would then inevitably follow Scottish and British Labour’s line in being anti-independence.

Eleven unions are currently affiliated to Labour with the BFAWU bakers’ union recently disaffiliating while this year Aslef and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU re-affirmed their affiliations.

So, where does this leave the situation for late 2023? The first thing to say is that what happened in 2014 is useful guide to what we can expect unions to do the next time around but only so long as we factor in recognition that 2023 will not be an exact replay of 2014.

Some things are obviously going to be different this time around. For example, we have lived through a pandemic for two years, suffered partygate and Brexit, and seen the high tide of Corbynism wash away to nothing. SNP membership is quadruple what it was in 2014 and the SNP will have been the Scottish Government for longer than it had been by 2014. Before 2023, we are likely to see a reduction in the resources given to the public sector as a result of the recent Scottish Budget.

These factors will play a role in informing the decisions unions make in determining whether to take any position – for, against or neutral – for the forthcoming referendum. However, there is an increasing sense that decisions about what position to take will be taken solely and freely within Scotland. Prior to her election as general secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, made clear such decisions were the business of members in Scotland.

But there are some more long-standing issues that will resurface regardless of the contemporary context. The most obvious is the argument that “independence will split and weaken the working-class and labour movement” in Britain. This totem results from the framing of the issues from the political perspectives of “class over nation”, “class not nation” and “unity not division”.

No union is considering – or likely to consider – splitting from its brothers and sisters south of the Border to form an independent organisation. The likes of the long-standing separate Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teachers’ union and the more recently established Scottish Artists Union (SAU) will remain the exception and not become the rule. Neoliberal globalisation has heavily inclined unions to seek more, not fewer, links with fellow trade unionists elsewhere even if the Holy Grail of international and trans-national trade union organisation has yet to be fully and effectively realised. Existing unions operating within Scotland would no doubt be ceded more autonomy as they have already been under devolution.

IN the public sector in Scotland, where almost all collective bargaining has become decentralised under devolution, there has been no parting of the ways. The likes of UNISON would want to maintain a British-wide organisation, especially as many of the private-sector contractors working in the public sector would operate across any border. There is no reason to think this situation would change. No-one expects an independent Scotland to be an autarky.

Similarly, there will many employers in the private sector that will operate across any border so it makes sense for reasons of collective strength for union members to remain in the same union north and south of the Border.

When it comes to the institutions and structures of collective bargaining, whether negotiations will be Scottish-only in the private sector remains to be seen. This will depend upon whether there are divergences in company and employment law between Scotland and England (which in part will be influenced by whether Scotland rejoins the European Union and England does not).

Even if there are divergences, the close physical proximity of Scotland to England will mean there will still be something of a single labour market remaining, as workers can move back and forth over the border with ease for work. In this situation, employers are more likely than not to align pay and conditions in Scotland with England and vice-versa. In this situation, Scotland is not likely to become a low-pay country in a competitive “race to the bottom”.

Ultimately, whether unions in Scotland show any signs of moving politically – rather than organisationally – apart from their sisters and brothers in England will depend upon the nature of the kind of independence that is on offer.

If the SNP, Greens and wider Yes movement want unions’ support for independence, they will have to offer a society and economy where employers are not allowed to unilaterally dictate and rule by diktat, and where the profit motive is not decisive. The likes of “fire and rehire” will have to be banished, along with the use of precarious zero-hours employment contracts.

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Public procurement for public contracts will have to have union recognition and industry agreement enshrined within them. The public sector will have to be expanded and fully funded. A National Care Service will have to be publicly owned, funded and controlled.

This would mean an emulation of the social democratic situation in the Scandinavian or Nordic countries being the goal.

These are the only conditions under which unions and the union movement would be prepared to sign up to a Scottish social partnership.

If all that becomes a realistic possibility and there is no prospect of a third option of devo-max on the ballot paper or Labour reverting to a credible Corbynism, then this will bring about the prospect that unions will no longer be for the Union as many have been before.

Professor Gregor Gall is an Affiliate Research Associate at the University of Glasgow and a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds. He is the author and editor of more than 20 books on unions and politics in Scotland.