Big issues, taking a stand, and Wall-E’s message

Having nine grandchildren has made Pat Rafferty something of an expert on the Pixar oeuvre. Nursing a cup of tea, and the after effects of a chest infection, in his office on the 4th floor of John Smith House in Glasgow, Rafferty, Unite the Union’s leader in Scotland, smiles as he recalls watching Wall-E.

“The humans are all overweight, transported around on robotic loungers, drinking liquefied food from big cups,” he notes. “There’s a serious message about society’s direction of travel.” Rafferty had been reflecting on the rapidly changing nature of work, and the effects of automation.

It can be positive, he said, if it meant people can have shorter working weeks with no loss of pay. Why should that not be the case? Business can achieve efficiencies, but at the same time it needs people’s spending power to buy its products. Better that people have an improved way of life than they are thrown out of their jobs by automation. In small but heartfelt ways, he makes his own personal stands; refusing to bank online and, in supermarkets, eschewing self-service tills.

At this year’s STUC Congress in Aviemore, Unite was among several unions calling for the Scottish Government to formulate an industrial strategy, a motion which also addressed automation. Yesterday, the Scottish Government, in conjunction with the STUC, published a report on the implications of technological change on the labour market.

It called for ‘positive procurement’ – using public spending and public contracts to support manufacturing and services – as well as a programme of re-skilling and upskilling to meet technological changes, alternative forms of ownership, and ‘a stronger worker voice’ – including the establishment of sectoral and workplace forums involving unions in decisions on investment and how work is performed, and the ending of practices such as zero hours contracts.

The motion including a section on “positive use of automation … with job protection, job creation, health and safety, and reduced working hours with no loss of pay as key objectives, ensuring that Scotland is a positive leader in the development of new technologies”. Leaving children’s entertainment aside, Rafferty said that Scotland take a lead in researching the impacts of automation, negative and positive.

But as Rafferty points out that, the problem with calls for changes in working conditions in Scotland is that employment law is reserved to Westminster. “There’s been considerable change in Scotland in the last 10 years, no more so than the independence referendum in 2014 and the subsequent devolved powers. But one of the weaknesses is that employment law was not devolved.

“If that had been the case, then Scotland could make a difference to people’s lives, make society fairer through things like the setting of a minimum wage and a living wage, outlawing zero hours contracts, and making changes in the laws surrounding union recognition. The movement in Scotland has cross-party support, in Labour, which strongly supports trade unions, and an SNP Government which sees unions as a force for good.”

Rafferty believes, however, that even within the existing political settlement more could be done to protect the rights and livelihoods of workers, particularly in precarious work, such as the hospitality sector for example. The Scottish Government should be doing more to pressure such sectors to adopt collective bargaining, he said.

The UK’s position post-Brexit creates uncertainty for employers, in areas such as access to workers from other European nations. But there could be benefits, added Rafferty, to do with issues such as procurement where European legislation has seen the Scottish Government’s hands tied when it comes to awarding contracts to Scottish companies. A case in point has been the awarding of ferry service contracts in Scotland where the interests of of staff and passengers have been pitted against private companies looking for profit from vital routes.

Unite’s campaigning has extended to some of the big issues of the day; the distribution of wealth, corporate behaviour, and safety in the workplace. “Our bread and butter as a union is representing our members in the workplace and the challenges they face. One of the great things about my job is that one day I can be speaking to the First Minister about the Fair Work Convention, and the next I can be speaking to school cleaning lady whose unfair treatment at work we can take up on her behalf.

“But we also recognise that we need to take a broader picture of what’s happening in society and why it is important to engage politically on those issues, to effect the changes that are necessary to make society fairer. So, that’s why we are actively involved in highlighting those inequalities that exist. My own view is that the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction.

This post features in UnionScot, a supplement from Canongate Communications published in The Times Scotland today.

“You have a situation where the interests of business are favoured in a bid to build the economy post 2008, when it was those very interests that caused the crash in the first place. We have got to ask ourselves the question, what kind of society do we want to live in? A society where a chief executive of a state-owned entity can be paid £3.5m a year – how do you actually spend £3.5m a year, I would add – while people are queuing at food banks and facing benefit sanctions.

“We have seen some movement in Scotland, with the SNP Government introducing a more progressive tax regime. But I think this needs to go beyond declared income to look at the whole wealth of a minority of people, in terms of the huge private assets they hold, often hidden, and how that wealth can be distributed.”

Looking forward, Rafferty emphasises the ongoing work unions do day-in, day-out, for members, and the big campaigns they take on against factory closures and service cutbacks. The positive outcomes of taking a stand have an illustrious history, said Rafferty, getting up from the table and walking through to ‘Airlie’s Howf’, a meeting room whose wall is adorned with a giant photograph of UCS organiser Jimmy Airlie walking down Union Street in Glasgow, with Jimmy Reid, and others.

Unite’s campaigning

RBS: Unite, representing staff working across Royal Bank of Scotland, demanded that the bank put in place an immediate moratorium on its branch closure programme. Following the bank’s announcement that it was halting the planned closure of ten of its branches in Scotland, the union demanded the bank take the same action for impacted branches across England and Wales. It welcomed the news that the RBS and NatWest branches in Scotland will remain open, following intense Unite campaigning and political pressure. “The RBS shambolic branch closure scheme is without doubt now in tatters and must be abandoned nationally,” it said.

North-Sea: A total of 33 offshore workers have died since 2009 following helicopter accidents off Peterhead, Sumburgh and Norway. There have also been two ditchings. Apart from the Sumburgh incident, all involved the aircraft’s gearbox. Since the Norway crash in 2016, Airbus, makers of the Super Puma helicopter, has been engaged in an effort to identify what happened and make improvements. Many of its helicopters, such as the H175 are performing important work, says Unite, but “the name Super Puma in Norway and Aberdeen is toxic”.

Taxation: “We support a 1p across the board tax hike and a 50p rate for the rich,” Pat Rafferty has said. “But to call these things by their real names it’s wealth that’s the key. The huge pensions, the property holdings, the land, the shares, the dividends, the investments, the multi-million-pound yachts – that’s where the real division of wealth lies.”