STUC Conference

Anger they can't bury

"We’re facing genetically modified Tories"

SCOTTISH TRADE unionists are bitterly angry about Labour's betrayals. At last week's Scottish TUC conference in Glasgow delegates attacked privatisation, job losses, the gap between rich and poor, the low level of the minimum wage and the defects of the Fairness at Work laws. "We're facing genetically modified Tory policies," as one delegate put it.

But on key issues the motions passed at the conference gave no sense of the depth of the feeling. Instead the STUC leaders worked hard to make sure there were few clashes between the conference and the Labour government. They were terrified that in the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections any criticism of Labour might be regarded as support for the Scottish National Party. This was particularly true over the Private Finance Initiative, a key issue at the conference and in the election campaign.

PFI means that private companies are paid vast sums to build and run hospitals and schools. Then, at the end of a contract, the government or the local authority either has to buy them out or put millions more into renewing the contracts. Labour has made PFI the centre of its plans for the NHS and education. The SNP wants to dump PFI. Many motions submitted to the STUC called for PFI to be abandoned, which would have been interpreted as a snub to Labour. So the STUC's general council drew up a statement on PFI which noted "serious concern" but did not condemn it outright. Unions which wanted to push motions demanding an end to PFI came under heavy pressure to back off.

Some of the delegates' speeches showed the real mood. Mike Arnott from Dundee Trades Council said, "I come to bury PFI, not to praise it." Mary Crichton from UNISON added, "We're told that PFI is the only game in town. But that's because all the other options are being shut down by this government." Despite such opposition, the MSF union was pressured into not putting its motion against PFI to the vote. About a quarter of the conference voted against the general council's position and a minority of delegates booed the STUC leaders.

NATO's bombing campaign is another big issue dividing Labour and the SNP in the elections. So again the union leaders did their best to prevent the controversy spilling onto the conference floor. Opinion polls have consistently shown over a third of Scottish people against the bombing. Yet not a single trade union or trades council put an emergency motion against the war on the order paper. There was a short slot allocated for discussing the Balkans crisis, where MSF delegate George McKay introduced a motion which concentrated solely on Serb atrocities against Kosovan trade unionists and did not mention NATO.

But in his speech he said, "Terrorism comes in all shapes and sizes. NATO, and by implication our own government, is guilty of terrorism against the Serbian people. The whole conflict in Serbia and Kosovo is wrong." A few delegates applauded the speech but most were worried that they might appear to be backing the SNP's stand against the bombing. The STUC leadership's emergency statement on the war tried to avoid taking any position but eventually declared military intervention was "inevitable". But, in a later debate on nuclear weapons, firefighters' union leader Ken Cameron was cheered when he attacked the cost of the war, saying, "We are not paying for Stealth bombers by using the Private Finance Initiative, are we?"

Having avoided a conflict over the war and PFI in the media spotlight, the STUC conference went on to vote for motions that criticised council house privatisation and Labour's war against workers in council Direct Labour Organisations. The conference also voted for the repeal of all Tory anti-union laws and an end to nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the greatest contrast of the week was the dutiful applause Donald Dewar received and the delegates' response to George Hamilton, the 83 year old representative of East Dumbartonshire Trades Council. He recalled that Donald Dewar had told him that "when elected" there would be "big changes in favour of pensioners and the poor". When George said it was time to stop the movement moving rightwards, and that "the flag stays red", the delegates exploded in applause.