International Workers Memorial Day 2024

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:54 pm on 1 May 2024.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 4:54, 1 May 2024

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-12695, in the name of Maggie Chapman, on celebrating workers and trade unions on May day. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises 1 May 2024 as International Workers’ Memorial Day, also known as May Day, which is an annual observance that commemorates what it sees as the historic struggles of and gains made by workers and the trade union movement; further recognises 4 May as International Firefighters’ Day, which is an annual observance that honours the service and sacrifices made by firefighters worldwide; acknowledges what it considers to be the vital role that workers and trade unions play in Scotland’s economy and communities, from caring for and educating people, to building infrastructure and keeping people safe; notes the belief that the principles of fair work, including that of effective voice and trade union recognition, should be central to all workplaces; recognises the campaigning work done by trade unions to achieve what it considers to be positive policy changes across the Scottish economy, especially those related to taxation, fair pay, health and safety, transport and energy; understands that the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and other trade unions will mark May Day with events in Aberdeen and Dundee in the north east and many other places across Scotland; notes the encouragement for all interested to attend an event in their area, and further notes the calls to support the trade union movement both now and in the future.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green 5:15, 1 May 2024

Today is May day—a day for both workers and Beltane. I sometimes wonder whether, deep in the mists of time, those two days were linked. Beltane and other May day traditions marking the beginning of summer often involved rituals in which an ordinary person was chosen to be a lord of misrule: someone to take the place of the lord or master and govern in their place for that day or a certain period.

Beltane traditions were an important element of pre-modern cultures, when power could not be wielded in a universal way as the modern state seeks to do. Almost no pre-modern culture revered those in power and left them there all the time. Often, those in power were figures of fun—not in the way that a leader who lasts less long than a lettuce is a figure of fun, but structurally.

May day has its origins as we know it today, as workers day, in the Haymarket massacre in Chicago. The massacre happened during a campaign for an eight-hour working day, which has its modern equivalent in the current campaign for a four-day working week. Just as the wealthy who lived off the work that was done by others argued that 19th century workers should be forced to work 12 to 16-hour days, so the wealthy today, who live off the work that is done by others, suggest that a four-day week would be catastrophic. Of course, we know that neither is true. One hundred years ago, fair working hours were good for everyone; now, fair working weeks are, similarly, good for everyone.

However, I think that the roots of May day go back beyond the 1886 campaign for an eight-hour day. So, what is the link between May day and Beltane? The action for the campaign for an eight-hour day began with a strike of industrial workers across the United States. They chose 1 May as the start date for their strike, and I think that we can assume that it was for a good reason.

We are talking about an era in which there is very little written evidence of what happened with working-class people—much less evidence of where they exercised their power. Workers did not get to shape the narrative of the history that we assume as fact. What I think might have happened was that many of the lords of misrule who were chosen to govern for a day turned out to be better rulers than the authorities of the day. They turned the world upside down. They enjoyed more popularity and they reversed unfair decisions. They highlighted the often self-interested nature of power. I think that it is safe to assume that that probably ended pretty badly for them when the normal order of things resumed.

We see parallels with that today, with structures of power and elites with vested interests in the status quo using their power and influence to keep progressive change from rising. That is why we see public bodies still failing to pay the living wage to workers, including—to my dismay—companies that are owned by the Scottish Government. It is why we see too many workers, including those who are contracted to provide public services, still not receiving the real living wage.

We see a shocking situation in which maternity leave is unequal across sectors, including—shamefully—in the public sector. We have on-going fair pay disputes across Moray, Fife, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and Falkirk councils. There continue to be job evaluation issues in Glasgow, and discriminatory practices are used by contractors that deliver council services.

Very directly, we have the continued refusal by the United Kingdom Government and Opposition to devolve employment law. If we had those powers, we might be able to go some way towards creating a good example.

As we face the problems of the future, we need to find ways to work together to deliver a better world. Essential to that work must be our engagement with workers and their trade unions. Many of us in the chamber are long-time trade unionists—I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a member of Unite the union.

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a festival of trade unionism in Dundee. The Speak Oot festival of events, although it might not quite involve the appointment of a lord of misrule, has seen workers, activists, community organisers, campaigners and politicians from across the city and beyond, and from across many political parties, come together to debate, learn, share, celebrate and show solidarity with one another. I really enjoyed attending several events, and I pay tribute to the organising group for such a great festival.

Over the past couple of years, I have been privileged to work closely with the Fire Brigades Union and its DECON campaign. It is only right that some of the bravest of public servants are treated properly and are given the support, facilities and training that they need to keep themselves safe and to clean carcinogenic toxins off their bodies, clothes and equipment while they work to save our lives and our communities. I put on record again my support for the women in the FBU who are fighting for 52—for improved maternity pay by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service—to bring our service in line with several others across the rest of the United Kingdom. I look forward to marking, with the FBU and others, international firefighters day this Saturday.

As we heard yesterday in Bill Kidd’s members’ business debate on recognising the 50th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, trade unions have played a pivotal role in improving the conditions in which their members work. I know that we will hear about some specific campaigns during this debate, but I highlight one last one: Unite the union’s fair hospitality charter, with its “Get ME home safely” campaign. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that their workers—those who are responsible for the functioning and success of an employer’s service or business—are safe as they make their way home after work.

I am proud of the record of Scottish Greens in delivering positive change for workers across Scotland through our work with the Scottish Government over the past couple of years, particularly on fair work. However, we have so much more to do. We need to challenge the wealthy and elites to deliver a fair and just world. We need to turn the world upside down.

I end with a short extract from the folk song “The World Turned Upside Down”:

“You poor take courage

You rich take care

This earth was made a common treasury

For everyone to share

All things in common

All people one

We come in peace”.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party 5:22, 1 May 2024

I thank our colleague Maggie Chapman for bringing this important debate to the chamber. It is a credit to our colleague and to the Parliament that, in the week when we remember the contribution of workers and the trade union movement in the fight for better working conditions, respect and dignity, we are having concurrent members’ business debates on the importance of those individuals and groups to the historical establishment of workers’ rights and the continuing struggle not only to maintain them but to better them for the future. The old adage, “Mourn for the dead, but fight for the living”, unfortunately, continues to be relevant today.

In last night’s debate, we touched on many issues that are also relevant to this debate, and we paid tribute to those who furthered these rights. That includes the work that the FBU has done in modernising and responding to new threats through its DECON campaign, and the Breathe Safe campaign, supported by the GMB, to assist its welding members to have a longer and healthier later life.

New threats to workers’ health and to their right to fair work are ever constant. It is fitting that this year’s workers memorial day was on the theme of the climate crisis and workers’ health. As the climate crisis worsens, changing weather patterns have notable effects on the world of work, affecting, in particular, workers’ welfare, safety and health. Examples of occupational risks that have been exacerbated by climate change include heat stress, ultraviolet radiation, air pollution, major industrial accidents, extreme weather events and increased exposure to particulates and chemicals. Those and other examples highlight how workers’ rights and our safety laws—as I said yesterday—need to evolve to keep pace with change.

Trade union membership currently exceeds 644,000 in Scotland, and those members represent a hugely important collective force for ensuring positive change, now and in the future. They are welcomed by the great majority of us as a positive influence in Scottish society. Representing more than 555,000 of those workers, the Scottish Trades Union Congress stands out as a positive, forward-thinking champion for workers’ rights, nationally and internationally. I put on record my thanks to all those involved in ensuring that the voice of Scotland’s workers is heard.

The STUC recently called for employment law to be devolved, and it has been instrumental in successfully moving a motion at the Trades Union Congress general council, calling

“for the TUC General Council to campaign for the devolution of employment law to Scotland in addition to repealing all Tory anti-trade union laws, including the Strikes Bill and the Trade Union Act (2016).”

That position is supported by the Scottish Government and Scottish Labour, whose support we welcome. Yesterday, I echoed the calls for health and safety law to be devolved, as did the Minister for Energy, Just Transition and Fair Work. I hoped that that was an issue that all parliamentarians could get behind. I still do, and I believe that we are okay there.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative 5:26, 1 May 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Bill Kidd. I join him in paying tribute to those who serve in our Fire and Rescue Service as we approach international firefighters day, and I humbly acknowledge their service and sacrifice.

My dad was a butcher and worked for the co-op in Forfar, my mother was a shop worker, and my grandparents were factory workers and tenant farmers, so I know about the immense good that can be achieved by the trade union movement. I do not even need my old friend Richard Leonard to drum into me the importance of trade unions and the need to protect workers; I am there already. I therefore rise in this debate to praise trade unionism.

There is a lot to be said in praise of the pragmatic, collaborative and constructive leadership of many trade unions today, but one of the features of life in this country when I was a boy was negative and belligerent trade unionism, with union leaders driven by an anti-capitalist ideology. They saw themselves as being in the business of overthrowing the system, thought of themselves as being more politically powerful than the elected Governments of the day and boasted of holding the Government hostage to their demands. Their own political ends were often to the detriment of the best interests of their members.

The nadir of that kind of militant trade unionism was the travesty of the Ford manufacturing investment in Dundee in 1988, when 1,000 jobs would have been secured by major investment, but the GMB would not agree to a single union agreement, so the whole investment was lost.

In recent decades, particularly after the necessary trade union reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the culture of trade unionism and its leadership have had to adapt and change. In 1982, we saw the end of the compulsory closed shop. In 1984, there was the need for a ballot before industrial action. In 1990, there was the need for a postal secure independent ballot. In 1992, there was the opt-in to the political levy, rather than the opt-out. As has already been mentioned, in 2016, there was the requirement for minimum turnouts to validate a strike ballot.

Those measures—the Trade Union Act 2016 standing aside—have been supported by successive Governments, and they have proved to be so popular with the public that no Labour Government has ever attempted to repeal them. As a result, trade unions have become a key component of the phenomenal job-creating machine that is the modern British economy.

When I listen to Angela Rayner promising to repeal trade union laws, I worry that we could go back to the days of negative trade unionism. Today’s economy is characterised by technological advancements, global competition and a shift towards service-based industries. The trade unions have recognised, to their credit, that the rigid union structures of the 1960s and 1970s can hinder the interests of their members, as well as stymie growth and job creation.

The fact is that survey after survey has shown that, when this country has voted for Conservative Governments, so have members of trade unions. Trade unions will continue to evolve in the era of automation, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. They will adapt to the realities of the modern economy, such as the need to embrace constant change and reform, recognising that it is on the basis of co-operation, innovation and reform that we will see economic growth, increasing productivity, rising standards of living and more equality of opportunity for all.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour 5:30, 1 May 2024

I thank Maggie Chapman for bringing forward this special debate, and I remind members of my voluntary register of trade union interests.

Freedom of association is a basic human right. Trade unions are not just about wages; they do have a political character. May day in Chicago, 1886, and the Haymarket Square massacre is a reminder that it was not higher wages; it was shorter hours—it was the fight for the eight-hour day that lies at the very root of the modern trade union movement. Go and look at the slogans on the old trade union banners:

“Shorter hours and longer life”,

or

“Out of darkness into light”,

or

“The cause of labour is the hope of the world”.

So I come here tonight to reaffirm my faith and my belief in the value of trade unionism as a force for good in society. It is where I had my real education, it is where I had many of my values shaped, it is where I worked with some of the finest women and men I have ever met: workplace shop stewards, the very lifeblood of the trade union movement. I have much to be thankful for. It is that experience which led me to the conclusion that trade unions are at their best when they do not simply strive to get the best deal for their members from the current economic and social system, but when they strive to fundamentally change the current economic and social system.

It was Sydney Hill of the National Union of Public Employees—NUPE—who once famously said that trade unions are not fruit machines in which you put in money in the hope of winning a jackpot. Unions should be organs of social and economic change to end alienation, to end exploitation, because as long as they exist, conflict is inevitable. So, when workers vote to take industrial action, in my book, you do not have a debate about whether to support them or not; you get right in behind them one hundred per cent. What is surprising to me is not that we have had strikes in the last year on the railway, in our colleges, at Scottish Water and across both the public and private sectors; it is that we have not had more of them and that they are not more prevalent.

Of course, most trade unions have horizons way beyond collective bargaining alone—radical aims which are ethical, legal, political and social: a reconstruction of the existing social order; economic reconstruction, so that we have an economy working for the needs of the people instead of people simply working for the needs of the economy; the establishment of industrial democracy and of workers’ control; the humanisation of work; and the elimination of gross inequalities, not just in the standard of living but in the quality of life, and so, a redistribution of not just wealth but power.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I am just finishing up.

Finally, at the weekend, we will mark May day by taking to the streets. In so doing, we will be demonstrating that we are part of a worldwide movement and that we know that the same people exploiting workers in the sweatshops of the far east and taking away their rights on the construction sites of the Gulf are exploiting workers and are taking away their rights right across the world, so that we know that we must look beyond nationalism, that we must look beyond wages, that we must look beyond the industrial struggle alone and understand that there is a world to win. It is a world that we have it in our own hands to create, if only we have the will, if only we have the courage, if only we have the determination to stand firm and see it through.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green 5:35, 1 May 2024

I am pleased to speak in this debate, which was secured by my colleague Maggie Chapman, recognising international workers memorial day and international firefighters day.

Every May day, we celebrate and honour the immense contributions that workers and trade unions have made to building a fairer, more just Scotland. They have been at the forefront of securing vital rights and protections, from workplace safety standards to fairer wages to collective bargaining. As legislators, it is our duty to make all work safer and healthier. We remember the dead and fight for the living to ensure that no one leaves for work and does not come home.

Trade unions give workers a powerful voice and a platform to advocate for their rights and interests. That is especially critical in sectors such as social care, where predominantly female and underpaid workforces have long battled for better pay and conditions through their unions. That is why, last year, while in Government, the Scottish Greens raised the wages of adult social care and childcare staff to at least £12 an hour across the social care sector. That is especially vital in rural Scotland, where more care workers are needed to support our ageing and dispersed population.

In many rural areas, such as those that I represent, the public sector is the largest employer, with trade unions representing teachers, council workers, national health service staff and more. Cuts to public services are cuts to rural economies and communities. That is why I am proud that, during this year’s budget negotiations, the Scottish Greens secured an additional £1.5 billion for public services and for the workers who deliver them. The extra funds that are being raised through progressive tax reforms are supporting fair pay rises. We fought tirelessly for that investment because we value our public sector workers, but we can and must do more.

Last summer, I spoke with firefighters at the Parliament and in my region to discuss their days spent battling wildfires—a situation that Highland residents are told they are currently at severe risk of facing again. Increasingly, the work of our firefighters involves tackling flooding and wildfires, which are exacerbated by extreme weather. Yesterday, Deputy Chief Officer Stuart Stevens said:

“we expect climate change to intensify and present further challenges that we must be prepared to meet.”

Our depleted natural environment and extraction of its resources, as well as the climate crisis, are adding to the dangers that they face. We must redouble our efforts to address global heating and consider how we manage our land to increase its resilience and adaptation to our changing climate.

Progressive tax reforms, which the Scottish Greens pushed for, mean more money for our vital services and for the valued workers who staff them. From caring for our loved ones to teaching our young people to keeping our communities safe, our public sector workers are the backbone of society. On this May day, let us reaffirm our unwavering support for their rights, their working conditions and their unions.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour 5:38, 1 May 2024

I, too, thank Maggie Chapman for bringing this important debate to the chamber. I agree with Bill Kidd: what is not to like about another evening in which we get the opportunity to talk about the work, the benefit and the importance of the trade union movement? I have attended May day events since I was about 15 years old, and I now march with my children to mark this important Labour day and to help them to understand why we need that solidarity in our communities to this very day.

I note my entry in the register of members’ interests as a lifelong member of the trade union movement, a Unite member and convener of the Communication Workers Union parliamentary group.

I agree whole-heartedly with Maggie Chapman’s motion. Observing these days to remember workers is important, as is raising their voices. It is our duty as MSPs, particularly Labour MSPs, to bring these matters to Parliament and to speak about them in the chamber. Those of us who were born into the trade union movement have a responsibility to do so.

I thank Maggie Chapman for her work with the Fire Brigades Union; I know that she has worked really hard to support all manner of workers’ rights in the firefighting services. I know that, in particular, she has championed the DECON campaign and continues to do so, which is much appreciated across the trade union movement.

As we have heard, trade unions started a number of years ago with the industrialisation of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which meant that thousands of workers needed to move to towns and cities to live and work in poverty. The success of British industry in the 100 years from 1780 was built on the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of workers, who—as we have heard—worked long days for miserable wages and lived in a very poor standard of accommodation. Workers realised that they could fight ruthless employers and inhumane working conditions only by coming together, and so trade unions were born.

Trade unions were fiercely opposed by owners of industry. When I was researching my speech, I thought to myself, “I fear that perhaps elements of Government and big business today continue to fear the trade unions and oppose them, so we must continue the struggle that started hundreds of years ago.”

The most celebrated pioneers of British trade unionism—perhaps the first who organised—are the Tolpuddle martyrs: six Dorset farm labourers, who were, as members will know, eventually deported for joining or creating a trade union. I have read a lot about them, and I would, at some point, like to attend the festival that celebrates those brave workers. They realised that coming together and working in solidarity would yield results.

Although many of us in the trade union movement would acknowledge that we do not frequently get results, many members have spoken tonight about coming together and getting results. I am running out of time, but I just mention this: if people enjoy May day as a celebration of trade union activism, they must attend the Durham miners gala. In my view, it is one of the finest dates in the trade union calendar—a time to be proud of our movement and stand next to so many trade unionists and activists who work relentlessly to ensure that we fight for what is right.

Since 1871, Durham miners gala has celebrated trade union collectivism, community spirit and the international solidarity that so many members have spoken about. It gets bigger and better every year, so if anyone gets the chance, they should go.

I finish with a quote from the gala:

“The past we inherit, the future we build.”

Solidarity with the workers!

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 5:42, 1 May 2024

I thank Maggie Chapman for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I thank all the members who have taken part for their thoughtful and powerful contributions.

I, too, am proud to join others in highlighting the significance of international workers memorial day—May day, as we call it, or labour day, as they call it in many countries around the world—to commemorate the historic struggles and achievements of workers in the trade union movement globally. As we have heard, it was first recognised in the late 1800s, and May day was initially intended as a one-off protest for the right of workers to an eight-hour day.

I gently point out to Stephen Kerr, in response to his comments, that many countries did not have universal suffrage back then. He talked about militancy against elected Governments but, as there was no universal suffrage in many countries, people could not elect or deselect them. If we go back in time, we also find that factory bosses and landowners comprised many of the politicians, which is why solidarity was required.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I clarify that I was referring to the experience of this country, not other countries. I understand that circumstances in other countries in the 70s and 80s were what they were, but I was describing the reality in this country in the 1970s in particular.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Even in this country, of course, in the 1800s, there was not universal suffrage. I put that on the record.

The brave and tragic acts of protest that I and others have referred to, alongside rising trade unionism, led to a major movement within labour and workers’ rights. Others have referred to the Haymarket massacre in Chicago. Although May day had a huge impact on the trade union movement, it also exposed the existence of the horrific working conditions to which many members have referred.

This commemoration gives us an opportunity, in this country and internationally, to recognise and commemorate those who, unfortunately, left for work and did not come home. In the debate held in the Parliament on Mick McGahey and his legacy, I told the story from my family, of my great-great-grandmother who lost her father, husband and son in separate mining accidents—which is quite something when we think about it. That was not uncommon, but it shows why we should be commemorating workers’ rights, progress, the trade union movement, health and safety and the other issues that members have mentioned.

It is right that, alongside May day, we recognise international firefighters day on 4 May. The Scottish Government of course recognises the bravery and dedication that firefighters show on a daily basis to keep our communities safe. As we all know, over history, Scotland has experienced tragic events that meant that firefighters paid the ultimate price to save others. International firefighters day gives us a chance to pause and reflect on firefighters who have lost their lives and on the impact on their family, friends and colleagues.

Fighting fires and carrying out rescues is an inherently risky undertaking but, in working with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and its predecessor services, the Fire Brigades Union, which the motion refers to, has been central in developing safe systems of work to reduce that risk. Most recently, the FBU has been at the forefront of campaigning to reduce the risk of contaminants being harmful to firefighter health. I am pleased that our Fire and Rescue Service here in Scotland is taking that very seriously and is adapting its systems of work, as well as using the £10 million of capital funding that was allocated this year to invest in fleets, equipment and buildings to address that issue.

We absolutely recognise the impact that May day has had on the trade union movement and workers’ rights. The motion refers specifically to the FBU, as is right in the context of international firefighters day. In the broader context of May day, we should pay tribute to the vital work that the wider trade union movement has played in improving workers’ safety. It is also important to recognise the positive impact that employer and trade union partnerships have in creating more progressive, more productive, safer and more engaged worker environments. That is one area where I agree with a point made by Stephen Kerr, and by others.

We know that, in this country, fair work brings increased security, better physical health and greater psychological wellbeing for workers. We know that it provides a more engaged, committed and adaptable workforce. Fair work—our policy in Scotland—is good for the economy; it drives productivity, it releases untapped potential and it inspires innovation. We know that effective voices are a critical dimension of fair work at a collective level and that trade unions can help workers to attain better terms and conditions. That is why we continue to promote trade union recognition and collective bargaining to achieve improved conditions and to enhance effective voices. That is an important step in our overall policy of Scotland being a fair work nation in 2025.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Given that, why does the Scottish Government not insist that all the companies that are within its portfolio, such as Glasgow Prestwick Airport, pay the real living wage? I am a great believer in the real living wage. Why does the Scottish Government not believe in it?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

We do believe in the real living wage—and I highlight the opposition from some Conservative members to the conditionality that we are looking at attaching. We are promoting the real living wage. Scotland is in a very good place compared with the rest of the UK in terms of the proportion of employees in our country to whom the real living wage is being paid. We should be proud of that, and it shows great progress. We are top in the UK when it comes to paying the real living wage.

On the relevant powers that the Parliament has, to which Maggie Chapman referred, we are doing all that we can to drive the fair work agenda and strengthen the voice of our workers. That is why organisations that receive Scottish Government grants now need to provide the appropriate channels for effective worker voices, as well as paying at least the real living wage, so that workers are treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

We look forward to working in partnership with the Scottish Trades Union Congress. We want to use days such as today to commemorate—as members have done—the ultimate sacrifice that many workers have made down the generations and to celebrate the progress that the trade union movement and workers have made in this country and around the world to further their own cause and to make the world and workplaces a better place.

Meeting closed at 17:49.