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Devolution for unions

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Working on the Unions 21 fellowship gave me a unique chance to think about devolution and how it might form part of a plan for increasing the organising capacity of unions.

One of the first things that struck me was that many unions seem to have allocated devolution as a local issue, without really giving much thought to how it might be incorporated into a national approach. This is somewhat surprising, because if they are used correctly the opportunities presented by devolution might form a crucial piece in any national strategy.

My project work focussed on the Fair Work Convention in Scotland. Taking this as an example, it is clear that whatever favourable conditions are created by the Fair Work Convention, unions are still required to follow national recognition procedures through the CAC, and so the Fair Work Convention is not a substitute for the legislative regime that British unions operate in. So far, so limiting. But can unions in Scotland use the aspirations of the Fair Work Convention and its cultural impact in a more innovative way? For instance, might UK-wide unions consider using Scotland as a foothold to gain recognition and then seek extension agreements in national enterprises? It will take work and initiative but there are openings for growth, not just locally but nationally, if we can be creative about how we incorporate devolution into the national picture.

This was one of the most crucial lesson from working on the project; that none of the opportunities that devolution presents to unions will be offered on a plate. Where there is political mileage in making public overtures to unions and workers’ rights, then devolved administrations will do so. But turning these fine words into concrete action requires work and perseverance.

Westminster has not devolved the powers to create an industrial relations system that builds unions into its structures, which means that whether desirable or not, a more formal Germanic-style model of tripartite agreement with administrations and employers is simply not feasible. So if we are not to be given automatic, legally-backed power and influence, unions will have to decide what kind of engagement to pursue with administrations in order to make good on their lofty stated aims.

 The good news of course, is that British trade unions are used to this. Some minor experiments with corporatism aside, the dominant UK model has always been free collective bargaining, where unions are required to go out and organise workers and build their own influence. Dealing with devolution is no different; unions will have to seek out their avenues to organise. In light of this, agreements with devolved administrations might best viewed not as ends in themselves, but as means for building capacity. They are tools that unions can use in a wider strategy to extend union power and influence.

 I hope that the Unions 21 devolution research paper can contribute to the debate and help the movement to think about how we might work imaginatively within the constraints of devolution to turn local inroads into national victories.