UK Politics

What do unions think about the union?

Ed Miliband Image copyright Reuters

With Scottish voters set to vote on independence next week, what do unions, gathering for the TUC's annual conference in Liverpool, feel about the future of the United Kingdom?

Ed Miliband thanked (some of) the unions.

Those "fighting to keep the United Kingdom together" were working in the "true traditions of social justice and the Labour movement", he said at the general secretaries' dinner in the Jurys Inn hotel in Liverpool's regenerated dockside.

As the big beasts of industrial relations sipped their coffee and nibbled on chocolate-covered mints, the Labour leader did his utmost to conflate the interests of workers and the aims of the "No" campaign in Scotland.

"The Labour movement was founded on the principle of solidarity," he told them. "You know that unity is strength. You know that we achieve more together than we can do alone."

'Better alone?'

With the latest opinion polls suggesting the vote will be close, one putting the "Yes" campaign narrowly in the lead, Mr Miliband is keen to be seen mobilising the unions' political muscle in favour of keeping the UK together.

Six of them have signed a statement expressing the view that independence would damage workers' rights, leading to a "race to the bottom".

Union views on Scotland's future

For independence - RMT, Prison Officers Association in Scotland

Against independence - GMB, NUM, Usdaw, Community, Aslef, CWU

No view expressed - 46 other TUC-affiliated unions

They are the GMB, Usdaw, Aslef, Community, the CWU and the NUM, representing a wide range of trades, from mining to postal delivery.

But the RMT, which represents transport workers and is not affiliated to Labour, has declared its support for Alex Salmond's campaign for independence.

The other 46 TUC-affiliated unions have declared no opinion.

Image caption The GMB's Harry Donaldson acknowledged strong feelings on both sides

The TUC, the umbrella body for unions, has maintained its impartiality. On Sunday, general secretary Frances O'Grady repeated it, saying: "The TUC and the STUC [Scottish TUC] have a position of being neutral on the question. We think it's a question for the Scottish people to decide."

However, she asked: "If you really want to tackle growing inequality, are you stronger together or are you better off alone?"

That, some might think, was a hint as to Ms O'Grady's true feelings.

One union official, who did not wish to be named, said: "Most unions haven't expressed an opinion and, if the majority remain neutral, because they constitute the TUC, it doesn't allow Frances to speak out on the issue."

The GMB, Britain's third-biggest union, canvassed the opinions of its 60,000 members in Scotland before coming to an anti-independence stance. Meetings took place in locations including Glasgow, Inverness, and Kilmarnock.

'Strong view'

Harry Donaldson, the GMB's regional secretary for Scotland and a former metal-polisher at the Carron ironworks in Falkirk, said: "We went through the process for about 18 months. A majority of people weren't in favour of independence."

Among the minority who expressed support for the "Yes" campaign, some thought independence might bring a more socialist Scotland.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Scottish prison officers backed the independence campaign

But some of those wanting Scotland to remain in the UK raised concerns over pensions and the continued ability of unions to campaign for the rights of workers in large multinational firms if their members were split by constitutional change.

Mr Donaldson said: "We've expressed what our members feel. It means you might get some people questioning your parentage on Twitter. I respect that people have a strong view. But I also have a strong view."

Usdaw, which represents people in sectors including retail, manufacturing, food production, has opposed independence since the policy conference it held after the Scottish National Party won a majority at Holyrood in 2011.

But the RMT in Scotland announced last week that its members had backed independence, by a margin of 1,051 votes to 968.


A spokesman said the union had written to its Scottish members "advising them of that position" but refused to comment further.

The "Yes" campaign was more effusive, saying the RMT's decision "completely demolishes" Ed Miliband's "claims to be the authentic voice of working-class, Labour-minded voters across Scotland".

The Prison Officers' Association in Scotland (POAS) has also voted to back independence, while neutrality remains the position of the POA for the UK as a whole.

POAS chairman Phil Fairlie said the biggest reason for a "comfortable" majority of members being in favour was a promise by the SNP not to raise prison officers' retirement age to 68.

He added: "All the unionist parties have said how much they value what we do, but the role we carry out means you can't go on until that age."

Most unions have, like Frances O'Grady, adopted a position of neutrality. It is official policy for the public sector union Unison, meaning its branches are unable to speak out on the issue. Unite has not voiced an opinion either.

Its members, and those of the rest of the union movement in Scotland, will make their true views known in just nine days' time.

Mr Miliband will be among those watching carefully.

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