Monday, 24 April 2017

Presidential Address to 120th Congress

Helen Connor, EIS
Presidential Address
120th STUC Annual Congress

Good morning Congress and welcome to Aviemore.  It is an honour and a privilege to address you as STUC President.  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I got here – but here I am – my usual quiet, unassuming self.

Those of you who know me well will know that I don't normally, indeed almost never, write a speech before delivery. The one time that I do...what happens? A little change has to be made?...Eh no! A General Election is called! A detailed response to this will be given later in Congress but it would be remiss of me not to comment.

Let's look at Theresa May, the person who, apparently whilst walking in Wales came to this decision. This is the same Theresa May who, on at least 3 occasions since she took office in July last year said: 'there will be no general election'. This is the same Theresa May who was a ‘remainer’ during the Brexit referendum but has now done a huge volte- face. This is the same Theresa May who, when a 2nd Independence Referendum was being discussed said ‘Now is not the time!’

So I tell you what slogan cannot be used in the next 7 weeks - Trust Theresa? Trust the Tories? I don't think so!   How can we trust her on employment rights? How can we trust her with our pensions?  How can we trust someone who thinks it is right to have a rape clause in the welfare system? Shame on her and shame on Ruth Davidson who has consistently refused to condemn it!

So Congress, as a movement, it's full steam ahead for the next 7 weeks. We must engage our members in the debate, we must ensure that poverty, jobs, public services, transport, the NHS and education are at the forefront of this campaign.

We must ensure that the next UK Government is one which has the interests of working people at heart.   We must work together, as a movement, to ensure that the Tories do not form the next Government! But I’ll say more on looking at the next few weeks later, in the meantime you'll forgive me if I look back.

On occasions like this sometimes we can get nostalgic, and forgive me if I look back a little before addressing the wider issues facing us.  The one thread which has run through all my life, even as a youngster, is a hatred of injustice.

At school and at college I was always at the forefront of campaigns which tackled this issue – whether that was about fairness for the then non certificate pupils at my school, the challenge to teachers who really only bothered with the ‘most able’ or the injustice in the late 70s of the attempt to close Colleges of Education in Scotland. I still remember the boldness of student unions across the country in occupying colleges to keep them open. Indeed I well remember being involved in occupying the then Jordanhill College for 10 weeks. There was a degree of excitement in being able to be on the switchboard saying Jordanhill College of Occupation, rather than Jordanhill College of Education!  We built that campaign over a period of time and did indeed save these colleges for at least the next 10 years.

I still smile to myself when I remember that during that time I was so busy with the occupation that I failed all my exams. I didn’t tell my parents. I just worked really hard for the resits and passed all of them! 

At that time in my life the greatest injustice for me was the sudden loss of my father at the age of 52.  My wee dad was one of the cleverest men I’ve ever met but he was the oldest of a family of 5 and had to leave school at 14 in order to make money for the family.  He worked all his days in Welma/Sunblest bakeries and was involved in the trade union there.  He wasn’t a party political man but had a huge sense of fairness which he passed on to me – along with his love of Partick Thistle.  Sadly he died a few months before my graduation but I hope that over the years I have made him proud in my continued fight for fairness.

Another major turning point in my life was linked to the loss of my mother to lung cancer.  I was teaching in a fairly challenging school in Coatbridge at the time and took some time off to look after my mum. I had no regrets about doing that. However on my return to work, my experience was not a great one!  Without going into too much detail, I was very clearly bullied. Let’s not forget that most people who are bullied in their workplace are bullied at the point when they are most vulnerable!  I know, for a lot of you in this Auditorium, the idea of me being bullied is a bit odd. After all she’s loud, articulate, confident, you might say!!  That is true now but it has not always been the case.  From the time this happened to me, I became determined that I was not going to allow this to happen to anyone else and that determination is what has driven me ever since.

One of the most rewarding parts of my year as President has been the opportunity to address the Equalities Conferences, meet new delegates, young and old and share my story.   I hope that story and my openness about how tough things can and have been will help encourage others.  The message of the Trade Union Movement has to be - no matter where you are in our Movement, others will be there to support.  We are only as strong as one another. We must never forget the individuals who face difficulties in their workplace day and daily. That is who our Movement is here to protect.

My involvement in the EIS locally and nationally over the last 30 years has been very varied – as in all unions, we’ve had successes and failures – we’ve experienced highs and lows but rest assured without the EIS, teachers and lecturers across Scotland would be far worse off.

Without my involvement in the EIS, I would never have become involved in the STUC and I’m grateful to everyone in the EIS over the years for their encouragement to become involved in the wider trade union movement.  Of course I wouldn’t have become involved in the EIS if I hadn’t been in education.  For the last 32 years I’ve been a teacher, both in primary and secondary sectors.  In all that time I can rarely recall a period when I was more angry than I am now! 

We are faced with a Scottish Government whose mantra is “We will close the attainment gap”.

We will improve Scottish education whilst at the same time cutting back on money given to Local Authorities which run education.  We have a Government which embarked on a governance review in education which no-one appeared to want, a governance review intended to divert directly to Head Teachers.  Earlier this year, the review was put on hold pending consultation and, excuse my cynicism, to avoid it being an issue in the forthcoming Council elections. But lo and behold, the Pupil Equity Fund emerged. And what does that do? It gives money directly to Head Teachers!  Don’t get me wrong, additional money for education is always welcome but this approach is fraught with danger. It can undermine the role of Local Authorities in running our schools and being accountable for doing so!  It could, longer term, lead to the academy approach which we see down South!

Let me be very clear to the Scottish Government and indeed the Scottish Tories, that the approach will not be tolerated in Scotland.  We value our children’s education too much to allow it to become a lottery!

Don’t get me started on closing the attainment gap!  This is an issue which goes far wider than the education system – it is directly linked to poverty.  How do you expect children to attain when they are hungry, don’t have heating in their homes or indeed a permanent home? You need look no further than the I Daniel Blake film to see how devastating poverty is in the lives of many!  Tackling this issue is a wider societal issue!  Schools can help but the deep rooted causes of poverty begin far earlier than that.  I’ll tell you how you don’t tackle the attainment gap- and that is by continually testing children by the use of standardised tests! As a teacher, as a professional, I will not give the same test to all children when I know that their abilities are different. Why do we differentiate our teaching and then administer the same test! I didn’t come into teaching to see children fail!  Just as well I’m retiring soon, as I will not sacrifice my professionalism and the self-confidence of my pupils in order to provide the Scottish Government with data! Our children deserve better.

Our children also deserve a better future – a future without poverty, a future without greed, a future without war, a future without fear.  You can tell from this that I am desperately trying to be optimistic about the future.  Easier said than done.

I reflect back to Dundee last year and listening to Lawrence’s Presidential Address and thinking to myself – I’m sure things will get better!  How wrong was I?  It has been a very quick but extremely eventful year.

Who would have believed that we would have woken up on June 24th to find that the UK had voted to leave the EU.  No matter your views on this Congress, I know they’ll be varied, make no mistake about it, that referendum did not take place because the British people wanted it. It took place because David Cameron was trying to appease people within his own Party!  It was a shameful abuse of power by a Prime Minister. Incidentally where is he now?  Rest assured he’s not worrying about factories closing, border controls or zero hours contracts, and the trepidation of EU citizens living, working and studying in Scotland and fearful of the future!  No, he and George have got their cosy wee jobs, leaving the Trade Union Movement to champion the cause of the workers.  After that Brexit vote I heard a lot of people saying – well it’s the will of the British people so we must honour the result. It is our responsibility to challenge the assumptions underlying that result. It is our responsibility to challenge anti-immigration feelings. It is our responsibility to make it clear to the people of Scotland, and indeed the UK, the risk we face to the rights which the EU affords us as workers, citizens and unions.

This feels like a year when truth died to be replaced by fear. This is not just a UK phenomenon. Look at developments across the world.  It is very difficult to look at the last year and not mention election of Donald Trump, the chaos this has caused and the legitimacy it has given to the rise of the political right across the world. 

Again I go back to our role to challenge. It is not good enough to abhor his views, Le Pen’s views, UKIP’s views from the side-lines. We must be upfront as a Movement in our challenge to them. Whether it is your neighbour, workmate or family member, it has to happen.    We also have to openly challenge the abhorrent rape clause in the recent child benefit forms!  What kind of society do we live in that thinks that kind of treatment of women and children is acceptable.  Ruth Davidson should be ashamed of herself for acting as an apologist for this abhorrent policy.

We must never let an injustice go by unchallenged.  As Martin Luther King said – ‘what you do not say is often more important that what you do’!

So how do we, as a Movement, continue and strengthen challenge within society?  How do we make trade unions and the trade union activity more relevant?  Sure, we hear on the news and in the media when there are strikes, normally when they’re pointing out the inconvenience caused. I never quite get why the media appears surprised at this inconvenience. The whole point of industrial action is to demonstrate the inconvenience that would be caused if workers were not doing the job that they do. Let there be no mistake though Congress, industrial action will always be the last resort for trade unions and their members and so it should be.  Industrial action has to be the culmination of a campaign and a tactic which must ensure success!

However let us also be very clear that the fundamental right of an individual to withdraw their labour is paramount.  It is a right which has been fought for over the years and one which the Trade Union Act seeks to undermine.  As a Movement we are very clear – we will never surrender that right!  We have work still to do on the Trade Union Act, and let the message go out from this Congress that our fundamental right to strike is not and never will be up for grabs!

One of the biggest challenges facing us as a Movement over the next few years, and I do mean years, is that of public sector pay!     The 1% pay cap on the public sector over the last few years has meant a real terms pay cut for public sector workers who are often working long hours, very stressed, suffering from work-related illnesses and feeling extremely undervalued.  So, I ask myself, why have we not had mass industrial action across the country in order to highlight this issue and put maximum pressure on employers and politicians?  The answer to that is very varied and I’m sure we all have our own interpretation and analysis.  My analysis, and it is only my analysis, is that as a Movement we need to ensure that all of our affiliates have a detailed organising strategy.  By that I mean an organising strategy which is long-term!  Let me take a few minutes to explain what I mean.  Those of you in the Auditorium who know me well will no doubt have a wry smile at me choosing a cake analogy here!

A cake, as you all no doubt know is made up of many layers ending with the ‘icing on the top'.  A trade union and its members are exactly the same. In order to get to the ‘icing on the cake’ which is very well supported industrial action, we must get the ingredients of the other layers correct. Those layers are the organisational strategy. Those layers are about the work of reps, and stewards at branch level Those layers are the small but very worthwhile gains made by union branches day and daily, whether they be on health and safety issues, or ending zero hours contracts, or achieving guaranteed tea breaks or facilities, or automatic time off for training, or sick pay, or pensions or equal pay and the many other gains made at workplace level all the time. 

Those layers are about communicating with members in many different ways, through traditional meetings, through speaking to people one to one, through social media. Those layers are about ensuring our members have access to quality union led workplace learning. Those layers are about training and supporting people on a daily basis wherever and whenever they need it.  Those layers are about the STUC’s role in supporting affiliates in their organising work, including access to the Union Modernisation Fund which will enable all of these activities to happen!

If we, as a Movement, work on making sure these layers are built on a solid foundation then when we get to the stage of putting the cake in the oven, everything will be in place.  Without a long-term organising strategy how can we expect people to support trade union action. It is arrogant of us to expect members to follow our lead if we have not led them properly, if we have not taken them with us.  With the Movement organised and involved then the icing on the cake should bring us victory every time.

Continuing on the theme of challenge, the STUC itself faces challenges in the way we operate with and co-ordinate within our affiliates.  My Presidential year has been a challenging one as we embarked on a restructuring internally and a reorganisation of affiliation fees through a hard fought agreement with affiliates and the TUC to ensure that Congress is properly resourced to meet the growing demands of devolution and to develop the STUC's campaigning and organising. As an organisation, we have a key role to play in supporting unions in their organising and campaigning activity. I assure you we will continue to fulfil that role.  And, as ever, the work of our Equalities Committees and Conferences will be at the forefront of the work we take forward in the coming year. What they do in tackling discrimination and campaigning for equality is central to our work.

None of the work of the STUC can be taken forward without the dedication and hard work of all of the staff.  It’s not really until you are in this position that you realise the amount of work the staff put in.  I would like to put on record my personal thanks to them for their support during the last year.  I’d also like to thank Satnam, my Vice-President and Pat Rafferty, our Treasurer, and all other members of the General Council for making my year such a smooth and enjoyable one.

I’ve left three people to the end as I feel they deserve special mention.  My own union, EIS General Secretary, Larry Flanagan.  At meetings of the General Council you can always guarantee Larry has read all the papers thoroughly and will ask the difficult and informed questions!  On a serious note, Larry has been a great support to me during this last year – always a good listener.

My thanks also go to Dave Moxham, the STUC's Deputy General Secretary, for all his support and encouragement throughout the year – again always available to advise.

Last but certainly not least, my sincere thanks go to Grahame Smith, the STUC's General Secretary.  A few people have said to me that Grahame has aged during my year as President. The poor guy is always on tender hooks as to what I’ve got up to say or do next!  I’m sure I’ve not been as rebellious as he thought.  From the many briefings at 8am to the odd ‘well I wouldn’t advise that’ his advice, support, sometimes grumpiness, but very genuine friendship has been great.  Thanks Grahame.

In conclusion Congress, I’ve had a great year, I remain optimistic that together as a Movement we are stronger together and I hope you enjoy the next few days.

Thank you for listening. 

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