Speeches : Scottish Parliament

Aberdeen Trades Union Council : 150th anniversary

17 April 2018

It is an honour to mark the 150th anniversary of Aberdeen Trades Union Council today, just as it is a personal honour to be designated as a consultative member of the ATUC.

I am grateful to members from across the chamber who have signed my motion, and to all those who will speak in the debate.

I am also delighted that Donna Clark and Laura McDonald from the executive committee of the ATUC are here with us today.

The ATUC president, Kathleen Kennedy, and other colleagues would have been here too, were it not for the fact that this debate coincides with the annual gathering of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Aviemore, which they could not miss.

My party leader is there, too, otherwise he would no doubt have hoped to take part in this debate.

I know that Richard Leonard would want me to offer his congratulations on this important milestone, so highly does he value the contribution of all our trades councils to the wider labour and trade union movement.

That movement had its origins in local societies of skilled crafts workers, bringing together members of a single craft in a town or city to protect wages, conditions and access to work.

Such local societies made common cause with others in the same trade in other parts of the country, forming first federations and then amalgamated societies: the first national trade unions.

At the same time as those were being formed, an equally important development was taking place.

Whereas trade unions were formed from the coming together of members of a single trade in different places, trades councils were formed by workers joining hands across different trades and industries in a single area.

That joining of hands is symbolised in the badge of Aberdeen TUC.

The trade union movement that we know today combines both those kinds of solidarity—industrial and geographic. Aberdeen Trades Union Council played a vital role in making that happen in the latter part of the 19th century.

Even before then, Aberdeen was at the forefront of the workers movement.

Local craft unions were active back in the 1700s; non-craft seafarers were combining to take industrial action as early as 1792; and an Aberdeen female operatives union led a five-week strike of textile factory workers in 1834.

Aberdeen trade unionists were among the first to organise across trades and among less skilled workers.

In an industrial city many miles from other industrial areas, local solidarity was as important as national unions, and it was from that recognition that Aberdeen Trades Union Council was born.

To this day, that matters for trade unionism in Aberdeen.

The offshore co-ordinating group in the oil and gas industry, for example, brings together unions of crafts and catering workers, seafarers and helicopter crews, entirely in line with that long-established culture of working together across sectors.

The creation of a single trades council in 1868 was the culmination of years of effort in that direction. Aberdeen Trades Union Council soon had 50 delegates from more than 20 trades in such industries as construction, granite working and shipbuilding, as well as from a society of general labourers.

It was thanks to the leadership of the trades council that non-crafts workers were able to join together in general and industrial unions earlier in Aberdeen than almost anywhere else.

By the 1880s, when similar organisations were just getting started in other places, dock labourers, seafarers, gas stokers and farm servants were all organised and affiliated through local societies to Aberdeen Trades Union Council.

The Trades Union Congress representing trade unions and trades councils across Great Britain and Ireland met in Aberdeen in 1884, with the president of Aberdeen Trades Union Council presiding.

It was Aberdeen Trades Union Council that called a conference in 1895 to address the issue of solidarity across different trades in Scotland—an initiative that led to the creation of the STUC.

It is therefore fitting that we debate the anniversary of Aberdeen Trades Union Council in the week of the STUC gathering, because the two have been closely linked from the outset.

Not only that, but the STUC continues to represent local trades councils in a way that the TUC does not. Aberdeen Trades Union Council has three delegates at this week’s Scottish congress, who will be voting on the same basis as national trade unions.

Jimmy Milne, who led Aberdeen Trades Union Council in the post-war years, went on to lead the STUC.

The distinctive character of the STUC, and of trade unionism in Scotland, owes a great deal to the history and character of trade union organisation and action in Aberdeen.

The unique circumstances of the granite city and the need for local solidarity in the face of geographic disadvantage have been writ large, not just in Aberdeen but in a Scottish trade union movement that sustains the same principles of diversity and solidarity at both national and regional level.

So, too, with political action.

The Rev CC MacDonald, the Gaelic-speaking minister of St Clement’s parish church in Fittie, told the TUC at its Aberdeen congress in 1884:

“It is not enough for you to exercise the franchise ... You must represent yourselves”.

Aberdeen Trades Union Council was one of the first in Britain to put forward independent working-class candidates for school boards, for the local council and for Parliament.

That tradition, too, remains strong. Leading lights in Aberdeen Trades Union Council in recent years, such as Ronnie Webster and Jurgen Thomaneck, have also been leading lights in the local Labour Party and local government—trade unionists working across trades; seeking political change; and looking beyond their own members, too.

Aberdeen trade unionists backed the recent action by local bus drivers in defence of their terms and conditions, just as the trades council came together to back the stonemasons in 1868 and to organise the general strike in 1926, but that solidarity is not with local trade union members alone.

Just as Aberdeen Trades Union Council took action in support of the victims of Highland clearances in the 1890s, so the ATUC championed the cause of democracy in Chile and in South Africa in the 1980s, and it supports Syrian refugees in North East Scotland today.

Aberdeen trade unionists will mark international workers memorial day at the memorial garden a week on Saturday, we will march together for May day and we will come together to mark St Andrew’s day with a demonstration against racism and fascism.

The vitality, solidarity and strength of Aberdeen trade unionism have played a major part in Scotland’s story for 150 years and more.

I am certain that that will continue to be the case for many years to come.

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