Labour Research August 2014


Unions have their say on Scotland’s vote

How are UK unions positioning themselves in relation to next month’s vote on Scottish independence?

On 18 September 2014, Scots will be asked to decide if Scotland should remain in the UK or become an independent country — arguably the biggest decision that Scottish people will be asked to make in a generation.

Labour Research asked the largest 20 TUC-affiliated unions whether they are backing the Yes or No campaigns, or have made a decision to remain neutral, and the reasons behind these positions. The results are based on responses from 14 unions: the Unite and GMB general unions; Usdaw (shopworkers); NUT, NASUWT and ATL (teachers); UCATT (construction workers); Prospect (specialists); PCS (workers in public and commercial services); CSP (physiotherapists); NUJ (journalists); FBU (firefighters); POA (prison officers); and CWU (communication workers).

Scotland has already developed the right to self-determination. It has separate legal and education systems and a Scottish Parliament, and the devolved Scottish government already has responsibility for a wide range of policy areas.

The question now being asked of the four million Scottish citizens who are eligible to vote in next month’s referendum (including, for the first time, 16- and 17-year-olds) is whether Scotland should become fully independent or remain, as now, a devolved administration and part of the UK.

Unions backing neither campaign

Most unions taking part in the Labour Research survey have taken the decision to not back either the Yes or No campaigns in the forthcoming referendum. While some described this as a neutral position, others dislike this term and made very clear that this does not at all mean sitting on the fence.


Among those taking this position is the Unite general union. Unite Scotland spokesperson Peter Welsh told Labour Research: “Unite’s position should not be misconstrued as a benign neutrality.

“It’s a distinct campaigning position, endorsing neither the official Yes or No campaigns. It allows our membership the opportunity to hold these campaigns to account and make an informed, personal choice over the future of their country.”

Unite announced in March that, following extensive membership consultations, the Scottish committee — the union’s key decision-making body in Scotland — unanimously agreed that it would not make a recommendation to its members on the constitutional question.

And it would give no endorsement to either the No or Yes campaigns. Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said: “Irrespective of September’s outcome, Unite will continue to fight for the issues important to our members — jobs, wages, public services, the welfare state, tackling inequality and better employment and trade union rights — but constitutional changes whether it is independence or greater devolution will mean different things to different people based on their industrial, social and personal circumstances.”

Rafferty added: “It will be up to the respective campaigns to engage with and address the concerns of the 160,000-plus people we represent in Scotland.”


The policy of the public and commercial services PCS union, known as PCS informs — you decide, was adopted at a special consultative conference in February and subsequently endorsed at the union’s annual delegate conference in May 2014. Ahead of this, the union commissioned research on what factors most influence how its members in Scotland may vote in the referendum.

It also sent a booklet to every member setting out the “robust policy demands” on which PCS is seeking to challenge all political parties, including opposition to austerity and cuts and the repeal of anti-trade union laws.

In addition, the booklet had statements from the Yes campaign (see box this page), No campaign and the PCS informs — you decide position. Thirty-nine branches voted in favour of the PCS informs position compared with eight for the Yes campaign. PCS Scottish secretary Lynne Henderson explained that the policy the union has adopted “is not a neutral stance but an active campaigning option”.


The specialists’ union Prospect does describe its stance on how members should vote as neutral. It has set up a Scotland Committee with a role that includes pointing members to key documents as the debate on the referendum develops, and a forum for members to debate the issues among themselves.

At its 2014 national conference, speakers representing both sides of the debate — Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking on behalf of the SNP and Glasgow Central MP Anas Sarwar for the Scottish Labour Party — took part in a special discussion about the referendum. And Prospect has published the responses to questions drawn up by the Scotland Committee and its working groups and put to the two campaigns. These are very detailed questions about how members working in energy, aviation, heritage, environment, government and governance, communications, education and defence will be affected by the referendum outcome.

Teaching unions

Teaching unions ATL and NASUWT reported that they are also remaining “neutral” while the NUT pointed out that it does not organise in Scotland.


The elected governing body of the physiotherapists’ union, the CSP Council, has also taken the decision to remain neutral but is encouraging its members to engage in the debate.

It has established a Scottish Referendum Working Group made up of members from Scotland as well as other parts of the UK to assess the implications of Scottish independence and inform and advise the Council.

It has a referendum webpage and has identified a number of issues for members to raise with both the Yes Scotland and Better together campaigns. These concern the maintenance of a unified UK-wide professional regulatory system and the implications of independence for future NHS employment terms and conditions.


And while a motion to the biennial conference of the NUJ journalists’ union called on the union to encourage the media to resource their staff to provide as much information as possible to the electorate, it would not commit the union to back either a Yes or No vote.


A resolution passed at the 2013 annual conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) set out that “the Scottish independence issue is emotive and politically divisive and therefore considers that for the Fire Brigades Union to express support for or against Scottish independence would be inappropriate, as this could alienate a significant number of our members and also be potentially damaging to the relationships our Union has with parties and individuals from across the whole political spectrum”. Nevertheless, the union has criticised the debate around Scottish independence.

“What firefighters and other workers need is a real alternative to austerity, but on both sides of the referendum debate most politicians aren’t even asking the right questions, never mind providing any answers,” FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said.

“We need policies that stop the cuts, create jobs and provide security and a future for all. We want the longstanding concerns of the trade union movement and working people to be heard in this debate.” Wrack added that while there are strong views on both sides of the Scottish independence debate, “neither camp has provided any serious alternatives to the policies of cuts and austerity that are devastating our public services, cutting living standards and prolonging economic stagnation”.


Members of the construction union UCATT, which similarly has not taken sides, passed a motion at its recent annual conference stating that “it is the role of the union to critically evaluate each side”. It also expressed disappointment that neither side had yet put forward suggestions that would create a future in Scotland based on social justice and fairness.

The union said: “We believe that to this point [May 2014] the debate has been sterile, negative and each side has a duty to develop arguments that see a positive vision for Scotland, whether in or out of the UK.”

Scottish TUC

The Scottish TUC has published two Just Scotland reports (in November 2012 and February 2014) setting out that the referendum debate is “not simply a means of discussing the form of Scotland’s constitutional arrangements, but an exciting opportunity to reawaken a debate on social justice and equality, to talk about the sort of Scotland we want to see”.

Red Paper Collective

Meanwhile, The Red Paper Collective, a group of trade unionists, academics and politicians, aims to provide “a Labour Movement alternative to the sterile nationalist v unionist debate around the referendum” (

Unions backing a No vote

However, several Labour-affiliated trade unions, including the general GMB union, the shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, and the communication workers’ CWU union are campaigning for a No vote in the referendum.


The GMB says its position “should not be seen as a support for the status quo and that it is “emphatically not part of the Better together campaign”. It points out that the decision to back a No vote was taken by GMB Scotland’s regional council, a body made up entirely of lay representatives, and followed debates at the union’s 2012 and 2013 congresses, consultation meetings open to all GMB members and held throughout Scotland and national debates in Glasgow.

The ex-Labour MSP and GMB member John McAllion made the case for a Yes vote while Professor John Foster of the University of the West of Scotland argued for a No vote.

Campaigning for a ‘No’ vote

GMB political officer Richard Leonard set out some of the reasons the union is campaigning for a No vote in the referendum:

• solidarity — the strides forward, from winning the votes for working men and women to the enactment of equal rights for women, disabled, black and minority ethnic and gay citizens, have all been achieved by acting and organising and winning political power with our fellow workers across Britain;

• jobs — thousands of GMB Scotland members’ jobs exist because of the sale of the goods and services to the rest of the UK.

Making that critical market a foreign one over which we would no longer have any direct political say, with a different currency and additional costs, is not a step forward, but a step back;

• pensions — thousands of GMB members in Scotland are in cross-border pension schemes.

The requirement that these should be self-funded within three rather than 10 years would be catastrophic for both working and retired members.

• change — securing fundamental change in the balance of power in the economy, including at work and with publicly-owned and accountable public services like electricity, gas, the railways and Royal Mail, requires political and economic intervention at British level where the power lies.

More than four out of five big businesses in Scotland are now owned outside Scotland;

• devolution — with devolution we can have the best of both worlds with powers over public services and economic development and more tax and borrowing powers already on the statute book, while retaining a political voice in the UK and as part of the UK internationally; and

• irreversible — there will be no going back from a Yes vote.

Leonard concluded: “It is not the formation of a separate state and divorce from the rest of the United Kingdom that will bring about the fundamental economic and social change we need, it is the stepping up of political pressure and uniting even more closely with working people right across the UK that will produce change that GMB members want to see whether you live and work in Ayrshire or Yorkshire.”


Usdaw reports that it is registered with the Electoral Commission as a permitted participant campaigning for a No vote in the referendum following debates at the union’s Scottish conferences and annual delegate meetings (ADMs) over several years. On each occasion delegates overwhelmingly rejected separation, it says.

A union spokesperson told Labour Research: “Usdaw members do not accept that their lives will be improved if Scotland becomes independent, which is why the union is working with the United with Labour [the Scottish Labour Party’s campaign for a No vote] campaign organisations to make a positive and strong case for Scotland remaining part of the UK family.”

The resolution passed at ADM says that “it would be a financial and social disaster for Scotland if independence was granted”. The union’s executive council statement, Campaigning for Usdaw members in elections, gives five reasons why it believes Scotland is better being part of the UK.

These are that an independent Scotland would have no control over its currency; it would have to join the Euro or be excluded from Europe; employment and trade links to the UK are vital; the UK supports Scotland financially; and an independent Scotland would need border control with the rest of the UK.

But unlike the GMB, it is urging its members to back the cross-party Better together campaign as well as the Labour Party’s Unite with Labour campaign.


The CWU is also campaigning for a No vote. Following consultation meetings and polling of the Scottish membership which resulted in the national executive committee recommending a No vote, delegates at the union’s annual general conference voted “overwhelmingly” to back this recommendation.

The union argues that there is a need for unity against austerity and the barrage of cuts from both the coalition government and the SNP in Scotland.

It also believes that an independent Scotland would “put untold pressure” on Royal Mail, Post Office Ltd and BT and the jobs of its members.

POA backs Yes vote

The POA prison officers’ association is alone in our survey in backing a Yes vote. It adopted this position after a composited motion promoting support for the Yes Scotland campaign in the referendum was debated and subsequently carried by Scottish conference).

Support for ‘Yes Scotland’

Prison officers’ pensions is the issue at the heart of the decision to back the Yes Scotland campaign, Andy Hogg, assistant general secretary of the POA Prison Officers’ Association told Labour Research.

“Throughout the period running up to the referendum, the political background emanating from the UK coalition government is an ‘austerity’ agenda contrived to drive down the role of the public sector, leading to job losses, pay freezes, privatisation and, in particular, public sector pension reform leading to our members paying more, getting less and working longer,” he said.

“Creating the link between a frontline prison officer’s retirement age to that of the state pension age will condemn frontline prison officers to work until the age of 68 and beyond as state pension age rises.” He explained that “through effective lobbying”, the POA in Scotland has obtained support from the Scottish government that the powers afforded to it through independence will allow prison officers’ retirement age to be considered in relation to other uniformed services such as the police and fire and rescue service.

He added: “Despite being given every opportunity to address positively our request to be treated like other uniformed services, all the major political parties have, to date, failed to engage with the POA in Scotland.

“It is this commitment by the Scottish government to address positively the greatest concern for our members around retirement age, along with the credibility they have achieved through their ongoing support for public sector prisons, that are at the heart of the union’s decision to support the Yes campaign”.

By the beginning of July, a YouGov poll put support for a No vote a 54%, 35% for Yes and 12% undecided.