As we kick off STUC Congress, the annual conference for trade unionists across the country, we do so in the knowledge that the UK Government and a host of political institutions, abhor our very existence.

This dislike has increased rapidly over the past two years which has seen a period of fairly relentless industrial action in which we have seen ordinary working people taking matters into their own hands to agitate for a better future. Strike action can be inconvenient and sometimes difficult for the general public, but it presents a necessary challenge to our political institutions and has a fundamental role in achieving a secure and more equal future. So, you won’t hear me ever apologise for, or be anything other than supportive of, the action our members take. This is important because I predict plenty more collective action in the period ahead.

Over recent decades, particularly when Tory governments have been in power, we have seen a developing narrative in which, the rich getting richer is seen as inevitable; the power of multi-national companies is unfettered; and public services must be cut. Of course, for the rich to get richer, the poor must get poorer; growing multi-national power means less power for the people; and public service cuts always hit the vulnerable hardest. It’s not an accident, it’s their plan.

Trickle-down economics may have been invented in the 1970s, wreaking its societal havoc across developed and developing economies, but it is still alive and kicking, and kicking us very hard. Trickle-down dogma might have reached peak-madness during the blessedly short period of Trussonomics, but its core thinking is just as prevalent in the Government today. What they have failed to notice, and it is one of a number of reasons that they are languishing in the polls, is that the general public doesn’t agree with them any more. The shock of Covid and now the cost of living crisis has sparked the beginnings of a collective re-evaluation of what matters and who matters in society today.

The current Government may have forgotten, or at least tried to forget, how we applauded key workers during the pandemic, but the people haven’t. It’s one reason, among a number, why the attempts to demonise striking public sector workers has failed and why the level of support for striking workers has remained strong.

Another is that millions of households have been facing the daily struggle of whether they could afford to stick the heating on for that wee hour extra as temperatures plummeted. The prices at the pump increases coupled with the weekly shopping budget causing irretrievable dents in monthly budgets. This is even before we talk about rising numbers attending food banks or those trying to access welfare support because their wages simply do not add up. The orthodox right-wing expectation is that such deprivations induce competition between workers and increase the potential to lower wages as our members fight each other for jobs. They also assume that the sheer inconvenience of strikes will lead to low public support. Not so though. The far more common public reaction I have seen on the picket lines has been to say “Good on yous” or simply “Solidarity”.

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This public response has come as a very serious shock to the UK Government. So as populism failed it, it resorted to the introduction of draconian new laws to remove the right to strike for millions of workers. It was and is a sly trick. Minimum service levels during strikes in public services such as health already exist. They are agreed between unions and employers before strike action commences. However, by appearing to solve a problem that never existed, the Government sought to regain its lost momentum. It hasn’t worked.

Over the last 12 months alone in Scotland, we’ve seen more than 450 strikes involving more than 165,000 workers. These strikes, which have largely been successful, have put billions of pounds into the pockets of workers at the expense of company profits or tax cuts for the rich. STUC research has shown that over the past two years, over £4 billion in pay and pension contributions has landed in the pockets of workers across the country. To hammer home the point, £3bn of that was money that the bosses and the governments told us wasn’t available.

The willingness to take industrial action and the ability to bargain for wages collectively rebalances power and wealth from the rich to the poor. There is no other way to slice it.

The Herald: Rishi Sunak's UK Government has brought in ant-strike legislationRishi Sunak's UK Government has brought in ant-strike legislation (Image: Getty)

So where are we now? Workers in our neglected further education sector are in the middle of industrial action for a decent pay rise. Council workers are in dispute over equal pay in three local authorities in Scotland. Workers, from three unions, decommissioning the former nuclear power station at Dounreay, have voted to strike. Train drivers on UK train operating companies continue to take action (it’s been five years since they got a pay rise) and, unless something changes between the time of writing this column and Monday morning, NUJ colleagues in STV are set to be on in their strike tomorrow as the cost of living crisis undercuts their pay and conditions all the while the company turned a £20 million profit. I predict further industrial unrest as 2024 unfolds.

None of this is to glorify strikes or say that they are inevitable. One of the reasons we are so hopeful that an incoming Labour Government will stick to its promise of A New Deal for Workers with enhanced employment protections, is that it can play a real part in creating an industrial landscape in which employers and unions can negotiate on a more level playing field, increasing the chances of reaching agreements before strike action becomes inevitable.

But we shouldn’t shy away from the fact that, ultimately, taking strike action works. It’s often necessary and that the short-term pain is worth it for the longer-term gain of a fair, more equal society.

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress