Trade union split proves awkward for Ed Miliband

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Britain’s trade union movement is split over the Scottish referendum, with the two biggest unions refusing to campaign against independence.

Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, was set to use a speech to the Trades Union Congress on Monday evening to praise those organisations that had fought within the No campaign. But his praise for “solidarity” on the issue is an implicit criticism of Unite and Unison, the two largest unions with more than 2m members between them, which have both taken a neutral stance on Scottish independence.

The split risks becoming an embarrassment for Mr Miliband as the Labour party and its supporters are meant to be supporting the preservation of the UK. However, there are growing signs that Labour voters in Scotland are breaking ranks to vote Yes.

Unions lining up in the No camp include the GMB, Aslef, Usdaw and the Communication Workers Union. The RMT and the Prison Officers Association are the only unions to back a separate Scotland.

Mr Miliband was set to tell the TUC that unions would play a “key part” in winning the argument for Better Together. “The Labour movement was founded on the principle of solidarity. You know that unity is strength,” he was set to say.

“And that is why trade unions, trade unionists and the Labour movement are playing such an important role in keeping Scotland and the United Kingdom together.”

Some union officials said there was growing anger that some of their bigger rivals had sat on the fence – even when their leaders privately believed that Scotland should remain part of the UK. “If you can’t stand up and be counted for what you believe in then you might as well just pack up and go home,” said one.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, said he would not criticise other union leaders as they had abided by a democratic process by which union decisions over who to back had been taken entirely by their Scottish members.

But another official said: “There is definitely a feeling that Len McCluskey [Unite general secretary] and Dave Prentis [head of Unison] should have done more.”


Harry Donaldson, regional secretary of GMB Scotland, said: “It would have been great if we had had the major trade unions coming out and supporting the campaign. However, they have made their policy accordingly.”

When the GMB’s Scottish members decided to back the No campaign, it prompted fierce public criticism north of the border. Some observers believe this deterred other unions from following suit.

Meanwhile, Unite’s Mr McCluskey has criticised the government for failing to offer “devo max” as an alternative to independence on the ballot paper. “Had there been two questions there would be none of the concerns that are being expressed now,” he said. “The truth is that the people of Scotland are not happy with the status quo.”

Others unionists said they never thought the vote would go to the wire. “If I am being honest, we asked our Scottish branches 18 months ago and they were all anti-independence, but we didn’t do much about it because we thought it would not happen,” said one general secretary.

Now there are concerns about the impact on jobs, trade and growth. “This feels like a leap in the dark,” said Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA rail union. “This would have implications for workers across the UK,” he told the Financial Times.

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