Last weekend I attended the STUC Youth Conference as a delegate from UCU. I’m told there hasn’t been a delegate from my union in a while, in a sense that’s not entirely surprising. Conference is only open to members under 27, and membership rates among postgraduates — certainly at Edinburgh — aren’t great, something we need to work on. I have to confess, though, I had to consider whether I recommend that we even try to find someone to go next year.

Over the course of the weekend we had around two and a half hours scheduled to debate motions, I didn’t time it exactly, but I’d be surprised if we spent even as much as two hours actually doing that. Not one person voted against any of the motions. The closest we had to a speech against any of the motions was when one woman told us that our right to protest had interfered with her studying, during my emergency motion on HE funding, which mentioned the Glasgow Save Our Services protest at which two people were arrested at what had been an entirely peaceful demo. Even she simply didn’t vote when it came to it.

Now, I’m all for unity and I don’t want to see disagreement for the sake of it, or a descent into factionalism, but it can’t possibly be the case that there are no policy disagreements across the whole of the Scottish trade union movement. Surely conference should be the time for us to debate these issues? And does it perhaps say something that everyone felt able to support every motion? Does that indicate that the motions weren’t saying very much, perhaps?

Looking at the report from last year’s conference the result of most motions seems to be the youth committee writing a letter to some politician or other, half of which receive no response. If that’s the extent of what we can expect, is it any surprise that there is little interest in what policy we pass?

We’re facing attacks on our education, on our economy, on our rights as trade unionists which none of us at conference have seen in our lifetimes. But, instead of trying to build a sustained and coordinated campaign of resistance to these attacks we seem moribund. On Thursday the PCS will be out on strike over the government’s attack on public sector pensions, yet we spent not one session on our response. No one session debating how to build public support, or deciding what those of us outside the PCS can do to express our solidarity.

In fact, we spent just 30 minutes all weekend in workshops of any sort. Right after the Chair’s address on the first day I attended a session on organising in the workplace and community. It was actually quite productive, taking the time to discuss with unionists from other unions how best we can reach out and build our movement. That’s the sort of activity we should have spent half of conference on, not listening to speaker after speaker telling us things we already know.

We were told, in one of those many speeches, that we are the future of the trade union movement in Scotland. I agree. But at the moment that doesn’t look like a very dynamic future, a very positive future. Union density is far lower in young people than in older, even past university and college age up into the mid thirties. We need to be much better at building our organisations and there’s going to be a lot of work to do to improve our youth conference and youth committee and move towards a more effective organising model. I won’t be there next year to help make them better, but I will be recommending my union sends delegates. Because we do need to work together, to coordinate our action and learn from each other if we’re to create the more democratic, equal and fair society in which I think all of us believe.

About Alasdair Thompson

Alasdair co-founded Bright Green Scotland in 2009.