Ian Allinson in The Guardian
While freedom of movement has been a hot topic since the debates around Brexit began, few would have predicted it would become such a focus in the Unite general secretary election, in which I’m standing.
Anger around jobs and conditions is justified, but often misdirected. Neoliberal capitalism has been disastrous. Free trade deals enshrine the rights of capital while ignoring the needs of humans and our warming planet. Workers have been dumped out of jobs by the million, work has intensified, workers feel more vulnerable to managerial whim, the share of wealth going to wages has fallen, welfare systems have been slashed and huge areas of life – including education, health and housing – are increasingly commoditised, all while our limited democracy is increasingly hollowed out.
Migrants are prime scapegoats for many politicians and media. Some employers provide fertile material for racists and nationalists. Fujitsu, my own employer, proposes to cut 1,800 UK jobs, hoping to boost profits by offshoring jobs to low-paid countries. Fujitsu is even asking some workers to train their replacements, brought to the UK to learn the job. Workers are being asked to dig their own graves.
When our livelihoods are threatened, workers sometimes respond by claiming privileged access to jobs, housing, and so on, and excluding others on the basis of gender, race or nationality. This is tempting because it sometimes “works” for some people for a short time. But it is misguided. If some workers try to protect their interests at the expense of others, the unity we need to win is undermined and we all lose.
Gerard Coyne is also standing for the general secretary post and his silence on this question, as on so many others, is deafening; meanwhile his relationships with the Labour right are worrying.
Len McCluskey, the present general secretary, though anti-racist, has fudged on workers’ freedom of movement, wrongly conceding ground to racists and nationalists. Just before the EU referendum McCluskey referred to it as an experiment at UK workers’ expense. As a delegate to the Unite conference shortly after the referendum, I moved a motion defending freedom of movement. Unite’s leadership opposed it, with their own motion calling for debate on the question. McCluskey now boasts that he has led this debate “demanding safeguards for workers, communities and industries affected by migration policy driven by greedy bosses”. Beyond dog-whistle politics, what does this mean?
McCluskey explained in a speech for the thinktank Class (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) that his “proposal is that any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining”. All jobs should be covered by union agreements, but union weakness means most are not, and this applies especially to industries in which migrants have to work.
What would McCluskey’s proposal mean in practice? What would count as recruiting abroad? How long would a worker have to be in the UK before they could apply for an un-unionised job?
Giving different rights to different workers based on their nationality is discriminatory and divisive. It undermines solidarity. Blocking employers hiring on the basis of nationality would repeat the mistake of some trade unionists of a previous generation who sought to control the labour supply by excluding women from some jobs, fearing “they” would push down “our” wages. We, Unite’s membership, like the working class as a whole, come from all over the world. This is a strength, not a weakness.
It is free trade, not free movement of people, that has been a disaster for working-class people. Manufacturing has seen colossal job losses in recent decades as production has moved to countries in the south and east. Too often unions have responded by making common cause with the very employers sacking their members, against the foreign competition.
This approach has failed to protect jobs. Whether it is an employer threatening to dismiss and re-engage the same workers on lower pay (like the Durham teaching assistants), replacing workers with cheaper ones in the same workplace, or moving the jobs halfway round the world, workers are right to fight the degradation of employment. You can’t do that in partnership with the employer who is sacking you.
Thankfully workers are not always paralysed by the confusion of their leaders. Unite members at Capita and Prudential won important victories against offshoring. Members at the Fawley oil refinery spurned British Jobs For British Workers slogans and built solidarity to win equal pay for workers of all nationalities instead of trying to restrict the employment of migrants. Inspired by the Prudential win, industrial action in my own workplace currently includes refusal to cooperate with projects to move work offshore.
Unions should be following Fawley workers in demanding everyone is paid the rate for the job, regardless of employer, employment status, or nationality. We should be demanding full pay transparency, monitored by the unions. We should be calling for all jobs to be openly advertised, with no discrimination in hiring based on nationality. And existing workers should refuse to cooperate with handing over work unless their employment is assured.
The labour movement needs to regain the confidence to demand solutions that meet human needs, even when that upsets big business. We won’t do that by turning workers against each other on nationalist grounds, or by fudging the issue.
No general secretary candidate should chase votes by undermining the unity members need to defend their jobs. I am calling on Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne to join me in championing workers’ rights to move freely (not just within the EU) and opposing any employment restrictions based on nationality.