The UK Trade Unions and immigration controls

An interesting article by Thomas Fagan on the immigration issue in the recent UNITE the Union leadership election. Fagan shows how Len McCluskey (the election winner), in an article in The Morning Star, misrepresents Marx in order to justify his opportunistic opposition to free movement.

McCluskey quotes from a short speech, written by Marx, to the International Workingmen’s Association in 1867:

“A study of the struggle waged by the British working class reveals that in order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force.”

McCluskey uses this quote from Marx to then go on to argue that the issue Marx identified in 1867 is a problem confronting the British working class today:

Anyone who has had to negotiate for workers, in manufacturing in particular, knows the huge difficulties that have been caused by the ability of capital to move production around the world — often to China and the Far East or eastern Europe — in search of far lower labour costs and higher profits… [which is] all part of the flexible labour market model, ensuring a plentiful supply of cheap labour here for those jobs that can’t be exported elsewhere.

We can see that McCluskey is trying to draw a parallel between Marx and his own position, before he then goes on to suggest the need to get away from a flexible labour market model that promotes ‘free movement’ of labour and instead talk about protections for labour:

I believe it is time to change the language around this issue and to speak instead of safeguards for communities, for workers, and for industries needing labour. At the core of this must be the reassertion of collective bargaining and trade union strength. Unite has proposed 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. Put together with trade unions’ own organising efforts this would change the race-to-the-bottom culture into a rate-for-the-job society. It would end the fatal attraction of ever cheaper workers for employers without the requirement for formal quotas or restrictions.

McCluskey gives a nod to free movement as a worthy aim, but urges us to be realistic in today’s conditions:

Of course, all socialists must ultimately look forward to a day when people can move freely across the world and live or work where they will. But that is a utopia removed from the world of today, and would require international economic planning and public ownership to make a reality.

This view of internationalism, as Fagan points out, is very different from that of Marx. In the sentence immediately following from the one that McCluskey quotes, Fagan points out, Marx:

comes to the opposite conclusion. He doesn’t call for the erection of barriers. Marx writes: “Given this state of affairs [cheap labour], if the working class wishes to continue its struggle with some chance of success, the national organisations must become international”… Workers organising across borders was Marx’s solution, not putting a stop to workers moving.

Defending wages and conditions against a ‘race-to-the-bottom culture’ is something that workers have an interest in fighting for. The main thrust of McCluskey’s arguments, however, are geared towards securing the position of Trade Union bureaucrats, not towards building grassroots campaigns for workers’ rights or workplace based challenges to exploitation.

We can see this concern for bureaucratic power in McCluskey’s talk about ‘having had to negotiate for workers’. Most rank and file Union members experience is that Trade Union ‘leaders’ do not represent the interests of their members, but act as mediators between wage-labourers and employers. We can see this in McCluskey’s talk about ‘a proper trade union agreement’ or ‘sectoral collective bargaining’. Here he is harking back to a time when Trade Union ‘leaders’ had a cosier relationship with employers and the state, and used the power they gained from this relationship to stamp down on militant grassroots activity in the workplace. We can see it in McCluskey’s talk of ‘international economic planning and public ownership’. The model he appears to have in mind here in an internationalised version of the Soviet Union. In that labour bureaucrats ‘actually existing’ utopia ‘economic planning and public ownership’ meant the ruthless domination of workers by capital that was managed in the interests of an elite of state planners.

McCluskey’s worldview is not ‘workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’, it is ‘workers of the world unite behind helping labour bureaucrats to become part of the ruling class’.

McCluskey presents the interests of workers in the UK as being opposed to the interests of (would be) immigrant workers. Instead he could have pointed to numerous examples of ways in which immigrant workers in the UK – such as the Tres Cosas (or 3Cosas) campaign by immigrant worker cleaners at the University of London – have been furthering the interests of ALL workers. It is, however, no mere oversight on his part that he did not do so. These migrant led workplace based campaigns are a direct challenge to the Trade Union bureaucrats.

Tres Cosas is part of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which was formed by grassroots trade union organisers who broke from the established trade unions (including UNITE). The founders of IWGB were frustrated at the lack of democracy in the established Unions and the attempts by the public sector union UNISON ‘to undermine the [3Cosas] campaign and exclude the outsourced workers and campaigners from meaningful participation in the union’ (IWGB).

McCluskey complains about the flexible labour market that has eroded workers wages and conditions, but it is in this sector of employment that immigrant workers have made some of the most impressive actions. The IWGB has made some important gains by organising amongst this section of the working-class, that has been neglected by the established unions. The size and influence of the IWGB has grown because of the success of grassroots campaigns for better pay and conditions. The 3Cosas campaign, for example, for parity between University workers and outsourced workers on ‘three things’, (sick pay, holidays and pensions), won significant concessions on sick pay and holidays. The Couriers and Logistics branch has won important battles in the ‘gig economy’ against Uber and Deliveroo.

The experience of the founders of the IWGB shows that in order for working-class struggle to, in Marx’s words, have ‘some chance of success’ today it needs to involve workers of all nationalities organising together at a grassroots level to challenge their own exploitation.

For a discussion on the free movement and working class organisation that touches on some of the points in this blog have a listen to this podcast from Novaramedia.





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