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.

 

 

 

Pro-immigrant protests in the USA

It has been inspiring to hear about all of the pro-immigrant activity in the USA, in opposition to the ‘Muslim ban’, in opposition to deportations, in favour of sanctury cities.

The Best of the Left podcast has a useful round-up of some of the coverage on radio and podcasts. The webpage has, in addition to edits from radio and podcasts, a section that provides links to some of the activist sites, info for immigrants and a ‘Educate yourself’ section that contains links to (mostly) websites for newspapers. Check it out at:

http://www.bestoftheleft.com/_1083_trump_s_immigration_crackdown_has_begun

1 Day Without Us

Open Borders Scotland are supporting the 1 Day Without Us: National Day of Action on 20th of February. We are actively working with the Dumfries (South West Scotland) campaign. We reproduce their working statement below.

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Working Statement – 1 Day Without Us: Dumfries

Politicians like Theresa May and Nigel Farage say that immigrants are foreigners. We say that immigrants are real people. They are living human beings who have hopes and dreams. They are neighbours and friends. They are parents and children. They are doctors and teachers, carers and carpenters.

Immigrants from outside the UK are a tiny proportion of the population of Dumfries and Galloway (less than 2%). Many of these immigrants help to make the region a better place to live in. Fifteen years ago it was almost impossible to register with an NHS dentist in Dumfries and Galloway. Today, everyone can have an NHS dentist, thanks to immigrants. Do we really want to return to the days when NHS dentists were as rare as hen’s teeth?

Immigrants enrich the life of Dumfries and Galloway. You might prefer Chinese noodles to Indian curry, or Italian pizza to Turkish kebab. But, whichever you prefer, its good to have a wider variety to choose from.

Without immigrants we would have fewer doctors, nurses or consultants. Without immigrants we would have fewer care workers or barbers. Without immigrants we’d have less variety in our schools. Immigrants open up windows to other parts of the world and help us to see our common humanity, within our our enormous diversity.

May, Farage and other anti-immigrant public figures blame immigrants for taking money away from the NHS. Across the UK the NHS is in crisis, but it is not in crisis because of immigrants. It is in crisis because of the policies of successive governments. Junior doctors did not go on strike because of immigrants, they went on strike because of the work conditions that the government was trying to impose. We have immigrant doctors and nurses because successive governments have failed to invest in training more, not because immigrants are coming here to steal jobs. Farage and his fellow Leave campaigners told us to vote for Brexit and we could spend the money that currently goes to Brussels on the NHS instead. When a majority voted for Brexit they back-pedalled. They said the NHS was just an example. They didn’t actually mean that the money would go to the NHS. Politicians play politics with our health, while immigrant doctors and nurses take care of the elderly, help us when we are ill and save our lives. We should not let politicians scapegoat immigrants as the problem. We should hold them to account for the problems that they create.

The UK is in a mess. Public services, and those who work in them, are being squeezed. Many of us are feeling the pain of austerity. Immigrants are not to blame for this pain. Immigrants played no part in the Financial Crash of 2007-08. Immigrants did not spend billions, yes billions!!!, of taxpayers money bailing out the banks that caused the Crash. Immigrants did not create the Great Recession that followed. When the Crash happened it wasn’t immigrants who said that we need to tighten our belts, it was politicians and employers. It was the same politicians who awarded themselves pay rises. It was the same politicians who defended multi-million pound bonuses for big financiers in the City of London. These people live in a different world to us, a world that is foreign to us. We have far more in common with the average immigrant than we do with the average politician or wealthy businessman (and yes, they are usually men). Don’t let them scapegoat the immigrants who live on our streets, who work in our towns, who rub shoulders with us every day of the week.

On the 20th of February we have an opportunity to say “immigrants are part of our lives, we want them to stay”. We have a chance to spread hope and love, not fear and hate. Together, immigrants and locals, we can say no to scapegoating and yes to a world that puts human-beings before profit

Immigration and wages

Interesting article by Don Flynn (formerly director of Migrant Rights Network) arguing that immigration does not suppress wages. He cites OECD data on GDP and wages since the 1970s (but he doesn’t provide any links to the source; and doesn’t make it clear if he is referring specifically to the UK; or what year the dataset ends on – OBS will ask him for this info).

According to Don, the OECD data shows that as a proportion of overall wealth created (he uses GDP as his measure) wages have been declining – from a high of 64 per cent in the mid- 1970s to a low of 52 per cent in 1998, when a slight recovery began.

If true, this is very significant. It means that the decline in proportion of GDP going to wages actually began AFTER tighter immigration controls were enacted (in the 1960s and 1970s). If true, this is a powerful argument against the idea that immigrants are suppressing wages, and points to employers and government policies as responsible for suppressing wages. If true, it suggests – as Don Flynn puts it – a working-class case for freedom of movement. It is employers and politicians, not immigrants, who are driving down the wages of ordinary working people. Immigrants and ordinary working people have a common interest in combining to resist wage restrictions. (And there are groups – like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain – organising in this way).

This is worth investigating further. Some initial questions I have.

If wages have been declining as a proportion of GDP, what has been increasing? Has there been, for example, an increase in proportion going to pensions, or capital investment, or national debt payments? If the decrease is entirely accounted for by the increase in proportion going to pensions, then this may reflect an aging population, rather than an attack on the living standards of the working-class.

Wages overall as a proportion of GDP have not been evenly distributed across the workforce. There is significant income inequality in the UK. Has the decline in wages been concentrated in sectors where immigrants are concentrated, rather than in sectors where they have not (as some academic research suggests)? If this academic research is correct that does not mean that there cannot be a working-class argument in favour of free movement, but it does appear to invalidate Don Flynn’s argument.

On the US election

The election of Donald Trump, an unpredictable demagogue who has run an openly racist anti-immigrant election campaign, is shocking. Trump himself has drawn parallels between the Presidential election campaign and Brexit in the UK. No doubt some on the Right in the UK and throughout Europe will feel emboldened by Trump’s election. This is a dangerous period in history that we are now in. We must, however, face it ‘with sober senses’, not with kneejerk reactions. The Brexit vote and the Trump vote were not straightforward anti-immigrant votes (see e.g.: http://www.thecanary.co/…/now-finally-know-real-reason-bre…/ ).

Already we can see parallels between the anti-working-class reaction to the election of Trump and the reaction to the Brexit vote. Those ‘cosmopolitans’ who blame ordinary working people as ‘stupid’, or ‘deplorables’ or ‘racists’ are elitist (see e.g.: http://www.newstatesman.com/world/north-america/2016/11/voting-trump-and-brexit-what-working-class-revolt-really-about ). This kind of contempt for ordinary working people is one of the reasons why many ordinary working people voted Brexit/Trump. It should be condemned.

Anyone who is interested in human freedom needs to work hard to drive a wedge between the Right and ordinary working-class people. Blaming ordinary working people is a barrier to that.

Ordinary working people are sick of austerity. They are sick of a remote political class who cares nothing for the reality of most ordinary people’s existence. Trump, Teresa May and other political leaders in the West will not be able to reverse austerity without attacking the living standards of ordinary working people. Instead of looking to the lesser evil (the EU/Hilary Clinton or whatever), elites who present themselves as voices of the oppressed (Trump in the USA, Podemos in Spain, the SNP in Scotland) or reheated state socialism (Corbyn in the UK, Sanders in the USA) we need to build an independent alternative that puts human freedom centre stage (see e.g. http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/…/the-extraordinar…).

One way we can start to make the case for human freedom is to make the case for working-class support for open borders. As that old German poltical exile in London once put it ‘workers of all countries unite’.

Byron Burgers and open borders

Useful article by Don Flynn (former Migrant Rights Network director) on the Byron Burgers shopping of their employees. Flynn makes three key points against those who say that Byron are a victim of UK immigration policy:

Firstly, employers have generally been beneficiaries of deregulated labour markets that have been a major driver of immigration:

employers have benefitted enormously from the deregulation of labour markets over the years which have been one of the main driving forces of large-scale migration.  Across whole sectors of the economy – from food production and processing, hotels and restaurants, construction and health and care services, retailing and more – there is scarcely a company in the UK which has not factored in the ready availability of hundreds of thousands of workers with minimal rights to job security into its business plans.  The rise of the ‘gig’ economy is the big story of recent years, and its birth has been nursed along by successive governments which have demanded the maximum of flexibility from its workforce.

Secondly, businesses that have benefitted from deregulated labour markets have been silent on the issue of immigrant worker welfare:

Tens of thousands of businesses across the UK are, like Byron Hamburgers, massively dependent on a migrant labour force as the source of their profits.  But whilst they form part of a powerful pressure group on government policy on matters concerning other areas of regulation business has remained silent when it comes to issues that concern the security and welfare of the workers who are responsible for making their profits.

Thirdly, Byron were not legally obligated to set up their workers:

It is not true to say that Byron’s management were obliged by law to provide this level of cooperation [by setting up the entrapment meetings].  By the accounts they had provided to the media they say that they had discharged all their obligations under immigration law to check documents and keep them on file.  Furnished with this defence they were quite entitled to tell immigration officers that they had done what was required of them and any further action would have to be taken on the sole initiative of the Home Office itself.

Online at: http://www.migrantsrights.org.uk/blog/2016/08/byron-hamburgers-when-employers-fail-do-right-migrant-employees