Free movement is a workers’ right – Unite must defend it

Lisa Leak argues that defending freedom of movement for migrant workers is the only way forward for British trade unions.

UK Border Control | © Danny Howard/FlickR

On Monday (27 March) Unite members started to vote on who will be their next General Secretary – the centrist incumbent, Len McCluskey; the right-winger, Gerard Coyne; or the socialist, rank-and-file candidate, Ian Allinson. We are currently publishing a series of short articles on the core themes of Ian’s campaign, which rs21 fully endorses and supports.

Across the world, a fight is raging around the rights of migrants and refugees. From Washington to Sofia, nationalist regimes are implementing chilling measures against refugees and asylum seekers. The Brexit vote in Britain is being taken as a mandate for a political lurch to the xenophobic Right. Everywhere, mainstream politicians have nurtured anti-migrant sentiment as a division tactic in times of generalised hardship. Now the backlash they have ignited is taking on a terrifying life of its own.

One of the places this struggle manifests itself in Britain is in the workplace, where bosses and managers seek to divide their workforce by frightening British workers with the spectre of migrant competition whilst threatening their migrant colleagues with deportation or dismissal. It is essential that all UK trade unions respond to this strategy by pro-actively developing solidarity between migrant and non-migrant workers. It is not good enough for union leaders to pay lip-service to a vaguely defined anti-racism whilst neglecting to make this rhetoric a reality in their day-to-day practice.

Sadly, in Unite, the UK’s largest union, the latter kind of leadership is exactly what’s on offer from the two establishment candidates running for General Secretary, Gerard Coyne and Len McCluskey.

Coyne, the Right’s candidate in the race, has been open and explicit in his anti-migrant views. Through outlets such as the Sun and the Daily Express, Coyne has called constantly for “taking back control of our borders”, even attacking Theresa May from the Right over her apparent failure to be sufficiently anti-migrant.

But the incumbent McCluskey has also failed to provide the defence of solidarity that migrant and non-migrant workers alike so badly need.

The day after the Brexit vote, McCluskey called for steps to address the “genuinely held concerns of the public” over “the difficult issue of the free movement of labour and its impact on working people.” This was hardly a bolt from the blue: three weeks before the referendum, McCluskey had described freedom of movement between EU member states as “a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers”.

It is true that McCluskey’s position is far subtler than Coyne’s. He has stopped short of blaming migrants themselves for downward pressure on wages, instead lambasting the “greedy bosses” who “use” migrants to undercut British workers. To tackle this, McCluskey calls for a set of radical restrictions on employers, whereby “Any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad should only be able to do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement or by sectoral collective bargaining”. The accompanying slogan is to call to “change the race-to-the-bottom culture” to a “rate-for-the job society”.

However, the separation between this position and Coyne’s is far narrower than it appears. The scenario McCluskey claims to be aiming for is a total fantasy. At a time of dismally low union membership and scant worker protections, the reality is that only a very small proportion of migrants will be covered by the robust collective bargaining agreements that McCluskey is talking about. Unless he seriously envisages migrant workers receiving better terms than their British equivalents, McCluskey’s policy would amount to a ban on migrant workers across most of the UK economy.

Not only does this approach betray migrant workers, it also misreads the politics of immigration in a way that will backfire on all workers, both migrant and otherwise.

McCluskey’s trademark rhetorical move of blaming “greedy bosses” for hiring migrants is not unlike the government talking point blaming “people smugglers” for the migrant crisis – both these bogeymen do exist, but each is only one cog in a much larger machine. The “tough” border controls that the political Right wing is calling for are not really intended to keep people out – they’re meant to ensure that, once workers do enter Britain, they will be legally vulnerable, financially dependent, and, therefore, easy to exploit. This will only make migrant workers even more appealing to employers, to the detriment, too, of their British counterparts.

Defending the pay and protections of British workers entails fighting for their migrant colleagues to be free from harassment and entrapment – not only within the workplace, but at the border as well.

Of the Unite General Secretary candidates, only Ian Allinson has taken a clear-sighted stance on this crucial issue. His campaign has made the case that unity among workers is the way forward for British and migrant workers alike, building on recent victories like that at Fawley, where managers’ attempts to exploit lower-paid migrant workers were defeated by united strike action for equal pay and conditions. Ian’s stand on freedom of movement makes him the only choice for a Unite that wins through solidarity, rather than dividing workers and fracturing their common strength.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here