McCluskey in disarray on free movement of workers

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Photo: Rasande Tyskar, flickr

When I launched the campaign for General Secretary of Unite on Thursday evening, Len McCluskey’s backsliding on free movement of labour was one of the issues I raised. Little did I know how the issue would explode yesterday, with McCluskey and his supporters in full denial mode.

This is not a new issue. Even before the Brexit referendum, McCluskey described EU migration as a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. At the Unite Policy Conference shortly after the referendum, I moved an emergency motion from my industrial sector which defended free movement. McCluskey and the Executive Council opposed this in favour of a woolly executive statement that called for a “debate” on free movement.

Since then McCluskey has set out his position in various places, including a speech for the think tank CLASS.

Contrary to some of the exaggerated reporting, McCluskey isn’t directly calling for an end to workers’ right to move freely, though it is telling that his reasons for doing so are not principled ones – his speech describes pulling up the drawbridge as impractical, worries that it would alienate some Labour voters, and sees free movement as the “price” for access to the EU single market. This last point implies that instead of workers’ freedom to travel and work being vital, they are a necessary evil, whereas the free market is a desireable goal. In reality it is free market neoliberalism, not free movement of workers, which has been destroying our lives in recent decades.

McCluskey tries to fudge the argument further by talking about “safeguards” rather than “controls”. He says “My 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“. Stripped of spin, what this really means is that he wants some workers (Currently abroad? Born abroad? Abroad before last month?) to be banned from applying for jobs in most of the UK economy, because we don’t have union agreements covering most jobs – particularly in some industries where many migrant workers are forced to work.

McCluskey’s fudge gives far too much ground to the discredited “British Jobs For British Workers” argument. The working class, and Unite members, are from all over the world. We can’t build and maintain unity, and the strength to extend collective bargaining and defend our jobs and pay, if we fudge this question. McCluskey’s comments are reminiscent of some elements of a previous generation of trade unionists who sought to exclude women from some jobs because of of a fear “they” would push down “our” wages. Of course McCluskey isn’t this crude – he is an anti-racist. But we need clear leadership from the top of our union, not fudging that concedes ground to those who are nationalists and racists.

Unite members are already successfully grappling with these issues at workplace level. A few years ago the construction industry say disputes with people carrying “British Jobs For British Workers” placards, a slogan promoted by Gordon Brown and Derek Simpson – and which stoked divisive racism and nationalism. Earlier this year Unite members at Fawley oil refinery won an important dispute which secured equal pay for migrant workers. Solidarity beat scapegoating and division. This is the right approach.

I’m pleased that McCluskey and his supporters are now seeking to distance themselves from calls for restrictions on free movement. Part of the purpose of standing was to force key issues onto the agenda and avoid the election being reduced to a debate between “more of the same” McCluskey and “turn the clock back” Coyne.

I am calling on Len McCluskey to put an end to the fudge and come out clearly for free movement of workers, and against any rules that treat workers differently based on their nationality.

Members need Unite to be a strong and successful union, and this is only possible if it includes all  workers, rather than reflecting a mythical white British male working class of the past.

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