The UK Left after Brexit: Free Movement and the Unions

by Thomas Fagan

Unite the Union

The issue of free movement of European Union (EU) workers is an incredibly important issue on the Left and in the trade unions in particular. Unite the Union (commonly known as “Unite”)––which is the biggest union in Britain, with 1.42 million members across many industries––has just concluded a brutal election. The candidate of the Right, Gerard Coyne, with the backing of reviled tabloids like the Sun, came within 5,000 votes of defeating the Left incumbent, Len McCluskey. The other Left candidate, Ian Allinson, put in a very decent showing, receiving over 17,000 votes with almost no resources.

Allinson’s position on free movement of EU labour was in stark contrast to that of McCluskey and Coyne. Allinson’s position on free movement was unequivocal: “The question of workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally is not going away. While the two establishment candidates in the Unite General Secretary election fudge and backslide on it, I have made it an important theme of my campaign.” Allinson in fact moved a resolution at the Unite Conference defending free movement.

Coyne’s position on free movement was bordering on the xenophobic: “Britain’s working classes have been betrayed so rich establishment figures can hire cheap nannies and butlers.”

The position of Len McCluskey is the most interesting of the three candidates, as he positions himself on the Left and had indeed received the backing of most of the traditional Left in this election. The irony of McCluskey’s Left populism, however, is that it’s not that popular after all, given the closeness of his victory and an extreme right-wing candidate failing to win by a whisker.

migrant workers protest Trafalgar Square
protest of migrant workers in Trafalgar Square, London

In an article he wrote for the Morning Star (formerly the infamous Stalinist Daily Worker), McCluskey even invoked the authority of Karl Marx to try to justify an end to free movement of labour within the EU today, and called for controls being placed on EU migrants. His view is that mobility of labour is a device for the capitalists to exploit cheap labour. He argues that trade unions have never been in favour of free movement. The argument continues that the EU has used competition from traditionally low-wage economies to lower wage levels and has caused living standards to slide.

This article, unusual for someone who claims to be a Socialist, begins not with a call for the protection of living standards or union rights, but with fears expressed within the union about migration: “[There] is no doubt”, begins the article, “that concerns about the impact of the free movement of labour in Europe played a large part in the referendum result, particularly in working-class communities.”

He continues in the same vein: “As long ago as 2009 private surveys of Unite membership opinion were showing that even then our members were more concerned about immigration than any other political issue.” But these “fears” are interpreted as being somehow positive, and at the bottom of it all, they are “class” concerns, as though somehow migrant EU workers aren’t part of the working class. His argument, apparently backed by Marx, is that migration should be restricted to protect workers’ wages and conditions. The article goes on:

Let’s have no doubt: the free movement of labour is a class question. Karl Marx identified that fact a long time ago. “A study of the struggle waged by the British working class,” he wrote in 1867, “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.”

But Marx, in the very next sentence, 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” (emphasis added). Workers organising across borders was Marx’s solution, not putting a stop to workers moving.

Distortion of Marx is extremely common on the Left, and it is of critical importance for workers to go back and see what Marx actually said. Let’s remember that Marx wasn’t just a theoretician, but an active international labour organiser. Marx’s solution clearly did not mean British workers putting up no-entry signs on factory gates.

McCluskey continues, “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.” Specifically, Unite are proposing that foreign workers can only apply for jobs in the UK if these posts have been sanctioned by a union agreement. Trade union membership in the private sector has fallen to just 13.9% of the workforce. So over 86% of the UK private-sector jobs are not covered by any union agreement. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the strategies of the trade-union leaders, including McCluskey.

Interestingly, the Socialist Party’s theoretical journal, which is supportive of Len McCluskey’s approach, interprets him thus:

the trade union movement’s approach to fighting for the approach outlined by Len McCluskey has to be to win workers from other countries to the trade union movement and demand they are employed at the rate and conditions for the job. That would cut across attempts by employers to use them as a tool to lower wages for all.

How do you win EU workers to the trade union movement when, under the Unite the Union scheme and that of the Socialist Party, they wouldn’t even be allowed to be in the UK to find work in the first place?

McCluskey’s arguments are not new. These arguments about collective agreements in relation to foreign workers were an ever-present feature of the American labour and trade-union movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Faced with huge levels of migration from Europe of mainly cheap unskilled labour, the big U.S. union federation, the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), tried to negotiate sectoral agreements that would restrict labour supply and protect the “native” U.S. workers against the influx of foreign workers.

In fact, the AF of L spearheaded the movement for restricting immigration through their lobbying in the U.S. Congress. Ironically, the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (does this ring any bells?) were at the forefront of a new wave of industrial union organising!

Worryingly, Len McCluskey begins with the premise that unions have to combat what he himself calls “concerns about free movement of labour,” not with any campaign to implement a strategy to combat poor conditions in the 86% of workplaces not covered by a union agreement.

He has constructed this ambiguous phrase on “union agreements” to pacify and not confront the idea of “bad migration,” which is held by a section of the union membership, while at the same time presenting his Left audience and cheerleaders (the Socialist Party and Communist Party) with a demand that sounds very radical. The Left audience ignore the context in which he was writing and the audience to which he was addressing his remarks on free movement. Instead, they read him as demanding that all workers across the UK should be employed on the best terms and conditions available to union members. That’s great. I would agree too. But that’s not the point McCluskey was making! He wants to prohibit all foreign workers whose jobs here are not “covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining” from entering the UK.

Brexit and the political Left

Officially, even the Labour Party now supports Brexit. But what of the rest of the Left?

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK have their own uniquely cynical way of interpreting the erosion of workers’ rights after Brexit. First of all, they earnestly campaigned for Brexit. They were campaigning for what they called a “Socialist Brexit,” not a capitalist one, even though the word socialism wasn’t actually on the ballot paper!

Cynically, when they saw that EU workers were rightly frightened at the spike in racism and their uncertain status post-Brexit, they sponsored campaigns entitled “Hands off our EU workmates! Stand up to Racism!” Prior to the referendum, however, Joseph Choonara of the SWP breezily dismissed the warnings about the problems that would be faced by EU citizens in the UK. In a debate before the Brexit referendum, Choonara declared,

the fact that there are … about two million British people living in the EU, including about a million, many of them retirees, in Spain, makes it far less likely that people would be told to leave. No government is likely to want to risk the political consequences of mutual expulsions of residents.

Talk about a spectacular misjudgement! But never mind. He must have reasoned correctly that his activists would soon forget all about these errors once the amnesiac “Hands off our EU workmates!” campaign had begun.

The true picture post-Brexit

Brexit threatens not only migrant workers’ rights, but workers’ rights in general, such as Maternity Rights, Maximum Working Time Regulation, Annual Leave, Parental Leave, Agency Worker protections, Health and Safety and other rights. Many of the workers’ rights that have been won over many decades, currently incorporated into UK law, will no longer be secured by EU law and could potentially be abolished. The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will also be ended. According to the House of Commons Library, a “substantial component” of workers’ rights in the UK comes from EU law.

The Brexit Secretary David Davis said his Great Repeal Bill would allow the UK Parliament to scrap, amend and “improve laws.” One example of an “improvement” to workers’ rights is illustrated by the precedent of a previous Tory Government’s attack on the Working Time Directive. This Directive gives EU workers the right to at least 4 weeks (28 days) of paid holidays each year, rest breaks, and rest of at least 11 hours in any 24-hour period; it restricts excessive night work; it allows for a day off after a week’s work; and it provides for a right to work no more than 48 hours per week. Not great. But even these limited protections could be “improved” away. Back in 1993, the then-UK Employment Secretary David Hunt fought furiously against this Directive. In 1993, when this regulation was agreed after an 11–1 vote, Hunt said:

It is a flagrant abuse of Community rules. It has been brought forward as such simply to allow majority voting––a ploy to smuggle through part of the Social Chapter by the back door. The UK strongly opposes any attempt to tell people that they can no longer work the hours they want.

The Conservative Government launched a legal challenge to the Directive in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In November 1996, the ECJ rejected this challenge. The Tories lost, and workers gained these important rights. Rights such as these are now in danger. Alongside this attack on workers’ rights, the Government is aiming to drive down immigration, using Brexit as a stick to attack migrant workers.

Employers see the EU working-time and agency-workers’ directives as undermining the flexibility of the UK’s labour market. Businesses would be particularly keen to see the repeal of these requirements.

The Left in the UK must have seen all of this coming. Campaigning for Brexit was a disaster. Not admitting that you made this error will be seen as an unforgiveable blunder by the vast majority of workers and a tragic milestone in the history of the UK left. The new “Right-Left” unity over Brexit must be mercilessly criticised and exposed.

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