The British Labour Party, backed by the trade union movement, fought a great, honourable battle in the last century for dignity of labour and fair pay. This is all being lost, thanks in part to the arrival of waves of cheap labour from the east.
– Peter Oborne, 2013
It would ordinarily be hard to imagine a Daily Telegraph columnist as defender of trade unions and their achievements. Harder still when one considers that only four years previously, the same Peter Oborne had praised Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the unions in the pages of the Daily Mail. As Emerson put it, ‘the louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons’ (Emerson, 1860).
But Oborne is pursuing a well-worn strategy of divide and rule. He presents a sort of hierarchy, in which workers are encouraged to identify themselves (and perhaps their unions) as being a step above migrants. This is as crude as religious bigotry in Northern Ireland, which was derided by Eamonn McCann as a ‘tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence’. McCann went on to point out the function of sectarianism, citing former Northern Irish PM Brian Faulkner praising factory owners marching shoulder to shoulder with their workforce, thus guaranteeing themselves, ‘the feeling of security that the wage earners wouldn’t be marching against them’ (McCann, 1986).
Some expect unions themselves to continue to fall for this; in 2007, one Labour leader even called for British jobs for British workers at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Conference. Trade unions are essentially economic reformist organisations – they seek to organise and represent the maximum proportion of workers in a workplace or industry. This means that they can encompass a membership which has a wide diversity of opinions, but (in reality) a narrow range of economic interests. At the same time, members may expect that, as well as protecting ‘vested interests’ (that is, those of existing members supposedly privileged by their insider status), unions will also act as the ‘sword of justice’, seeking to combat injustice and inequality (Flanders, 1970). The apparent contradiction between the two roles is displayed when it comes to migration. Migrants may be regarded as victims, as competitors (and agents of the bosses), or comrades, and we do not have to look very hard to find examples of all of these in our history.
For example, ex-international West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine worked for the British Labour Ministry during World War II as a welfare officer dealing with black migrant workers in factories in the north west. He reported that the Boilermakers’ union, soured by the experience of post-World War I unemployment amongst their members, were refusing to admit black workers into membership, but went on to report: ‘The electrical unions, on the other hand, were most helpful, and allowed coloured representatives to take places on Union Committees’ (Constantine, 1954).
More recently, the sword of justice was evidenced by General Secretary Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, in his outspoken opposition to New Labour’s introduction of vouchers for asylum seekers, and also in the TUC’s support of the Committee to Assist Refugee Academics’ guide on education for refugees in 2005.
It might be argued that adopting such positions is easier over general principles than over matters of economic competition. A member of the Executive Council of the National Union of Seamen made the reasoning for hostility to migration explicit at the NUS General Meeting in 1958: ‘I am a very democratically minded man; I have no objection to an Asiatic seaman or a West Indian earning a living, but when my own standard of living is jeopardised then it is a different matter’. This is not a million miles away from the position recently proposed by current RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, successor to the NUS) General Secretary Bob Crow: ‘Free movement within the EU impoverishes workers in a race to the bottom and creates a “brain drain” in eastern European countries, condemning them to a future of underdevelopment and decline’ (2013).
Yet alongside the history of protectionism is another, much more honourable one based on solidarity. Unions in both public and private sectors (including the RMT) have chosen to draw in members from migrant communities, often seeking out organisers and activists from those communities in order to resist the race to the bottom. In this context it is worth noting that in a workplace, the presence of trade union organisation is a better predictor of higher wages and conditions than the presence of migrant workers is a predictor of poor ones.
We are better placed now than we were in the 1960s and 70s with regards to ideas of equality, although further back in terms of the means to deliver them. Unions remain places where ideas and strategy are contested, and who wins those contests matters. A fight against low pay or zero hours will benefit all workers, but cannot be won without the participation of all: not by appealing to what divides, as Oborne does, but to what unites.
Constantine, L. (1954) Colour Bar, London: Stanley Paul & Co.
Emerson, R. W. (1860) Worship in “The Conduct of Life”, Fairfords: Echo Library
Flanders, A. (1970) Management and Unions: The Theory and Reform of Industrial Relations, London: Faber and Faber.
Hewitt, D. (1958) The Proceedings of the General Meeting, National Union of Seamen.
McCann, Eamonn (1986) ‘The Protestant Working Class’, Socialist Worker Review, 89: 19-21.
Oborne, P. (2013) ‘Immigration: Britain’s Doors Are Wide Open, and We Can’t even Talk about It’, Daily Telegraph (13 November).
RMT (2013) ‘Bob Crow Explains Why No2EU is Standing in 2014 Elections’, RMT website, http://www.rmt.org.uk/news/bob-crow-explains-why-no2eu-is-standing-in-2014-elections/ accessed 14 November 2013.