Len McCluskey’s intervention in the debate over freedom of movement is aiding the Tories, and promoting myths about immigration that the trade union movement should be dismantling.
On 13 November McCluskey [general secretary of the Unite trade union] criticised the policy voted for at Labour Party conference, of defending and extending freedom of movement for all migrants. McCluskey said “It’s wrong in my view to have any greater free movement of labour unless you get stricter labour market regulation.”
What does stricter labour market regulation mean? If McCluskey means more rights for trade unions and stronger collective bargaining agreements to strengthen workers organising against the employers, then as a socialist and trade unionist I heartily agree. But that has nothing to do with freedom of movement. In fact, opposing freedom of movement, and the equal rights that accompany it, will only weaken unions. When workers’ immigration status is tied to their boss through visas or work permits, they are more vulnerable to exploitative employers who can have them arrested and deported at a whim.
One of the better ways to ensure “stricter labour market regulation”, would be to grant all workers the same rights and protections, regardless of their immigration status. This is what proponents of freedom of movement want, equal rights for all, with the right to live and work wherever we choose. In the same interview McCluskey shows he could make these arguments, but instead he panders to a nationalist and xenophobic worldview.
Commenting on the Brexit vote and why people voted Leave, McCluskey stated; “The other reason was migrant labour coming to the UK from Europe.
If you don’t understand those concerns, you fail to grasp the divisions that exist. Migrant workers are to blame for absolutely nothing in this country. They are just trying to better their lives and the lives of their families. It’s the greedy bosses that are using them to undercut pay and conditions.
“If we don’t deal with the issues and concerns, we will create a vacuum that will be filled by a far right seeking to become the voice of the white working class.”
In the same breath, McCluskey says migrant workers are to blame for nothing in this country, but then states they are the reason working-class people voted leave, and that issues and concerns over migration must be dealt with, or working class people will flock to the far-right.
McCluskey is completely right that migrant workers are not to blame, and it is greedy bosses that seek to undercut pay and conditions. Then why should freedom of movement be a problem? We will always have migration, its a natural part of the human condition. As long as bosses exist they will be greedy and seek to increase their profits at our expense, through any means, including pitting workers against each other for scarce resources. Its infinitely better that people be able to migrate knowing they have full social and legal rights, than have them be treated as second class citizens, and made more vulnerable by dint of their immigration status.
The solution to inequality is never to raise borders higher, or deprive workers of their rights, but to organise and unionise all workers to fight together for higher wages and better conditions, to cut across the nationalist and racial divisions that the bosses try and create with their borders and unjust immigration controls.
The “issues and concerns” people have with migration is because migrants are scapegoated for the social ills of capitalism; for lack of housing, problems with the health service and low wages. We do not deal with these “issues and concerns” by spreading the idea that controls on migration benefit workers, that just feeds the bosses racist, nationalist narratives. We strengthen our side and deal with people’s grievances by patiently explaining that it is not migrants, but the system that is to blame, and by engaging in practical organising of workers and communities across national and racial lines to fight together for the benefit of all.
It is solidarity between workers that wins struggles, and McCluskey’s message undermines that solidarity, and helps our employers and the Tories pit workers against each other. He should stop criticising freedom of movement, and start promoting it, alongside calling for international solidarity between all workers against the bosses and their capitalist system.
● From the Labour for a Socialist Europe website, labourforasocialisteurope.org