The current General Secretary of Unite is up for his second re-election and blames “greedy bosses” and government austerity policies for the fall in wages. Workers should be defended “wherever they are from”, he says.
Marcos Ortiz F.
Leading the largest union in the United Kingdom since 2011, with more than 1.4 million members, Len McCluskey is not throwing the towel in.
This new race to be General Secretary confronts the uncertainties of Brexit, as this is the new big challenge facing employers, workers and the political class in general. Going around the country to gather support, the 66-year-old union leader claims that the rivalry between British workers and migrants is a fabrication by bosses, while he defends the importance of Latin Americans in Unite.
Do migrants working in the British Isles have reason to be worried? Is it possible to help refugees and combat British workers’ fears at the same time?
Linked to unions since he was 18 years old, and in the middle of his campaign to achieve a third term, this man whose perseverance has already written him into the history of English workers’ movements tries to clear up some doubts left by the referendum. The Prisma spoke to Len McCluskey.
You said that “Workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable”. What is your position on freedom of movement?
Concerns about the impact of the free movement of labour in Europe undoubtedly played a large part in the Brexit referendum result, particularly in working-class communities. My position is that while the trade union movement cannot ignore those concerns, we must oppose those who advocate simply “pulling up the drawbridge”. That approach is both wrong and impractical and we must reject any form of racism, along with continuing to help refugees fleeing war.
However, what I have called for in order to deal with the concerns working people have that the free movement of labour means a downward pressure on wages, are safeguards for communities, workers and the industries needing labour.
Arguments that wage rates are not affected by freedom of labour simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. The fact is that when all a worker has to sell is their capacity to work, the value of that work is going to be affected by people willing to do it for less money. In this way, greedy bosses, not migrant workers, are pitting worker against worker.
Safeguards would ensure that any employer recruiting from abroad must be covered by a proper union or collective bargaining agreement, which would stop greedy bosses cutting costs by slashing workers’ wages and exploiting migrant workers.
Is immigration an opportunity or a risk for Unite and its members?
It is undoubtedly an opportunity. I’m always reminded of the TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and how the characters in that went to Germany in order to find work and put food on the table and in the bellies of their children. People come from abroad to find work in Britain for the same reasons.
Migration is only a problem when politicians mismanage it and bosses exploit vulnerable people. It’s not the fault of working people, wherever they are from.
Zero-hours contracts are a reality in the United Kingdom. What is your position and your plan to deal with them?
The scourge of insecure working is rising. I have repeatedly called for zero-hour contracts to be banned, as a step towards addressing economic and employment uncertainty and to make work pay in this country. If it can be done in New Zealand, it can be done here.
But, zero-hours contracts are not the sole reason that around one in 10 workers in the UK are in insecure jobs. Self-employment and the rise of the gig economy (a trendy term for the age-old problem of a casual labour market) are an even bigger issue. Many self-employed people are without employment rights, social security, pensions and any kind of safety net. They are not earning enough to pay tax.
What has been and what will be the effect of Brexit on immigrant workers?
It is leading to a great deal of uncertainty. The Tory government is attempting to use EU citizens living and working here as some sort of bargaining chip, almost as hostages in the negotiations. This is shameful and must stop. EU citizens living and working here must be given the right to remain – now.
We know that many companies are holding up decisions about future investment and that there is anecdotal evidence that migrant workers in sectors such as construction are, or are looking at, returning home. That’s why they need to have the right to remain now.
In your words, “while we must reject any form of racism and help refugees fleeing war, we must also listen to the concerns of working people”. Is there a conflict between these two positions?
Not necessarily. We can’t refuse to hear working people’s concerns, or we will never have their support. But the fact is that elements of the political and press classes are encouraging people to look at those with whom they have more in common than they have differences as their enemy. They are pitting worker against worker.
We have to be clear that we will never allow ordinary people to see others as the enemy, and will keep on shining the spotlight on who is really to blame for a decline in pay and living standards – not migrant workers but greedy bosses, and government austerity policies.
Is there a specific policy in your programme for Latin American workers who are members of Unite? How important are they to the union?
Unite is a grassroots union, led by its grassroots. Our Latin American members have organised themselves within Unite into a force to be reckoned with, and I am very proud to have received the backing of Nemequene Tundama, who represents Latin American Young Activists within Unite. He has said that Latin American workers have, under my leadership, been able to progress as migrants, activists and workers.
Under my leadership, Unite has worked in solidarity with groups such as Justice for Colombia and is developing the next generation of trade union activists through Unite’s organising and cultural programmes.
What is your position on the detention of immigrant workers in the United Kingdom?
Unite has never as a union looked at borders when people join us as workers. If someone is working here, we will offer them protection. There are no easy answers to these issues, but we must remain committed to the values of fairness, humanity and justice. That means that wherever our members stand up to defend their fellow workers, wherever they are from and whatever their status, the union is behind them.
Photos: Wikimedia, Pixabay and Wikipedia – (Intro translated by Donna Davison. Email: email@example.com)