Socialist Worker

Bosses, not migrants, push down wages—unions must defend freedom of movement

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans in Brighton
Issue No. 2571

TUC general secretary Frances OGrady wants to look at other models for immigration

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady wants to look at 'other models' for immigration (Pic: Johninnit/Wikimedia commons)


Delegates at the TUC union federation conference considered trade unions’ response to Brexit yesterday, Sunday—and came up with a confused position.

The conference passed the TUC leadership’s position, which supports the European Union’s (EU) single market—and opens the door to attacks on migrants.

Steve Turner from the TUC general council introduced the leadership’s statement on a “jobs first, rights first” Brexit. “This statement tackles hard questions that the government won’t,” he said.

“The TUC campaigned to remain in the EU—we lost, we get it. Millions voted against an out of touch political elite, they voted to reject Tory austerity as much as Brussels bureaucracy.”

He added, “Despite the differing views in our movement, we have a statement that unites us.”

In reality the statement is a dangerous fudge that will not protect workers or migrants’ rights—and could actually undermine workers’ unity.

The statement opened the door to blaming migrants for low wages and pressure on public services. “The approach taken in the UK has allowed bad employers to profit whilst letting public services decline,” it said.

“The UK should look at other countries’ models of free movement and should use all the domestic powers at its disposal to manage the impact of migration.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that such alternative models included public sector jobs being “reserved for locals,” although she added, “We’re not necessarily advocating them”.

Yet delegates also overwhelmingly passed a motion defending freedom of movement. “Congress calls on the General Council to defend existing free movement of labour within the European Economic Area,” it said.

Migrants—part of our class
Migrants—part of our class
  Read More

Dave Ward, CWU union general secretary, opposed the motion. “It’s a potential contraction to respecting the referendum,” he said. “Free movement without protection for workers can lead to exploitation.”

Yet the referendum result was not a blanket anti-migrant vote—and leaving the EU does not force the government to restrict immigration.

Sally Hunt, UCU union general secretary said, “We will never stop arguing for free movement of labour.

“I keep hearing the argument that immigrants should stay at home building their own societies or that they’re taking jobs and depressing wages.

“It can in many ways border on racist to blame those from other countries for lowering wages. It is employers who depress wages, not immigrants.”

O’Grady also pushed for support for Britain to remain in the single market after Brexit. “The single market meets our jobs tests—if there are other options our ears are open,” she said.

Yet the single market promotes the interests of bosses at the expense of workers. Its rules have been used to force member states to open up their public services to private competition.

They have made it harder to nationalise industries. They have also been used to stop strikes. And they would be used against a future Corbyn-led Labour government.

Unions have to fight for a Brexit for workers not bosses.

That means leaving the bosses’ single market. But it also means fighting to defend freedom of movement.

Calls for more immigration controls discriminate against individual workers on the basis of where they were born. And they reinforce the racist and divisive lie that migration is a burden.

The TUC should fight for stronger unions and workers’ organisation—not stronger immigration controls.


Freedom of movement benefits the whole working class

Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell with striking McDonalds workers last week. McDonnell has said he would support public sector strike, but also wants managed migration

Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell with striking McDonald's workers last week. McDonnell has said he would support public sector strikes (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The TUC debate came amid growing pressure from the Labour right to support single market membership and dump freedom of movement.

Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair called for “restrictions” on free movement in a bid to stop Britain leaving the single market. A report by Blair’s Institute for Global Change called for “new discriminatory terms and conditions for EU nationals”.

Its proposals include further restricting migrants’ right to use public services and letting bosses have preference for British citizens.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has also proposed remaining in the single market—so long as freedom of movement is dumped.

John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, rejected the right’s calls to remain in the single market after Brexit. “We’ve accepted that we’ll remain in single market and customs union for a transition period,” he told Socialist Worker.

“But beyond that it’s a new relationship—and it’s important that as socialists we determine that.”

Tories’ immigration proposals need strong anti-racist response
Tories’ immigration proposals need strong anti-racist response
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Yet many people who reject the single market claim that means dropping freedom of movement as well.

McDonnell said, “Jeremy and I have always campaigned as strong advocates of freedom of movement.

“We’ve got to accept that freedom of movement should not be used to undermine workers conditions or living standards.”

This means that Labour would be “willing to accept reforms of freedom of movement”.

McDonnell reiterated Labour’s manifesto position of a “fair and managed migration system”.

“That overcomes exploitation by employers and agencies that they’ve used under the existing system,” he said.

But immigration controls can make migrants more vulnerable—not less—to exploitation.

Forcing migrant workers to jump through hoops or hide from the authorities only makes them more vulnerable to the bosses who push down pay.

Freedom of movement is in the interest of the whole working class. Stopping the assault on wages requires a fight that unites migrants and British-born workers against the bosses.


‘We will support strikes,’ says Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell

TUC congress began amid growing pressure on the Tories to scrap the 1 percent public sector pay cap.

The Tories have hinted that they would lift the cap—but it would be phased in and only be for some workers.

The BBC reports that this week the cap will be lifted for police and prison officers, and in the future it could go for "hard to recruit" jobs such as nursing and teaching.

Labour is to force a House of Commons vote on scrapping the cap for NHS workers (and perhaps others) on Wednesday this week.

Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke at a National Shop Stewards Network fringe meeting. “We will scrap the pay cap by making corporations and the rich pay their way through taxes,” he said.

“We want to scrap the pay cap for everybody.”

Even if the pay cap was lifted, that still wouldn’t make up the pay that’s been lost in the last ten years. PCS union general secretary was right to call for “five percent” pay claims that beat inflation.

Strikes can bust public sector pay cap
Strikes can bust public sector pay cap
  Read More

McDonnell also pledged support for people who would strike against the public sector pay cap. “The role of Labour MPs is not just in parliament, but also on the picket line,” he said.

“We will be in parliament and on the picket line supporting you.”

He added, “If you decide that you’ll take that action democratically together you will have our support.

“This struggle is about whether they push more and more working class people into low wages and poverty.”

Having Labour supporting the struggle can give workers confidence, but unions need to ballot their members for industrial action.

The PCS union is running a consultative ballot over pay in the run-up to the budget in November. Serwotka, said, “If other unions did that it would put more pressure on Theresa May and Philip Hammond than any other event.

“If we break the pay cap, we can break the government.”

The UCU lecturers' union is consulting Further Education members on whether they are prepared to take action if college bosses do not make an acceptable offer.

Unions have called a pay lobby and rally in London on 17 October. It should be a launch pad for strikes.

The pay cap should go for all, increases must be fully funded and not taken from already stretched budgets, and must be above inflation to start the process of taking back what has been lost.


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