Socialist Worker

Unite members debate Brexit, racism and defending migrants at conference

by Sarah Bates in Brighton
Issue No. 2611

Delegates vote at the Unite union conference

Delegates vote at the Unite union conference (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Delegates at the Unite union conference in Brighton this week debated Brexit, jobs, the Labour Party and racism.

Opening the conference general secretary Len McCluskey said “the elite in this country has cause to be worried”.

McCluskey told the conference that Unite’s “capacity to conduct industrial action is still the most important thing”. Yet he also said the union had “developed new ways to win”—such as legal action.

“One is exploiting other opportunities of the law, and legal action is now more closely integrated with industrial action than it’s ever been,” he said.

McCluskey highlighted the Birmingham bins dispute that raged last year, and implied that it was legal action—rather than strikes—that won the dispute.

Some of the most contentious arguments were over Brexit. They reflected the confusion among the left and trade unionists.

Unite’s executive council put forward a motion on Brexit, which affirmed the union’s position on “protecting jobs, defending employment rights, and opposing the racist backlash that the referendum campaign unleashed.”

Delegates were set to vote on the motion as Socialist Worker went to press.

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Many delegates were concerned that Brexit would fundamentally change who was able to live and work in Britain.

Bus driver Joanne Harris said, “You can go into any London bus garage and you’ll see the most diverse group of people.

“Many of our workers are concerned for the future.”

But Joanne also said, “We do oppose free movement of workers across Europe, because it means unscrupulous bosses can go to a country where labour is cheap.”

McCluskey echoed this. “The free movement of labour has squeezed terms and conditions,” he said. But he also said Unite “rejects out of hand any excuse to scapegoat migrants”.

It’s good when trade unionists want to defend migrants. But this has to include rejecting the false argument that migration lowers wages. Union leaders should back a Brexit plan that defends free movement.

Hopes for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government ran through the debates. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said of a Corbyn government, “We must work for it, but we can’t wait for it.”

“It’s up to us to offer an alternative, no individual and no union is going it alone,” she said.

And she echoed other’s fears about the rise of the racism when she spoke about “thugs like Tommy Robinson”.

Speaking on a motion about the rise of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) and the far right, construction worker Pete Shaw said, “They’re trying to take hold of the streets and build a street army.”

He urged people to join protests against them.

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