Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey
Liverpool, 2nd February 2017
Let me start by welcoming you all here today – What a fantastic turn out.
We have over 200 people here today, shop stewards from across our manufacturing sector, including aerospace, automotives, chemicals, engineering……
I want to thank the North West region – Mick Whitley – for putting together today’s conference.
It’s testament to the fact that our union is leading the way; addressing the Brexit issue and standing up for the interests of working people. I’m hoping others will follow.
And this is only the first of many regional, national and sector-led conferences Unite will hold in response to the referendum result to leave the European Union.
We will play our full part in the national debate, making certain that the interests of our members are heard loud and clear, at every stage.
That’s because; a majority may have voted to be out of the EU, but they didn’t vote to be out of work.
Our priorities have been clear from the outset:
- That an ambitious industrial strategy is the only way to mitigate the impact of Brexit on UK manufacturing and the wider economy.
- That we need tariff-free access to the Single Market and to remain in the Customs Union.
- And that all existing European workers’ rights, standards and environmental protections must be retained and protected.
There is no doubt that this government’s approach to Brexit so far, risks jobs and risks investment in our economy.
Unite campaigned for Britain to Remain in the European Union because we knew that the industries upon which so many of our members’ jobs rely would be vulnerable in any Brexit negotiation.
But we lost that argument – including, to be frank, with many of our own members – and we accept the result.
Whilst many of us rightly felt dissatisfaction with the referendum process, the conduct of those leading the different campaign groups, and the outright lies that were told;
(I don’t think any of us here today expect this Tory government to invest £350m each week in our NHS). But it’s time to move on.
We must now influence the debate and set out the best hope for working people going forward.
Because whilst we accept the Referendum result, we do not see it as a blank cheque for government to implement its own vision of a ‘Hard Brexit’, unopposed.
We simply can’t afford to leave it in the hands of this Tory government and the ‘Brexit trio’ of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.
Or a Prime Minister whose initial moves, to ditch the single market and dash across the Atlantic, and prioritise immigration concerns above economic prosperity, should set alarms bells ringing throughout British industry.
And make no mistake, these actions put hundreds of thousands of our members jobs at risk.
The Brexit debate cannot be decided alone by one person, or by one political party, especially when the mandate from the people is so clearly open to endless speculation.
For this reason Unite supports in-depth parliamentary scrutiny of the terms of exit as well as “a seat at the table” for trade unions.
Unite will not shy away from seeking to move the political debate when it comes to defending our members jobs and shaping the economy of the future.
Anything less, would be a dereliction of the duty we have to our members.
And of course we look to the Labour Party to perform its vital function in holding the government to account – throughout this process.
And let me just say on that – Voting for or against the triggering of Article 50 – the vote that was carried last night in the House of Commons – is irrelevant to that task.
That was a vote to begin the negotiations to leave the EU.
It was not a vote on the substance of those negotiations or the outcome of them.
And holding the government to account is not simply a matter of trying to represent those who voted to Remain against a government forcing through a ‘Hard Brexit’ in the name of those who voted to Leave.
The country may have divided down those lines – 48% to 52% – last June, but maintaining those dividing lines will do none of us any good going forward.
The Labour Party must – and from what I’ve seen this week it is – put people’s jobs, employment rights, and investment in our economy at the core of its stance on Brexit.
After all, two-thirds of Labour constituencies voted to Leave the E.U. whilst one-third voted to Remain.
The Labour leadership has already challenged government, putting tariff free access to the single market and securing employment rights in UK law at the top of the agenda.
Let me set out what we in Unite are doing.
In the aftermath of the result I set up our own Brexit Team, headed by Simon Dubbins, our International Director and working with Pauline Doyle, our Communications Director; Anneliese Midgley, our Political Director; Howard Beckett our AGS for Legal and working with each of our Assistant General Secretaries to ensure we monitor the impact of the Brexit decision across every industry and every sector.
This is a two-way process and this is important.
We need you, our shop stewards, to be responsive to what they hear on the factory floor or in the office and ensure that information is fed back to their Officers.
We have already brought together Reps from across the manufacturing sector to form a Combine;
A body focusing on the strategic policies needed to defend jobs across interdependent industries.
These sectors embrace, amongst others: Aerospace and Shipbuilding; Automotive; General Engineering and Manufacturing; Graphical, Paper, Media and IT; Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Science; Metals and Steel; Energy; Railway and Defence.
And Unite’s elected workplace reps sit on over 150 European Works Councils, a level of interaction and collaboration which is without parallel in the trade union movement.
This experience, along with our links to trade unions across Europe and the world, gives us a unique insight.
As one the government should be banging at our door to engage with.
We have already issued a number of documents; for manufacturing and for finance – and we are developing more by the day.
We have general fact-sheets for activists and we have a website about to go live and sector specific documents under preparation for health, transport and local authorities.
All of this will inform our work lobbying government and the Labour Party. Something, of course, we are already doing.
Our knowledge and expertise should be harnessed by our representatives in parliament, not dismissed.
So I call on Theresa May to meet with me and other trade unions so that government can benefit from the full weight of our industrial understanding and negotiating experience to secure a win-win for workers.
Let me for a moment turn to the issue of the Free Movement of Labour.
There is no doubt that concerns about the impact of the free movement of Labour in Europe played a large part in the referendum result.
Particularly in working-class communities.
Indeed, for years now we have known through private surveys of membership opinion that our members were more concerned about immigration than any other political issue.
But if we are to argue for continued access to the free market, we have to deal with concerns of migrant labour.
So we need a new approach. One that I’ve been advocating for a while now.
It’s time to change the language around this issue and move away from talk of ‘freedom of movement’ on the one hand and ‘border controls’ on the other and instead to speak of safeguards.
Safeguards for communities, safeguards for workers, and safeguards for industries needing labour.
At the core of this must be the reassertion of collective bargaining and trade union strength.
My proposal is that any employer wishing to recruit labour from abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining.
Put together with trade unions’ own organising efforts this would change the race-to-the-bottom culture into a rate-for-the-job society.
It would end the fatal attraction of ever cheaper workers for employers, and slash demand for migrant labour, without the requirement for formal quotas or restrictions.
This is about engaging with the issue and giving real reassurance to working people in towns and cities abandoned by globalisation.
But let me make it clear.
Migrant workers are not to blame for anything. They are just like all of us, trying to make a better life for their families. It’s greedy, greedy bosses who are to blame and we need to stop their abuse of these workers.
And let’s not forget what unites all of us:-
- Anger at the government’s disgraceful treatment of refugees, who deserve safety and protection;
- Shame at the Tory attempts to use EU citizens already living and working here as a sort of negotiating card.
They must have the right to remain .
Unite will always be at the forefront of challenging racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
We know that our NHS wouldn’t function without migrant workers and major companies elsewhere will continue to want access to skills in the future.
And that brings me onto the single market and the customs union.
There can be no doubt that maintaining tariff free access to the single market is the best option for the UK economy – and remains in the best interests of the rest of Europe.
That’s why it is our top priority – in spite of what the Prime Minister says.
It’s not just that government is refusing to listen to workers at the moment, we know they are deaf to the concerns of the manufacturing industry too.
The uncertainty allowed to manifest by government, the lack of planning for even transitional arrangements with the EU, and the threat of falling back on default tariffs and WTO rules are already – right now – threatening investment and damaging our economy.
We have hundreds of thousands of our members employed by multinational companies.
Hundreds of thousands employed in manufacturing.
And for every one person employed in manufacturing, there are another four reliant in the supply chain.
In the North West alone, over 300,000 are employed in manufacturing, the highest for any region, and it’s here more than anywhere, we need to hear that the markets upon which people’s jobs depend will not be closed off.
Outside the single market, with delays and costs on imports and exports, the components on which much of our manufacturing industry depends will be under threat.
Integrated supply chains will be disrupted without access to the benefits of the single market.
(And I know Tony Burke will talk more about this in his remarks).
We are waiting nervously for the next wave of investment in companies such as BMW, GE, Siemens, GKN, Rolls Royce and others.
It’s no surprise that Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has warned that companies will want to see the results of talks between the UK and the European Union before decisions are made to invest.
This, even after Nissan received private guarantees from government last year.
What is clear is that the rhetoric which says “No deal is better than a bad deal” or that puts concerns about immigration above the economic realities of our members’ jobs is simply not good enough.
Unite will not be so easily swayed from the economic realities of leaving the single market and the customs union.
And as we step up our campaign, it’s worth remembering the position of the Welsh and Scottish governments on the single market.
Labour in Wales has demanded continued participation in the single market for “the future prosperity of Wales” and has proposed a new approach to immigration, linking migration to jobs and new employment protections for all workers.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has called for Scottish businesses to be free to trade within the European single market.
And I should mention Northern Ireland, where Unite has played a very active role in supporting the peace process, establishing community centres to demonstrate this support.
There is no doubt that the Brexit process is de-stabilising the peace process and the threat of a hard border again would be a disaster for our members and their communities.
It would be entirely irresponsible for this union, as the leaders of our movement, to genuflect to the whims and wishes of the leading Brexiteers, now seeking a ‘hard Brexit’.
It’s our moral duty to stand and fight for decent jobs, and a decent future for our families and communities.
And beyond the Tory ‘hard Brexit’ on offer in Westminster there is a breadth of support for maintaining our interdependence with Europe and putting our economy first in these negotiations.
We’re also working closely with trade associations, where we have found we share the same concerns and all too often the same frustrations with government.
And we are talking to our major companies in that same spirit of mutual support.
The North West’s prosperity is linked to the European Union.
That’s because as a whole, manufacturing is a major generator of wealth for this region.
The North West is also an exception outside of Southern England, in trading. It exports more goods in absolute terms than any other region to the EU.
Leaving the Single Market therefore poses a unique threat here.
Let me just say something about the rush for new trade deals which may grab headlines, but in reality offer nothing by way of compensation for our current arrangements in Europe.
In terms of our current trade, a deal with the US would not come close to filling the economic chasm left behind after losing tariff free access to the Single market.
And that’s not to even speak of what an America-First president would demand from the United Kingdom in terms of access to our National Health Service for US private healthcare;
the side-lining of trade union rights, International Labour Organisation standards and safeguards for other public services.
Be in no doubt. He may give us a few crumbs from his trade table, but Donald Trump will want our soul in return.
We must accept where we are.
What we will not accept is a Brexit that will be paid for by working class communities.
It must work for the people of Manchester and Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow, and not just the City of London and the top floor of Trump Tower.
We have heard much from government in recent years about rebalancing the economy.
Remember George Osborne’s ‘March of the Makers’. And Theresa May even put the words ‘industrial strategy’ back on the plaque of the Business Department.
Since the crash of 2008 all politicians have agreed that our economy needs to move away from its dependency on the finance and service sector.
And there is only one way to do that: and that is to build a strong and vibrant manufacturing sector.
I visited yesterday the world class Apprenticeship Academy at BAE Systems in Samlesbury and met a large group of young men and women full of enthusiasm and looking forward to a bright future.
Brexit now threatens that future.
Our union – the biggest organisation of working people across our nations – has a duty to lead the way, to defend jobs and defend the industries on which they rely.
We will resist a ‘Hard Brexit’ rushed through to appease the zealots on the Tory benches that threatens our members’ livelihoods.
Don’t underestimate the support we will have in this battle.
And the unlikely alliances we build, across industry and with good companies, companies that produce great products – from automotives to aerospace that this nation is rightly proud of, and who provide good jobs upon which our communities rely.
Colleagues, we have all been here before.
We have a Prime Minister turning her back on British industry in order to embrace the cowboy capitalism so adored by the right-wing across the Atlantic.
Guy Hands, a kingpin of private equity, was telling the truth when he said: ‘wages will fall by 30%, but hedge funds are set to flourish!’
This is just another crisis for capitalism that will be turned to capital’s favour – aided and abetted by a hard-right Tory Party with no truck for working people.
They’ve sold Brexit to the people, as the people taking back control, when in truth it’s the capitalist class that wants to steal the lot.
It’s families and communities in cities like these – and across the rust belt in America – that always pay the price for the free-wheeling, winner takes all capitalism that Thatcher and Regan revered in their day – and Theresa May and Donald Trump are pursuing today.
We must put aside our views on the Brexit vote, whether we voted to Remain or Leave.
Protecting our industries, our jobs and our communities is our goal.
It falls to all of us, colleagues, the leaders of our movement, to defend our people, our communities, and yes our class.
So, colleagues, let’s stand together.
I can assure you, I’ll fight with every sinew of my body to make sure your wishes and concerns are met.