Len McCluskey: Speech to Unite EWC Reps

Febuary 10th, Esher, UK


I’m delighted to be here. I hear you’ve had positive and instructive debate over these two days and that’s something that will feed into our union’s work on Brexit moving forward.

And let me thank Simon Dubbins and his team for their work putting this two-day programme together.

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.

Just last week I spoke at our North West region’s Brexit Conference, made up of over 200 shop stewards from across our manufacturing sector.

And you – our EWC reps here today – represent some of the largest multi-nationals operating across borders.

Today I’m going to set out how Unite is approaching the Brexit challenge. And how our members and reps can feed into that process.

And how 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.

But a few words on EWCs from me first (although I’ve no doubt I could learn a thing or two from the expertise we have in this room).

In a world where capital and profit moves seamlessly across borders, EWCs are an example of a social partnership catching up to that reality.

A Mechanism by which workers come together, resolve problems and improve their representation.

And a core Principle that if markets are liberalised for the benefit of capital, then a body like the EU must offer workers representation and protections to hold the capitalist class to account.

Now, I won’t stand here and pretend I have ever been a cheerleader for the neo-liberal agenda at the heart of the European project.

But it’s clear to me, now that the UK is leaving the European Union, that free-market cross-border capitalism is not under threat –

But the social and employment protections guaranteed by the EU most certainly are.

And so Unite’s position is that: whilst a majority may have voted to be out of the EU, they did not 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 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.

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; Graphical, Paper, Media and IT; Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Science; Metals and Steel; Energy; Railways; Manufacturing and Defence.

 And, of course, YOU are some of our elected workplace reps that sit on over 150 European Works Councils.

All of this is a level of interaction and collaboration which is without parallel in the trade union movement.

[The wider EU picture is even more impressive with over 1,000 EWCs in total, covering 19m employees and over 20,000 trade union reps actively participating.]

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 sector specific documents under preparation for health, transport and local authorities.

And next week our Brexit-Check website will go Live.

The first project by a trade union to assist working people through the process of Brexit, and to engage them in order that we secure the best outcome for working people.

All of this will inform our work lobbying government and the Labour Party. Something, of course, we are already doing.

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 re-assertion 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.

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.

We are waiting nervously for the next wave of investment in companies such as BMW, GE, Siemens, GKN, Rolls-Royce?

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’s 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’.

And we should be confident that 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.

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.

No doubt you will have been discussing the impact Brexit is already having on UK reps in EWCs.

It’s of great concern to hear anecdotal evidence that some employers are already looking at ways to prevent workers from taking up their EWC positions – before we have even begun negotiating our exit from the European Union.

So let me say to those employers directly, let our workers’ Reps carry out their duty defending UK jobs and industries during this crucial negotiation phase.

The law is clear on this. WHILST we remain in the EU our Reps must be allowed their full rights to participate on EWCs.

And for this reason too: because these negotiations must include the possibility of UK workers retaining their right to participate in EWCs after the UK exit from the EU.

It is certainly a surreal proposition; that major British companies employing thousands of workers in this country, and across EU states, will still have to comply with EU law to operate a European Works Council and yet may exclude British workers from participating in them.

Colleagues we must accept where we are.

What we will not accept is a Brexit paid for by working people.

I recently visited 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.

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!’

So it’s up to us to make sure this isn’t just another crisis for capitalism that will be turned to capital’s favour.

And 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.

Thank you


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