Free movement: control capital, unite all workers


Deliveroo workers, many of them migrant or recent immigrant workers, on strike this year


Unite leader Len McCluskey writing in the Huffington Post to launch his re-election bid as general secretary of Britain’s biggest union says of the free movement of labour:

“Unions understand that workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled and communities are stable. While we must reject any form of racism, and help refugees fleeing war, we must also listen to the concerns of working people.

“They understand that the free movement of labour means downward pressure on wages, in some sectors at least.

“That’s why I have called for new safeguards that would ensure any employer recruiting from abroad must be covered by a proper union or collective bargaining agreement, stopping companies cutting costs by slashing workers’ wages and transforming a race-to-the-bottom culture into a rate-for-the-job society.”

That was reported in the Guardian newspaper – which hosted the launch piece for rival, right wing candidate, Gerard Coyne – as McCluskey calling on unions to “fight to end free movement [of labour within the European Union]”. So great was that misrepresentation that the paper took the unusual step of taking down the article after a vigorous complaint from McCluskey.

Most of the swirl of online commentary took the Guardian’s headline and misrepresentation as its point of departure. A few likened McCluskey’s words to a recent intervention in parliament by Labour MP Andy Burnham. He had this to say on 7 December:

“We need to make the argument for an immigration system that allows for greater control and that reduces the numbers coming here, but that does so in a fair way… It is time for many of us on this side of the House to confront a hard truth: our reluctance in confronting this debate is undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets.”

But Burnham called for tighter immigration controls to cut numbers of immigrants and not, as McCluskey put it, “safeguards that would ensure any employer recruiting from abroad must be covered by a proper union or collective bargaining agreement”. The two are different. One talks of stopping people coming to Britain; the other, of imposing union agreements on employers who will still be “recruiting from abroad”. Burnham added the incendiary claim that it is the Labour Party – not the Tories, UKIP and far right – which is risking racially motivated violence on the streets and even riots by purportedly refusing to deal with the issues, not of how the labour market functions, wages and “free movement”, but of cutting immigration as whole

The reality is that since the referendum there has been nothing but pressure from elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposed both to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and to the Unite union’s support for it under Len McCluskey to be tougher on immigration. Stephen Kinnock MP went much further. He said recently that Labour should stop talking about multiculturalism and fighting sexism or homophobia. In contrast to McCluskey’s call to “reject any form of racism” and to “help refugees fleeing war”, Kinnock derided the Labour Party for being “obsessed with diversity”.

While left wing frontbencher Clive Lewis and others have also called for restricting free movement from the EU, Kinnock’s intervention is a reminder that there is a left/right divide on immigration, racism and xenophobia. Len McCluskey is firmly on the left.

I want to engage with what he is actually arguing, not with misrepresentations. Nor will I comment on the Unite election as whole, where McCluskey and Coyne are joined by a third candidate, Ian Allinson, standing on a left, rank and file platform.

I will argue that there is a potentially dangerous ambiguity in calls to “control the labour supply” and that downward pressures on pay are caused by the lack of control exerted over employers, not by too little control on the movement of workers. The history of the trade union movement – surveyed in this first of a two-part piece – reinforces the point. As at key moments throughout the 150 years, the trade union movement today faces a fork in the road: either unambiguously fighting for control in the workplace, organising more extensively across the whole workforce (and in communities) and seeking political change on that foundation, or the self-defeating path of looking to the state to exclude other workers on account of where they come from or who they are.

Controlling the labour supply – by whom, for whom?

McCluskey writes that workers do best “when the labour supply is controlled”. But who is to do the controlling of the “supply of labour” and to whose benefit?

The labour supply in apartheid South African mines was rigorously controlled. Black men had to obtain a permit to leave their townships and villages to be billeted in company-owned barracks close to the mine.

The mining conglomerates through the apartheid state had near absolute control over the supply of labour and ruthlessly exploited the workforce. Was that kind of “control” of any benefit to the miners or to the oppressed Black South African? Obviously not.

Or take miners in Britain. The Mines Act 1842 excluded women and children (under 10) from working underground. It was the product of an outcry about fatal conditions in the pits. There was working class and philanthropic pressure for reform.

The Act was also the start of a wave of legislation driven by Victorian concern at the decimation of the industrial working class to the extent that it threatened capitalist interests. The burden of reproducing stable working class communities was to be thrown onto individual families, with the unpaid labour of women in the home at the centre.

The Mines Acts were still in force in 1926, the year of the General Strike. The strike was abandoned by the TUC General Council and the miners at the centre of it were left to be locked out and smashed by the coal barons.

There was mass victimisation. Trade union membership across the board halved in the succeeding few years. There was no change to “the supply of labour” in the sense of workers moving from elsewhere to get jobs in a pit. What there was, though, was a shift in control of the job and of the balance of power in the workplace between the miners’ union and the employers.

Len McCluskey may have in mind by historic control of the labour supply something more like the experience of the docks industry, which he knows very well. He came into the union movement as a docker.

But the history of the dockers and the TGWU union, now merged into Unite, dispels any ambiguity about what “control” for workers must mean if it is to serve our interests.

Until the late 1880s the dockers were unorganised. Trade unionism in Britain was centred on a minority of skilled workers, with conservative union leaderships who collaborated with the employers and their political parties. Instead of looking to extend trade unionism across the whole of the working class, they sought to restrict the supply of workers in their own specialist areas in the hope of increasing their bargaining power.

It was the New Unionism of the late 1880s which transformed the picture through an upsurge of militant strikes by previously unorganised workers. At the centre of that was the London docks strike of 1889 led by Ben Tillett.

One of the gains of the New Unionism was that it led to the end of the practice – which any of a certain age who grew up in a port city will have learned about from childhood – whereby dockers would line up in the morning with the lucky ones picked out for work by foremen. That is a form of control of the “labour supply” – one wholly in the hands of the bosses.

Gains were made by workers asserting some control of their own – eventually getting permanent jobs and a national agreement – against the bosses. But it took a militant strike wave and extension of unionisation to achieve that. Many of the dockers who struck and became New Union members were Irish immigrants.

It was not some disembodied “control of the labour supply” which benefited them. It was their own collective struggle against those who continue to wield enormous control today across society – of rents and mortgage rates; of social spending and taxation; of when to produce, what to produce and where; of investment; of the main media outlets; and much more.

Tillett later moved away from that approach. He became Labour MP for Salford North (right near Andy Burnham’s seat of Leigh) and an enthusiastic supporter of Britain in the First World War.

The slide was greased by an ambiguous attitude to immigrant labour. Tillett told a meeting of Irish workers in Tower Hill: “Yes, yes you are our brothers and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come to this country.”

That flew in the face of the experience of the very strike Tillett led. It had not sought to stop workers entering the gates of the workplace, still less entering into Britain through the port of London. It sought to organise in a union those working in the port. And most of those who struck to achieve that were recent arrivals. That was the basis upon which national “union and collective bargaining agreements” were later established and maintained.

Post-WWII: unrestricted supply and closed shops 

The longest period of increase in wages and of the share of national output going to labour was during the post-war boom. Economic expansion did not mean an automatic increase in living standards. That depended upon the trade union and political strength of the working class movement.

Throughout the 1950s there was virtually no immigration control for those coming from Commonwealth countries and there were large scale arrivals from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent. Immigration to meet demand was dwarfed by another source of expansion of the paid labour force. Women entered the labour market in unprecedented numbers. Women’s participation in the labour force has continued to increase ever since.

Wages rose in the post-war boom and the National Health Service was constructed – all with little restriction upon people coming into the country and none upon women joining the labour force. Women remained banned by law from working underground. That did not mean that the pay of miners shot up as women flooding the labour market supposedly suppressed wages elsewhere. In fact, pay for miners lagged gains in other industries, a legacy of the savage defeat of the 1920s. Though mining communities were settled and stable, we have only to recall the recent 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster to see that that did not equate to workers doing best, under a callous management even though the mines were owned by a nationalised corporation.

There were areas of industry in which trade union power grew on a strong sectional basis. Workers through their unions were able to assert some control over the workplace.

The bugbear of bosses and what would become the Thatcherite New Right was the militant shop steward and “the closed shop”, which was the imposition upon employers of an agreement that everyone in a workplace had to be a member of a recognised trade union. One minority form of that was that hiring could take place only from among those who were already members of the relevant unions. The original motivation was to counter blacklisting and victimisation of union activists.

What was central to being able to drive up living standards, however, was the organisation of those in the workplace to extract concessions from the employer, and that was the foundation for extending through industry-wide or national agreements, or through government legislation better conditions to less organised areas. It was not determining through some bargain with the management or government who could or could not enter the workplace (still less the country) as an employee. Indeed, the latter was a double-edged sword.

It could be an expression of the power of the organisation of a particular group of workers. Or it could become an expression of the opposite, and a means to weakening that power. In the conditions of McCarthyism in the US the mafia took over the union of longshoremen (dockers) in several ports. They forged a corrupt relationship with the employers. Control over hiring went through organised crime. Just because it was not done through the “free market” no one would claim that it was of benefit to workers. The mafia-run wharves in the US are an extreme case.

In parts of the British docks industry in the 1960s there was a semi-formal arrangement which preferred the recruitment of sons of dockers, who joined the union when they came of age. On one level, it gave some security to dockers’ families. But it could also lead to a narrow and sectional outlook, ripe for reactionary ideas about other groups of workers. In any case, it meant nothing when the ports bosses went on the offensive in the late-1960s. They did so by utilising a technological change – the development of containerisation – to break elements of control that dockworkers had over the labour process.

No amount of “control over the labour supply” stopped that. It was in a state of demoralisation following a big defeat that workers on the Royal Docks Group in London walked out in April 1968 in support of Tory ultra free-marketeer Enoch Powell following his “Rivers of Blood” speech predicting a race war if immigration were not reversed. That was the prime impetus to the growth of the far right and fascists over the next eight years.

The 1960s saw the imposition of three pieces of anti-immigration legislation – in 1962, 1965 and 1968. There was a further major Act in 1971. They came under Tory and Labour governments. And from 1966 onwards both parties also sought to curb trade union power in the workplace. Increased control of immigration went together with government and employers’ measures to weaken what workplace control workers had established in parts of industry.

Any view which saw immigrants to Britain as a problem, or women going to work, or other workers as “competitors on the labour market” was unable to meet such a twin offensive by the Wilson and Heath governments. The left in the trade union movement had fought against the underlying sectional outlook. It was a demand of the militant left, for example, that bottlenecks in production should be met by hiring extra workers, rather than by existing employees doing overtime. Not limiting labour supply, but expanding the workforce. The argument was three-fold. The basic wage should be high enough so you do not have to work overtime. We want a shorter working week. And we want more people in work rather than keeping them out in the hope that luck might shine on those of us who have a job.

Those kinds of arguments had been made by the left of a recovering trade union movement in the mid-1930s when there was mass unemployment, which employers sought to use as a “reserve army of labour” to push down wages by threatening to swap employed workers for someone on the dole queue who might be compelled to work for less.

What beat the anti-union offensive in the early 1970s was an eruption of struggles beginning in less organised areas, often employing women and immigrant workers: textile workers in Yorkshire, refuse workers, the Ford women machinists. That was the context in which in 1972 the London dockers struck again, but this time on a general basis, against the Tory government and the courts, not in support of a racist Tory demagogue, and thus shattering the government’s anti-union laws.

Unemployment, immigration and ‘the reserve army of labour’

Workers have done best historically not through seeking to restrict the supply of labour, but through fighting to increase the supply of jobs. And that has required the extension of trade union organisation in two senses. First directly against the employers, and secondly to struggle through trade union and political means to assert the interests of working people as a whole across society against the interests of capitalism as a whole.

One of the most defiant steps the British trade union leaderships have ever taken was in 1931 to refuse to concede, in the “national interest”, a 10 percent cut in unemployment benefit under a massive austerity scheme demanded of the Labour government by the bankers. That meant standing up for those looking for work, not just for niche areas of already employed skilled workers.

Mass unemployment is a weapon of the bosses against working people. Government papers released under the 30-year-rule confirm what many argued at the time: that Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph deliberately increased unemployment in the early 1980s as part of a seven-year offensive against the working class movement.

But unemployment has nothing to do with immigration, or migrant labour and not even with the size of the population. Here there is a confusion on parts of the left of the working class movement extending from Britain to Greece which in its most sophisticated form draws on a misreading of what Karl Marx had to say about “the reserve army of labour”.

The term was used by Frederick Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. It drew a portrait of the appalling exploitation and misery of early industrial capitalism, pre-union and before the creation of the welfare state. Theories of “surplus population” which saw unemployment as a natural phenomenon arising from some propensity of the poor to breed to excess were widespread. Indeed, at this time of year it is worth recalling that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge voices the Malthusian idea that starvation is but a natural means to “reduce the surplus population”, was published in December 1843.

Yet Marx’s argument in Capital is that unemployment and downward pressure on wages are not caused by the number of workers but instead by the drive of capitalist accumulation, which means deploying what should be welcome technological advances to squeeze more out of a smaller workforce rather than less out of the existing one:

“capitalistic accumulation itself… constantly produces… a relatively redundant population of workers, … It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same… The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.”

And the process is intensified through the repeated crises of the capitalist economy, such as the long depression we have lived through since the 2008 financial crash, since when real hourly wages have fallen by 10.4 percent.

‘The secret of the impotence of the English working class’

The last time wages fell in Britain – for the first time since the Great Depression – was in the crisis years of the mid-1970s. Mass unemployment returned, despite the fact that a potential source of labour through immigration had been cut off by successive anti-immigrant laws.

There was a flurry of nostalgia a few months ago recalling 1976, which has been deemed by two Australian researchers into quality of life to be “a golden year” in British history. The mid-1970s certainly saw peak trade union membership at over 13 million. Income inequality and the share of wealth going to the richest have steadily increased since then in what is now referred to as the neoliberal period.

Its origins lie in the decisive shift in the balance of power in the workplace and in society from labour to capital beginning 40 years ago and then rammed through under the Thatcher governments. The generalised crisis brought an end to the post-war regime of managing capitalism and a vicious reorganisation along more free-market lines. It was the political failure of the labour movement – in all its aspects, trade union and party – to respond adequately to that which ushered in the epoch of neoliberalism that is now facing its own systemic crisis.

It had nothing to do with immigration, migration or any other change in the potential supply of labour – such as the feminisation of the workforce. Union organisation in engineering was undermined by scabbing on strikes by “indigenous” members of other unions, not by Polish or Pakistani migrants. Immigration featured, however, in this respect. The right wing politics of scapegoating immigrants, and upon that entrenching racist divisions, were a major part of sapping the capacity of working people to become the masters not the victims of the huge changes which brought about “globalisation”.

If mass unemployment and the threat of the sack are blunt instruments to batter working class people over the head, then the scapegoating of immigrants and support for Tory campaigns to keep out newcomers through immigration control are a chemical cosh, introduced intravenously by drip feed or rapid injection. Those on the British and European left who snatch the odd phrase from Marx mistakenly to compare immigration with unemployment and “the reserve army of labour” tend not to refer to his letter three years after the publication of Capital, when there was, as now, complete free movement of people between Ireland and Britain. He wrote:

“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists… The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

That was in 1870. And the above is history, ending 30 to 40 years ago. But it is important if we are to identify under what conditions and with what form of politics working people have done best and can do in the future. One objection is that circumstances have changed hugely and, in any case, the problem identified is something called the “free movement of labour [within the EU]” not immigration. We will turn to what free movement means in the second part of this article.

For now, we should be clear that whatever employment abuses by bosses of the labour market Len McCluskey and other trade unionists have in mind, this discussion takes place in a fevered atmosphere in which little distinction is made between EU rules governing the labour market on the one hand, and immigration, migrants or refugees on the other. That is not restricted to those intoxicated by the Daily Mail or UKIP propaganda. It is exactly what Burnham did in parliament. He started by saying “free movement [is] being used to undermine skilled wages”, he segued through a call to “reform the immigration system”, and he ended up raising the spectre of riots in the streets – all in four minutes.

We can safely dismiss the notion that the spectre of racial violence he had in mind was between directly employed and agency boilermakers on two different rates for the job at an oil refinery, or between permanent and supply teachers in a school – one with paid holidays, the other not, or full-time and bank nurses in an accident and emergency department.

Resisting the xenophobic and racist reaction that mayoral candidate for Manchester Andy Burnham is accommodating to with artful elision requires clarity. And it is no answer to say that working people “know that free movement of labour means downward pressure on wages, at least in some sectors”. By the same token, working people “know” that the reason for austerity is that we have to pay down the national debt. Most people do think that. It happens not to be true – austerity is a political choice and not an economic necessity. And as we will show, neither is it true that the free movement of labour is depressing wages. Bosses cut wages. Not workers.

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