How should Labour respond to calls for strike action?

A dilemma for the next Labour leader.

I've just returned from holiday in France where, like most summers, the country has been convulsed by national strike action, this time over Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 60 to 62. Back at home, as the TUC conference gets underway in Manchester, talk of a "winter of discontent" is growing as unions discuss the possibility of coordinated strikes and civil disobedience to resist the coalition's spending cuts.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary (interviewed by my colleague Jon Bernstein in the current issue), sounded a more moderate tone on the Today programme this morning, noting that he had not called for "counterproductive" civil disobedience and emphasising the need to come up with a practical alternative to the coalition's slash-and-burn economics.

Meanwhile, figures from the right of the union movement, such as Unite's putative general secretary, Les Bayliss, are warning that strike action will deprive the public of vital services at a time when they need them most. He said: "Strikes will also change the victims - our members - into the villains of the piece. The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy." But I'd be surprised if his more militant comrades are dissuaded.

There's a big dilemma for the next Labour leader in all of this: should the party support strike action to protect jobs and prevent cuts? With all the candidates frequently expressing their pride at receiving union backing in the leadership contest, it's unthinkable that they won't be challenged to take a position. Harriet Harman has set the bar high, noting that the party is in a "militant" mood (a word surely blacklisted during the New Labour years) and, admirably, mounting a defence of the right to the strike.

The balancing act for the next leader, one suspects, will be staying on the right side of public opinion. But if as one Liberal Democrat cabinet minister predicts, the coming cuts reduce Tory support to just 25 per cent (he expects Lib Dem support to hit 5 per cent), that shouldn't be a problem.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.