What has globalisation ever done for the workers?
Some workers laid off by Goodyear tyres in Wolverhampton recently compared their treatment to their sisters and brothers in Germany and France.
They credited German workers for reaping the benefits of a resilient industrial strategy and strong social dialogue – especially in respect of ensuring workforce planning on apprenticeships and skills. And they tipped their hats to French workers who among other things are renowned for taking their bosses hostage and setting fire to – well yes – tyres.
Fact – it is cheaper to sack workers in the UK compared with other countries in Europe.
In the words of one laid off worker: “The global free market is rubbish and is destroying communities and our history.” Not so much ‘left behind’ as kicked in the teeth.
Across the Midlands, support for Brexit was overwhelming. Unite worked hard to get members behind our Remain position but in our manufacturing heartlands we failed. As did our sister unions in the US fail to get their members behind the Democratic candidate.
The post-election decisions by Ford and Fiat to move investment in car production from Mexico to the US was met with unreserved delight by the US Auto workers union. And who can blame them? One US union concluded after polling members – 80% supported Trump.
Think about the trade union movement’s narrative on globalisation. In the US, unions correctly forecast that NAFTA would result in jobs being lost not growth as promised. Like TTIP, it was opposed by unions. Unions campaigned against the offshoring of jobs. Trump’s narrative on these issues echoed our own. Obama presided over unprecedented jobs growth but for the US middle class that did not feel real.
In the UK my own union Unite is fighting tooth and nail against a race to the bottom in construction – and winning equal pay for migrant workers – whether from Croatia, Bulgaria or Portugal – one job, one rate.
In so doing we are able to fend off the “British jobs for British workers” stance taken for example by at Lindsey Oil Refinery – the slogan was opportunist exploitation by the far right of a nonetheless legitimate claim for jobs.
But can anyone question the legitimacy of skilled unemployed construction workers in Teesside complaining when they are denied the chance to work within travelling distance of their home?
Unions have opposed neo-liberal economics, supported campaigns against offshoring and won some – most recently my own union at the Prudential taking strike action to shelve plans to ship 84 IT jobs to Mumbai. Unite and others have been in a fight to the death to save UK steel manufacturing – steel of the highest quality competing with cheap imports.
Vague promises of transition into other comparable jobs just don’t hold water – what jobs, in Swansea, where are they? So when the post Brexit research by IPPR showed “take back control” resonated equally with Remain as it did Leave voters were we surprised? We need less labelling from progressives of those trapped by wages stagnation, insecurity and the knowledge that if nothing changes the next generation will be even worse off. When a friend is in a straightjacket who would tighten the straps?
Maybe we are victims of our own success – unfortunate in that the rising ‘nationalist’ narrative mimics our arguments.
Has ‘globalisation’ just gone into overdrive – ‘hyper-globalisation’ that will correct itself – or does there need to be fundamental rethink about how business is done?
Public sector workers in many countries strenuously objected in the 1990s to privatisation as a pre-condition to inward finances from world institutions; to the deregulation of their economies and labour markets; to the scrapping of tariff and non-tariff barriers and the removal of social floors. We have seen the subsequent spread of health inequalities as economic inequality across the globe continues to rise.
In Bangladesh we witnessed how unprotected workers lead to perilous lives – Rana Plaza, garment workers killed as the building around them collapsed – shipbreakers exposed to the most brutal of hazards – yet industrial free enterprise zones set up for all to see where unions are banned.
What can unions in the UK do to turn the tide against the race to the bottom?
- Support unions especially in the global South – build expertise, organisation and an activist base that represents women as well as men – TUC Aid is a great example with projects that punch heavier than their weight.
- Hold our government to account – ‘social dumping’ in the UK is only possible because of the UK’s transposition of the Posted Workers Directive – our country is one of only three in the EU where employers can get away with paying below the national collective agreement.
- Build alliances around the importance of collective bargaining as a leveller – income inequality in the UK was lowest in the 1970s when collective bargaining had much greater spread.
- Hold companies to account on their pledges of CSR whether the breach is in the UK – as Unite found with our anti blacklisting campaign involving Crossrail contractors – or be ready to respond when we are called on by sister unions in other countries.
- Challenge exploitation industrially – as Unite members have at Fawley Oil, Ferrybridge Refineries and with the main Energy from Waste contractor in the North East. This has taken us to Zagreb, Brussels and Copenhagen and we are building solid links with sister unions around common cause.
- Campaign to rein in the power of the multi-national and financial corporations – and join with others seeking tax justice – how can it be acceptable that companies can avoid paying any tax to the countries where they are exploiting minerals and other natural resources?
- Ensure our campaigns resonate with workers – for example on digitalisation in the finance sector Unite won higher pay for more complex roles within a major global bank. Automation is a global challenge and it is time to ask ourselves can we build consensus around exchanging precarious, insecure jobs for good jobs working fewer hours?
If we focus on the utterly reasonable and unifying demands for decent work, a fair and proportionate slice of the pie and a voice for workers we can win back our heartlands. And critically push for different economics that value people and the globe we all share.
These remarks are an edited version of a speech I gave on union responses to globalisation at a joint seminar organised by the TUC and the University of Exeter on Brexit, globalisation and migration in January 2017.