Forging New Solidarities: Trade Unions and Migrant Workers

The question of trade union decline is one that’s central to understanding labour relations and political discourse within Britain today.

The question of trade union decline is one that’s central to understanding labour relations and political discourse within Britain today. Despite misty-eyed claims to the contrary, that is an indisputable fact. From its peak of 13 million in 1979, union membership has fallen to around 6.5 million today: little under a quarter of the overall workforce. In the private sector things are grimmer still: union density currently sits below 14%.

The collapse in union density and overall membership is inherent to changes in the textures of the labour market. Offshoring, elongated supply chains, subcontracting, and agency recruitment have become the norm in many sectors of the economy. Such changes have been most acutely felt at the bottom of the labour market, and among foreign workers in particular.

Concurrently, foreign workers are identified – by both the popular press and in mainstream political discourse – as outsiders who not only take jobs but undercut wages and conditions. Many immigrants therefore find themselves not only facing the pressures of increasingly perilous working conditions, but also being blamed for creating these conditions themselves.

Though generally viewed as ‘progressive’ bodies, the historical relationship between trade unions and migrants has varied. The Grunwick dispute, for example, is rightly lionised for the solidarity it engendered between the ‘strikers in saris’ - the Grunwick Film Processing Lab’s mainly female, Asian workforce - Brent Trades Council, the Union of Post Office Workers and the wider labour movement. However, less well-remembered is the collusion between the Transport and General Workers Union and Bristol Omnibus Company in upholding a colour bar to block West Indians from employment, or resolutions passed by the Confederation of Health Service Employees objecting to the recruitment of “coloured” nurses.

As recently as 1986, labour academic John Wrench suggested that the trade union movement could be “characterised at worst by appalling racism and often by an indefensible neglect of the issues of race and equal opportunity”1. Innate conservatism and “white exclusion” dampened the movement’s effectiveness as a tool of community and workplace resistance, and undermined the language of solidarity, fraternity and comradeship.

While the subsequent 30 years have seen a marked improvement in the trade union movement’s attitude towards workers of different ethnicities, discord surrounding the recruitment and organisation of foreign workers remains. The European Work and Employment Research Centre have identified two interrelated questions of particular relevance: whether trade unions should exclusively represent the common interests of domestic and foreign-born workers, essentially providing a uniform set of services and representative functions, or alternatively, should they look to develop targeted policies and practices to cater for the special interests of migrant workers?

Though relatively small (c. 20,000 members) and long-established, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (Bakers) is leading the way in responding to them. Organiser Lukasz Bemka has helped to roll out a network of migrant shop stewards at the union’s sites, helping workers who cannot speak English to both engage with the union’s activities and to understand their rights at work. The Bakers have taken steps to expand the reach of their Learning Centres to provide English lessons and develop stronger links within that migrant community. They have also actively sought to engage with charities that support different migrant communities like Polska-UK. In doing so, Bemka hopes that the union can provide a service offer that goes beyond workplace advocacy alone, establishes lasting relationships between disparate communities and the trade union movement, and builds a base for campaigning on shared issues such as instituting a £10 per hour minimum wage.

Establishing new organising and service forms has not been without its challenges, and Bemka noted that the union has been forced to exclude members for discriminatory comments/actions. However, he suggests that more fruitful have been efforts to build trust between migrant and non-migrant workers such as through informal ‘open days’ where each may share their experiences in the workplace – and revamped workplace education courses. The latter focus on the necessity of solidarity across, rather than within communities, and have helped to highlight the shared economic challenges faced by workers regardless of their place of birth. As a result, the union has begun to develop safeguards against mistrust and suspicion of new, foreign members.

Elsewhere the highly-localised organising model pursued by the International Workers of Great Britain and United Voices of the World has become identified as a possible organising model for the future. These unions have yielded success in organising cleaners, drivers and couriers across multiple sites through grassroots and lay-member-led campaigning. The fluidity and dynamism of such bodies should certainly be considered as the movement moves forward. But how can it be translated on a national level, and how can it be used to galvanise a shared solidarity across locations, industries and nationalities?

Despite the positive example set by the Bakers, the work of the IWGB and UVW raises questions as to the depth of organisational support for foreign workers that currently exists. It is notable that while the TUC has translated an outline of British employment rights into some 27 languages, no national organising strategy for foreign workers has been implemented. As in many areas, cross-union collaboration ranges from limited to non-existent, risking duplication and misallocation of resources. Moreover, many unions remain conservative in their own recruiting practices, unwilling to ‘go after’ workers who may only be in their positions, or indeed the country, for the short-term. Though every trade unionist recognises that the factory gates recruiting model is no longer sustainable, we are still to find an adequate replacement.

These challenges will not be overcome in the short term, rather it is incumbent on trade unionists to consider how they apply to their own workplaces and their own community. Moreover, consideration is needed as to how we may reach out and ensure that the movement is as open and engaging as possible whatever a worker’s nationality.

  1. John Wrench, Unequal Comrades: Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick 1986