Back to Front - Unions, incorporated
WORKERS, NOV 2006 ISSUE
Given the TUC's less than glorious record in defending workers' rights in Britain, it's hard to avoid a feeling of irony in the news last month that TUC experts were heading off to Warsaw to advise Polish workers on what rights and wages to expect in Britain.
The TUC makes no bones about it. It says that migrant labour is good for Britain. Really? Unemployment is rising towards 2 million, and average wages are falling. That's certainly good for employers. But good for Britain? Good for the working class?
The advice was dispensed at a jobs fair in the Polish capital, organised by Jobcentre Plus, the Department for Work and Pensions agency charged with "supporting people of working age from welfare into work". It is also supposed to "help people facing the greatest barriers to employment to compete effectively in the labour market and move into and remain in work".
Just how it does this by encouraging thousands of migrant workers to come to Britain is not clear. Some 10,000 Polish visitors were due to attend the jobs fair, with jobs on offer from Tesco, hotel group Jurys Inn and others. Their arrival in Britain will not encourage anyone into work: it will depress wage rates still further and deprive British workers of work.
There's only one piece of advice the TUC should be addressing to migrant workers in Eastern Europe, or anywhere. Stay where you are, organise where you are, build your own country.
What the TUC did not say in its announcement of its Polish trip was who was paying for it. On past form, the British taxpayer will be footing all or some of the bill, via the government.
There seems to be a huge slush fund of money available to British trade unions to support government policy abroad. Take the National Union of Journalists. It produces a glossy bulletin called Global Action funded entirely by the Department for International Development (though that fact is not announced in the bulletin). The bulletin lauds the DfID's latest white paper, and gives support to the government-endorsed UN Millennium goals.
Fancy a weekend at a retreat in Oxfordshire, all expenses paid? Just sign up with the NUJ. You can swan around the world on government and European Union money telling workers abroad how to organise rather than doing it here.
In fact, the government, through the DfID's Strategic Alliance Agreements, is attempting – with some success – to incorporate trades unions and other bodies into its own agenda.
In Iraq, the British government has been boosting the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (a tame voice arguing against British withdrawal). It even gave Unison £250,000 to train selected Iraqi trade union reps in neighbouring Jordan. The US watched this with envy, finally – to head off trade union opposition at home – following Britain and setting up a Solidarity Centre in Iraq funded by USAID to train Iraqi "trade unionists". Neither training operation could be undertaken without the oversight of both British and US intelligence services. This is, after all, a war.
Some in the unions have always been prepared to do the government's bidding for free. Now they are doing it for money. It's not a good development. Unions must be independent – in thought and finances.