Trade unionists should support the free movement of labour and Single Market

By Stephen Bell

‘There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations.’


‘The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. Class-conscious workers, realising that the break-down of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries.’

Both quotes from ‘Capitalism and workers’ immigration‘ by V I Lenin – October 1913, Collected Works Vol 19 p454 (emphasis in original)


Brexit is creating a deep and profound crisis inside the Tory party. So far the labour and trade union movement has failed to capitalise on the weakness of its enemy. The campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour’s front bench, for transparency and parliamentary accountability from the Tories, is a good first step. But the issues which form the heart of Brexit negotiations must be tackled, both in their own right, and in order to deepen Tory divisions.

In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May made plain her preference for assuaging the racist lobby in Britain. Reducing immigration is to be prioritised over anything, including the health of the economy. If it was not glaringly obvious before, subsequently a range of leading European politicians have stated that Britain’s continued membership of, or tariff free access to, the Single Market is dependent upon acceptance of free movement, including of labour. The question then for the trade unions is whether the Single Market and the free movement of labour should be fought for or not.

The Tories’ line on migration is that it lowers wages and worsens public services. Some on the right of the labour movement echo these views. Fundamentally this is not true as migration results in a net benefit to the economy and to public finances. Why immigration plays such a positive role is explained by Michael Burke, in ‘Migration is an economic benefit‘ (Socialist Economic Bulletin 21/6/16).

The decline in real wages in Britain that has occurred has not been the result of immigration, but has run parallel with the decline of unionisation, in absolute numbers, relative to the growth of the workforce and with the attendant reduction of the percentage of the workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements. The responsibility lies with the bosses, who pay lower wages whenever they can, irrespective of whether the workers are ‘foreign’ or not.

The left of course supports extending trade unionism, but regardless of whether that is achieved or not it should oppose demands for national ‘protection’ against migration.

During the 19th century trade unions in Britain, based on craft labour, assumed that curtailing entry into the workforce was the basis of higher wages. With such a policy, women, and in some instances Irish workers, were prevented from being employed. This was apparently rational, as the excluded were lower paid and untrained. In the long run every such instance proved futile.

Trade unions which simply reproduce existing inequalities will not be able to sustain themselves indefinitely. This is because oppressed sections of the working class will find ways to overcome such barriers, including through innovative trade unionism. Plus employers will utilise changes in the technical form of the means of production to overcome the same barriers.

The answer is not control of entry. The answer is in complete unionisation, extending the training, terms, wages, etc. to all those employed. The alternative to the ‘race to the bottom’ is collective bargaining and organisation which levels up, and raises the proportion of revenue returned to the whole workforce. Free movement of labour within the EU should be supported because it is progressive.

Trade unions also need to take a stand against Islamophobia, which is the most rapidly growing form of racism inside the imperialist countries. This is as true for non-EU states like Switzerland or the USA, as it is for EU member states. The source and fuel for this can be found in the imperialist wars for oil and gas resources; in the living presence of colonial traditions; in the virulent campaigns of the far right, and in its encouragement by mainstream politicians and media owners who are unable to address economic stagnation and decline.

It is important also to be campaigning for Britain to remaining in the Single Market, given the economic damage that leaving it would inflict.

Socialists should continue to oppose Brexit because of its negative consequences. Just as socialists do not agree with the outcome of the 2015 General Election and will not simply wait until 2020 before actively campaigning against the Tories mandate, similarly Brexit needs to be challenged. It cannot be the case that a single vote on the EU has taken place and that there is no further place for democracy. It should not be left to the Tory government to make all subsequent decisions.

Account also has to be taken of the majorities who voted for remain in Scotland and the north of Ireland. The government should not feel free to just ignore the national rights issues these votes raise.

Every serious trade union activist is familiar with the pattern of a campaign producing a policy which must then be negotiated. The members decide the policy for the negotiators. The negotiators subsequently report the result of negotiations for acceptance or rejection by the members. Such elementary democracy should be granted to the electorate.

Len McCluskey gave an interesting speech to the CLASS conference in November which prioritised providing safeguards for all workers, communities and industries. McCluskey went further and said: ‘There is a more immediate argument for the free movement of labour – it is the price for keeping access to the Single Market, which is essential for so many British jobs. That problem needs to be frankly acknowledged – fixed barriers to free movement will hardly be acceptable to the European Union if access to the Single Market is to be retained.’

In short order, the movement needs to register this and set a course for maintain living standards, jobs, employment rights and against all forms of discrimination. The Tories are preparing a Brexit that will retain austerity, wreck the welfare state, cut living standards, subsidise the employers, and promote racism. That must be fought.