He correctly states that “Migrant workers are to blame for absolutely nothing in this country. They are just trying to better their lives and the lives of their families. It’s the greedy bosses that are using them to undercut pay and conditions.”
Yet he calls for restrictions upon the“…free movement of labour unless you get stricter labour market regulation.”
So they aren’t the cause of any problems but they are to be punished for the actions of some employers by being deprived of the ability to improve their position by seeking out jobs outside of their own country. Does McCluskey also wish to impose restrictions on people of those deprived areas within UK where low pay prevails and a willingness to accept poor employment contracts from re-locating to relatively more prosperous regions of the UK? Why is he not campaigning against the discriminatory differences in pay offered to younger workers than to older?
Alena Ivanova, from the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, rightly responded: “A Romanian care worker and a British bus driver have more in common with each other than they do with their boss. That is the basis of the trade union movement. Len MCluskey’s job is to fight for their full rights, for decent pay and the right not to be deported and harassed by the state because of their immigration status.”
The problem of bosses using cheaper labour from elsewhere is not new. The Irish were the original scapegoats for bad pay and bad conditions. It is the same old Labour Party story.
The Labour Party “saintly” Keir Hardie, said of the newly arrived Polish [actually Lithuanians] coal-miners, "their habits are very filthy, six or seven males occupying a one-roomed house, and having women to cook for them"
As early as 1887 the Ayrshire Miners Union led by Keir Hardie demanded their removal on the grounds that "their presence is a menace to the health and morality of the place and is, besides, being used to reduce the already too low wages earned by the workmen".
In his evidence to the 1899 House of Commons Select Committee on emigration and immigration, argues that the Scots resented immigrants greatly and that they would want a total immigration ban. When it was pointed out to him that more people left Scotland than entered it, he replied:
“It would be much better for Scotland if those 1,500 [Scots emigrants] were compelled to remain there and let the foreigners be kept out...Dr Johnson said God made Scotland for Scotchmen, and I would keep it so.”
He suggested that the employment of foreigners by British employers should be prohibited, unless they were political exiles or had fled from religious persecution or if they came from countries where the wage rates were the same as in Britain.
Writing in the Miner, he stated that:
"For the second time in their history Messrs. Merry and Cunninghame have introduced a number of Russian Poles to Glengarnock Ironworks. What object they have in doing so is beyond human ken unless it is, as stated by a speaker at Irvine, to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers."
In Lanarkshire, there was much anger against the Lithuanias (who also being Catholics, added to the prejudice against them). They were employed in the iron, steel and coal works, and were accused of wage cutting and scabbing.
In Laikas (Time), a British published Lithuanian newspaper described how “”Lithuanians, through ignorance, sometimes stand in the way of more conscious workers. On July 3rd, , for example, work stopped here [Coatbridge, Lanarkshire] and an increase of a penny an hour was demanded. The Lithuanian workers did not join in and the management refused to negotiate saying that not everybody wanted the increase. That's why the Scottish hate us so as we do not unite with the English [sic] workers and agree to work for lower wages...Men, understand this, the owners exploit us without mercy and make us work long hours for a pittance.”
Nevertheless, the Lanarkshire County Miners' Union, in the space of some 15 years, went from offering support to miners willing to strike against Lithuanian workers to demanding that Lithuanian miners in Lanarkshire should not be kicked out of the country. During those 15 years, the Lithuanians had joined the union in large numbers and were active in it. Unionisation was the key to improved relations between the Lithuanian labour force and the LCMU. Once the Lithuanians began to respond positively to local strike demands the other allegations made against them were dropped or were simply not an issue. The adoption of a more class-conscious attitude and the strength of their new-found loyalty to the union was in part due to the fact that the union had taken some very positive steps, albeit tardily, to encourage Lithuanian membership such as printing the rules in Lithuanian and offering entitlement to claim full benefits.
A branch of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) was formed in Lanarkshire in 1903, and by 1905 had organised branches in almost all the Lithuanian communities scattered throughout Scotland. Two years later, the LSDP produced its own newspaper, Rankpelnis (Worker) and, on its first appearance, reconstituted itself into the Lithuanian Socialist Federation of Great Britain (LSF) which developed links to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF.). It was, of course, anathema to the Lithuanian Catholic clergy to have a group of socialists, the bedieviai, or "godless people" as they were commonly called, in their midst.
Nor can we over-look the complicity of Emmanuel Shinwell, one of the Red Clydesiders and later a Labour Party leading light, in the exclusion of Chinese and Black sea-men from British ships that result in racist riots nation-wide. Shinwell presided over meetings of sailors where he ‘…urged them to take effective steps to prevent the employment of Chinese labour on British ships...’
He was joined by Willie Gallacher who was to go on to be a Communist Party MP, to demand that black and Chinese crews should be expelled from British ships. They viewed support from white sailors as useful in widening the 40-hours protest movement and were none too particular as to how such involvement was secured. Shinwell and Gallacher were simply parroting the mis-conception that it is the poor unfortunate immigrant who is responsible for wage cuts and unemployment.
As Professor Elaine McFarland, a specialist in modern Scottish history at Glasgow Caledonian University, said of Shinwell: "He played a celebrated role in the protest in George Square on 31 January 1919. But just a week before, on 23 January, he also played a key role in a very violent attack on 30 African sailors. Newspaper reports tell how he spoke to 600 sailors and it was quite a rabble-rousing speech about black and what he called Asiatic, or Chinese, sailors. This led to around 30 black sailors being chased by a baying mob down James Watt Street.”
The black sailors, fled from the hiring yard, pursued by a much larger crowd of white sailors. Locals joined the crowd, swelling its numbers to several hundred. The mob, using guns, knives, sticks, bricks and other makeshift weapons, attacked the nearby sailors' retreat in Broomielaw in which the black seafarers had taken refuge but the mob smashed all the windows and they were turned out on to the street. The black sailors fled back to their own boarding house. When this, in turn, was attacked by the rioters, some of the black sailors fought back with guns, shooting one of the mob. One black sailor was singled out and attacked with knives, leaving him with a gaping wound in his back. The police eventually intervened by taking thirty of the black sailors into 'protective custody'. All of them were charged with riot and weapons offences. Only one of the white rioters was arrested. Shinwell blamed the violence on the arrival in Glasgow of black West African sailors from Cardiff and the recent appearance of a group of Chinese sailors from Liverpool.
The 1919 Glasgow race riot proved the first of a number that spread to major ports throughout Britain such as South Shields, Salford, Hull, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Newport and Barry. Five people were killed, dozens seriously injured, and over 250 people – usually blacks – arrested and soldiers deployed to stop the rioting.
The origins of the riots in Glasgow and elsewhere lay in the policies pursued by shipowners in that national wage rates for sailors hired in Britain (who were almost certain to be white) had been established after the 1911 seafarers’ strike but rates of pay for those hired overseas (who were almost certain to be black or Chinese) were lower by as much as 25-50%. The trade union response to shipowners using black sailors to cut their labour costs was not to campaign for an extension of the 1911 wage rates agreement to cover all sailors employed on British ships but to demand an end to the employment of foreign (black and Chinese) sailors. Instead of directing the union's wrath at the capitalist class which exploits and takes advantage of the lack of working class unity, Shinwell openly backed the idea of securing jobs for white British sailors at the expense of foreign black sailors.
Shinwell's speeches to white sea-men amounted to not much more than “British jobs for British workers”, scapegoating black and Chinese sailors.
Sylvia Pankhurst's, Workers' Dreadnought, of the Workers Socialist Federation described the sea-port race riots as by-products of capitalism and a divide and rule tactic of the employers.
"Do not you know that if it pays to employ black men employers will get them and keep them even if the white workers kill a few of the blacks from time to time?" It also wrote: "The fight for work is a product of capitalism; under socialism race rivalry disappears.” and asked "...those who have been Negro hunting:
‘Do you wish to exclude all blacks from England?’ If so, ‘do you not think that blacks might justly ask that the British should at the same time keep out of their countries?’ "
The Socialist Labour Party's journal The Socialist commented:
“It is useless to contend that coloured labour cannot be organised. If white men have approached coloured labourers in an arrogantly superior manner, it is small wonder that they have been unable to organise them...‘Alien’ on the lips of one of the working class should have only one meaning – the Boss and all that is his." It explained, "The Trades Unions have prided themselves on having ousted coloured labourers from certain occupations...Black men and yellow men have been attacked for doing precisely what white men do. This, of course, is but the logical development of the Trades Unions’ policy which is prepared to strike rather than that any unskilled white worker should get a 'skilled job.' "
The temptation to blame your unemployment or wage level on foreign labour may be strong. But nevertheless such views are false. The blame lies elsewhere. You must not blame another worker for your poverty. As McCluskey says - it is the capitalist employers to blame.
However, it is McCluskey’s prime duty as a trade union official, to organise workers in the UK regardless of their origin and to build effective resistance against those employers who practice divide and rule tactics to undermine their workers. It is not his concern where workers come from.