Unite members at the Port of Immingham are leading a global charge to drastically increase the power of trade unions.
A new “hub” office has been opened at Immingham, the eighth largest port in Europe, in order to allow grassroots members and non-members alike to forge alliances and agreements across job sectors.
It is the first of many scheduled for ports across Britain and Europe, with the aim of eventually having them all over the world.
Building a power base
The project will tackle the increasingly fragmented and opaque employment structures of globalised companies, by organising workers across professions in the places where they all converge – massive industrial port complexes.
“People felt like they were working on their own because they might be next door to other members but they weren’t talking to each other,” Unite regional coordinating officer Bev Clarkson said. “The whole point of this is to get people communicating and building a power base from the ground up.”
Importantly, Clarkson said, the office is informally located in the unobtrusive Seaman’s Mission and will protect employees from prying eyes.
“There’s hundreds of companies in the port that don’t have union recognition,” she said. “People are frightened to be seen talking to a union rep from a different company. But everybody goes to the Seaman’s Mission. There’s a cafe and a bar – there lots of things there. Nobody has to know why they are going there. Without a shadow of a doubt it’s going to boost recruitment.”
The office, which is being set up in conjunction with the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and IndustriALL, will help bring together members from the oil and gas, steal, renewable energies, transport, chemicals, automotive and dock work industries.
The move will increase collective bargaining power during disputes by connecting workers from different occupations, explained Unite tutor Becky Evans, who has been holding training sessions for the activists running the office.
Working across sectors
“This is about working across sectors, getting people to talk to each other and increasing industrial strength. You might have a component coming into a port from a company that’s involved in a dispute with it’s employees,” Evans said.
“If people along the supply chain are talking to each other then that component could be delayed. It wouldn’t be industrial action just some sort of measure that shows support. There doesn’t even have to be action, but the leverage of a network in the supply chain increases power for all our members.”
Becky pointed out that with a new Tory government, workers’ rights are increasingly in the firing line. If the Conservatives are to be stopped, there must collective action across professions.
“Hub projects can be transposed onto anything. For instance: a hospital and its surrounding health services, along with security, catering and cleaning and the local community. That can be considered a hub,” she said.
Not only are Unite members readdressing the inequalities created by the confusing and alienating structures employed by multinational conglomerates at home, but they are also setting an example for trade unionists the world over.
ITF industrial hubs programme leader Paula Halmilton travelled to the Humber region to provide advice and training for the new office’s staff members. She made clear that Immingham’s Unite members are setting a global trend and bolstering the potential of effective international solidarity.
“The Unite profile internationally is immensely high,” Hamilton noted. “It is the biggest affiliate for the Hub programme. Their Humber members are leading the way. They are on the global front line and are piloting something that can fundamentally change trade unionism in Europe and beyond.”
This week 40 Unite activists were trained to work at the office, which will be used for campaigning, offering advice and services and as a drop-in centre. Scunthorpe work convenor Martin Foster was one of those preparing for the new roles.
“It’s ambitious and it’s going to be a lot of work. But the bargaining power it will give us is immense,” he said. “This will give us the power to fight for a decent standard of living for our members.”
Photo by Mark Pinder