Unite policy conference delegates held a lively debate yesterday (October 18) on the best way to react to the industrial realities of free ports, just-in-time logistical networks and the supply chain vulnerabilities exposed by Covid and Brexit.
During the Supply Chain Solidarity fringe, delegates heard from speakers on collaborating across logistically linked sectors, sharing industrial intelligence and developing strategies to protect and further workers’ interests.
Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said, “The impact of leaving the EU, the pandemic, the HGV and semiconductor shortages and the creation of freeports means we cannot find solutions in one workplace alone. We need to come together.”
By developing networks that span the supply chain, union activists can identify ‘pinch points’ and anticipate potential opportunities and problems before they emerge, explained Unite research director John Earls.
The dominant economic system is ‘breaking in front of our eyes’, Earls said. ‘It is an opportunity to be proactive and go on the offensive”.
Unite research officer Ben Norman said the just-in-time supply chains have been used over the past 30 years to cut costs and had ‘tightened the screws on workers’.
Just-in-time originated in manufacturing but had spread across the economy and was now everywhere ‘from cars to carrots’, Norman said, but events that disrupt these supply chains are becoming more and more common.
Employers have strategies to mitigate supply fragilities, such as multi-sourcing agreements from external suppliers and internal competition between sites – both of which encourage race-to-the-bottom approaches by bosses.
Norman said it is essential that the union develops its own strategies to counter this ‘fragmentation of labour’ by bringing together shop stewards from up and down the supply chain.
Dr Katy Fox-Hodess, from the Centre from Decent Work, quoted a saying that was popular during her time working with the International Dockworkers Council: “The people who move the world can also stop it.”
One of the main issues with organising across the supply chain is coordinating between sectors with a high union density, such as docks and rail workers, and low union density sectors such as warehousing.
Hodess said shop stewards should see attempts to bolster unionism in unorganised sectors not as an altruistic pursuit but one that benefits their own membership by making them less isolated on the supply chain.
Coordination between high and low density sectors is most effective when it is driven by worker to worker organising and there is an authentic relationship between reps, said Hodess.
Unite rep and conference delegate Paul Peacock helped to set up Unite’s Tees Valley freeport hub, which has been established to use supply chain solidarity to defend terms and conditions and further the interests of local workers.
“In 2019 we knew the freeport was coming so we reached out to brothers and sisters in other companies that would be part of the port.”
Peacock explained how the hub committee then mapped out the connections between the different companies and actors that will be involved or located in the port to draw up a strategy to support workers across the supply chain.
Responding to concerns raised by a number of delegates about how to engage with freeports, which prioritise capital and drive down pay, terms and conditions, Peacock said: “We know what the pitfalls are but we are determined to go in there and unionise.
“We have also drawn definite red lines around the free port decanting jobs from the rest of the region. We’ve got people on the inside from all the sectors involved and we’re going to get collective bargaining, believe me.”
By Ryan Fletcher
Pic by Mark Thomas