Some people may find Unite’s failure to fight over jobs such as those at Cowley confusing.
Is it really true that the union is incapable of fighting for jobs?
After all, isn’t this the same union that, just days ago, was organising demonstrations and giving the nod to unofficial strikes that swept construction sites and oil refineries demanding British jobs for British workers?
The union even produced official placards for these strikes. So why did it fail to challenge the sackings in Cowley?
The slogan “British jobs for British workers” is divisive. It narrows down industrial disputes to the question of quotas for workers of different nationalities rather than defending the rights of all workers.
It encourages some workers to blame others for job losses, rather than taking on the bosses and avoids the real problems at the heart of the jobs crisis.
But the use of divisive slogans is not the only problem in the trade union movement. Trade union leaders have also made official and unofficial deals with New Labour that claim to give workers better rights, but which in reality do nothing of the sort.
Some union leaders have spoken out over the question of rights for agency and temporary workers.
But their words have often remained just that.
Gordon Brown promised to change the law to improve agency workers’ rights in the so-called “Warwick Two” agreement with the unions in 2004.
He has not done so.
Instead, New Labour has led the only government in the European union to consistently try to block rights for agency staff to be treated as permanent workers.
Brown has also refused to repeal the Tory anti-union laws.
“There will be no return to the 1970s, 1980s or even the 1990s when it comes to union rights, no retreat from continued modernisation,” he said last summer.
Of course the unions do still have the power to fight over jobs.
Anger can quickly spill over into action – but we need an organised fight that isn’t afraid to confront the Labour government.