Jackie Doyle-Price is the MP for Thurrock
After many years of planning and construction, the new London Gateway port in Thurrock is now open for business. This has been a project on a grand scale. Built to take the world’s largest ships, when fully operational it will host some 12,000 jobs. With over £1 billion invested, this is the largest inward investment project in Britain. Sitting downstream from the UK’s first container port at Tilbury, not to mention the roll on,roll off terminal at Purfleet, Thurrock is set to be come the ports capital of the UK.
That is what would happen, but for the intervention of our old friends at Unite. Unite was historically the dockworkers union, and believe they should be recognised as the collective voice for workers at the new port. However, there are any number of unions who are active in representing the skills on display in our ports – GMB, Prospect, Community, to name but three. Consequently, London Gateway have suggested that it would be more appropriate for the workers to choose themselves who they would like to represent them. Quite reasonable, one would say.
Not according to Unite. They have reacted to such a suggestion with predictable hyperbole. On Unite’s website they claim “that there are fears that the company is engaging on a race to the bottom as it looks to slash workers’ terms and conditions to compete for business”. As a regular visitor to Gateway ,I can state quite clearly that Gateway value their workers. Indeed, there is an impressive collegiate spirit to be witnessed there. The structure is flat, with management and workforce all pulling together to make the port become the best it can be. The “us and them” mentality pursued by Unite is profoundly alien to the culture at Gateway. Moreover, 12,000 applications for 400 jobs is testament to how attractive a workplace it is.
Unite’s behaviour is profoundly alien to twenty-first century industrial relations. And I think it is time for the wider trade union movement to disassociate itself from the bully boy antics of Unite – as should the Labour Party. We know that trade unions do much to support individual workers. We know that good trade unions can be the glue which holds management and workforce together when times are tough. And we know that good industrial relations are key to improved productivity.
Sadly, this is not my experience of Unite. As I read the accounts of the activities at Grangemouth, it all appeared depressingly familiar.
Since I was elected in 2010, I have had a number of difficult issues in my patch which have impacted on Unite members. I have been involved in an ongoing fight to try and keep Tilbury Power station;we had the closure of Petroplus. In both cases, the dominant union was Unite. In neither case did Unite ever contact me for support.
They have. however, sought my intervention with London Gateway. Clearly, the battle for recognition is more important than saving existing members jobs.
Within the last few months, the fight by Unite has been slowly escalating. Unite campaigners have been demonstrating outside the offices of potential clients and shareholders. Worse than that, they have encouraged their sister unions, in ports across Europe, to undertake industrial action. This is a concerted attack on a business which amounts to economic terrorism.
We are sending a terrible signal to potential inward investors when a union can set out to wreck a business just because the company in question doesn’t simply roll over when faced with demands for recognition. And therein lies the hypocrisy. It is the role of trade unions to protect the workers. It is not the role of trade unions to get in the way of job creation. Yet the message we are sending out to international investors is not one which will yield more investment and more job creation.
This project has been a long time coming. It was feted by the last Government as well as this one. It really is incumbent on the Labour Party to set itself apart from Unite’s bully boy tactics. So far, there is no word of condemnation for a strategy which will cost jobs. So much for leadership. He who pays the piper plays the tune. Labour will never stand up to their paymasters, even when it costs jobs. The leadership should reflect that the Labour movement should represent the interest of the workers, and that sometimes the interest of the workers is not supported by the leadership of some trade unions – as we saw all too graphically at Grangemouth. Putting jobs first means that sometimes you have to take on the likes of Len McCluskey. I am not holding my breath. But until Labour realise that the antics of Unite are profoundly anti-democratic and amount to economic terrorism, the trade union movement will be damaged. And that is a great pity.