Hajera Blagg, Friday, November 14th, 2014
In the past two decades, the world as we know it has rapidly transformed before our very eyes. Advancements in communication and transport technology have enabled big corporations to stretch their tentacles across oceans and borders, reaping record profits along the way.
But the promise that globalisation would raise the living standards of all has not yet come to pass. For too many, globalisation is just another expression for a plunging race to the bottom, as corporations erode employment rights and workers’ pay.
The worst effects of globalisation need decidedly global solutions, and Unite, in conjunction with international trade unions ITF and IndustriALL, has set out to develop them.
The Industrial Hubs Programme, which was launched in Hull this week, is a three-day workshop that brought together trade union activists from both at home and abroad.
Its aim is to transform the way workers think about the global economy and the increasingly global corporations they work for.
For too long, trade unions have organised in isolated silos—for example, by single sectors such as transport or logistics—without a clear understanding of the ways in which all sectors are connected through global and national supply chains.
With the Industrial Hubs Programme, however, all of that is about to change.
Participants in the programme went through an invigorating, hands-on training process that connected the challenges and opportunities in their community to the world at large.
The Humber, a key UK port hub which is the 8th largest port complex in Europe by volume, includes Hull, Grimsby, Immingham, Killingholme and New Holland and has been earmarked for rapid development and investment.
Activists took part in various sessions, including a supply chain game which had participants make links between each of the different sectors they work in, from oil and gas to transport, logistics, road and rail.
Another session had participants put together an organising campaign around a fictitious union-busting oil refinery with links to corporations around the world. The activists were tasked with linking internationally with global trade unions and workers across borders and sectors to exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain.
For example, one way in which trade unionists can support beleaguered oil workers indirectly could be to make contact with workers who transport oil products to major consumer retailers like Tesco. Another strategy was to request solidarity from unions organising oil workers in other countries.
Activists also looked beyond the workplace to organise their potential campaigns by enlisting the help of community groups, politicians and local, national and international media.
Unite regional officer Ian Wood argues that knowledge of links in supply chains alone will help to empower workers.
“By setting up a hub in this area, which links say four or five different sectors in the ports, I think employers will sit up,” he said. “As soon as they know that we have our eye on the ball, that we can identify the importance of the supply chain in terms of the movement of raw materials going from America and coming to Europe and different continents, this fact alone will go a long way in making employers take notice.”
“Since we have legislation against secondary action in the UK, this means that trade unionists just have to become more creative, and this hubs programme has definitely helped in that respect,” he added.
Unite convener of ports in Southampton, Steve Biggs, explains how a creative international campaign can be an effective organising tool in practice.
He himself was involved in one such campaign only two years ago, when Teamsters members at a port in the U.S. were threatened with redundancy. The workers put in a request for help from the ITF to activate links with ports around the world which ship BMW or Mini cars.
Biggs recounted how a handful of Unite’s dockworkers went to the Mini plant in Oxford and took photos with ITF and Unite banners outside the plant gates. They then went to the Southampton port, where the Minis are shipped, and took more photos.
ITF-affiliated port workers around the world—from Thailand to Rotterdam to Japan– followed suit, and sent all the photos to the Teamsters port workers in the U.S., who then showed the pictures to management.
“They said to the company, look, this is where you ship your goods from,” Biggs said. “If you make us all redundant, there’s going to be issues at every single one of these ports.”
“It had the desired effect—they signed a new collective bargaining agreement, nobody was made redundant, and the got to keep their health scheme,” he added. “Nobody had to go on strike or anything. It’s just an example of different things you can do through leverage to protect and support other workers.”
Unite rep Phil Medley was born and bred in Hull, where he’s worked in the ports for the past decade. Thrilled that such an innovative programme has kicked off in his hometown, he believes that the Humber region is the perfect place to launch the trade union training of the future.
“A lot of major investment is coming to the area,” he said. “Personally, I would compare what’s happening here to when they found oil in Aberdeen, which transformed that area. And I think we have a big opportunity here to do the same thing.”
Ian Wood agrees.
“94 per cent of UK trade comes through the Humber, so I think this area is crucial,” he said. “Since we have so much investment coming in from renewable energy, there will be a massive change in this area.”
“So we find ourselves in a very clear position of potentially having thousands of new members as new jobs come in,” he added. “And of course, there will be a definite shift in jobs from the old fossil industries to renewable industries. All of this makes the Humber a key hub and so a key place for having this sort of programme.”
Looking to the future
The launch of the Industrial Hubs Programme in Hull is only the beginning. After the workshop, activists will take home what they learned, implement action plans to establish the hub, and then convene again in the next few months for an additional two-day workshop to ensure progress is being made.
ITF, IndustriALL and Unite hope to take the programme to other port-based hubs in the country, and eventually spread these innovative strategies to other potential hubs such as airports. Eventually, the hubs programme could serve as a blueprint for trade union training on globalisation around the world.
Unite assistant general secretary for transport, food and agriculture Diana Holland, who addressed the participants on the final day of the workshop, was optimistic that the hubs programme had the potential to be a real game changer.
“What I’ve observed from being here, participants have already come up with an incredible range of interventions that will make a difference,” she said. “What I’ve also seen is that informally, that cross-sector network that we need is developing, and I’m confident that they will be in contact with each other, and as issues arise, they will talk to each other.”
“That really helps workers’ confidence. It keeps them from feeling isolated,” she added. “They start looking outwards, instead of only looking inwards.”