A history lesson for Iain Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith has attempted to appeal to the Left with today’s argument that the EU and “uncontrolled immigration” has caused a downward pressure on wages. Despite being at the forefront of taking from the have nots and giving to the haves for years, he’s now blaming the EU.

There is, of course, a different way of looking at the claim that immigrants are willing to work for lower wages than nationals – that is that UK employers are willing to exploit immigrants and pay them less than nationals. And it was ever thus – long before the EU was even an idea.

For hundreds of years, but particularly from the 1840s onwards, desperate Irish people left home and travelled to Britain in their hundreds of thousands. My forebears (and some of my ancestors) did the worst jobs and were paid the least. From filling the factories of the industrial revolution, to tarring the roads, working the docks and staffing the hospitals – the Irish were there.

In the 1880s and 1890s, they faced “competition” from a wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who filled the sweatshops of East London. Wartime introduced a new group – women, who were “willing” to work for less.

Fast forward to 1948 and it was the turn of Black people from the Caribbean who were needed to fill the jobs that paid so little, English people didn’t want them. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis followed afterwards, all taking advantage of new rights for Commonwealth citizens.

Of course, at each point, with each new group, there were those who argued for immigration controls, blaming the poor for their own exploitation. However, those same poor showed, each time, that there was another option.

Starting in East London in 1888, a new idea was born – new unionism – the idea that trade unions could be mass organisations that represented more than small groups of skilled workers. From the matchworkers of Bryant and May, the idea spread to the docks and tailors bringing London to the verge of a general strike. One thing was common amongst the new unionists – they were immigrants. Predominantly Irish in the match factory and on the docks, they were joined by Russian and Eastern European dock workers and the Jewish tailors of West London.

The militancy of this early wave faded and was given a killing blow by the Taff Vale Railways ruling in 1901, but the Trade Disputes Act in 1906 removed its impact and set the stage for the emergence of an even bigger wave. Membership of the unions had continued to grow, uniting workers across the economy and, in particular, across nationalities.

The next wave started in Belfast in 1907 when the Liverpool-born child of Irish immigrants, Jim Larkin (who experienced his first strike on the Liverpool docks in 1905), organised a strike on the docks that, for a short time, united Catholic and Protestant. The full potential of the new mass trade unions was unleashed from 1910 to 1914 in the Great Unrest. Larkin moved to Dublin in 1908 where his success in building the militant ITGWU led to the Dublin Lock-Out in 1913. His home city, Liverpool, saw one of the biggest strikes of the Great Unrest as transport workers across the city went out in 1911.

Jewish workers in East London took action in 1912, smashing the sweatshop system of the time. The activism survived the First World War and led to the General Strike in 1926. Union membership continued to grow and, after the Second World War, gradually started to incorporate the new arrivals from the Caribbean and Asia.

The period of the UK’s membership of the EU and its forerunners has coincided, since the early 1980s, with a Tory-led assault on trade unions that has restricted their ability to take action and improve wages for all – immigrants or nationals. Wapping, the miners’ strikes and anti-union legislation crippled the unions and led to an ongoing decline into the 1990s. And, of course, that assault hasn’t stopped – we’ve just seen the passing of even more restrictions on trade union activity in the Trade Union Act 2016.

The reality is that neither EU migration nor immigration in general bring down wages, it’s restrictions on the rights of workers to fight for better wages that do. Yet Iain Duncan Smith has never in his political career done anything to help workers fight for better wages.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

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