Amongst the themes to emerge from Unite’s North East, Yorkshire and the Humber Brexit conference was the need for members to make their voices heard in the debate over how the UK should leave the EU.
Unite member Jonathon Elson, who works for an agro-chemical company, highlighted the risks to his sector if Britain is not part of a customs union with the EU.
He said: “Our products are made from ingredients that arrive in a tanker from Europe and everything we make goes back to Europe in a tanker.
“If spending even a minute checking each vehicle at the border is going to cause massive tailbacks, that is going to create huge problems for industries like ours.”
Other members highlighted the need to counter overly hostile and often misinformed attitudes to issues concerning the EU, in order to achieve a balanced debate on Britain’s future relationship with the bloc and direction outside of it.
Unite Hull City Council rep Daphne Robbins said her region had benefitted from millions of pounds of EU funding that had helped businesses and communities – a point she said people needed to be informed of as the country considers its prospective links with Europe.
Dave Allen, who represents disabled members on Unite’s North East regional committee, spoke about the need to temper strong feelings over immigration so a constructive discussion on free movement reforms can be had.
He said: “Freedom of movement is a double edged sword. But I was a branch officer in the 80s and I never used to see our members for months on end. They were working in engineering factories in the Netherlands and in the shipyards of Germany. Other people were working on German construction sites. We all remember ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’.
“So we have benefited from free movement and there are many aspects that we still benefit from.”
Labour MEP for the North East, Jude Kirton-Darling, said as some of the most trusted people in their communities union reps can really influence the wider Brexit debate.
“Please start using that power to tell the stories from your workplaces, to tell the local press stories: About EU nationals working in public services who are thinking about leaving or about what it means in sectors with skills gaps where we depend on workers from other European countries,” said Kirton-Darling.
“The issue over a customs union is one of the areas where the argument is starting to be won in the public debate and listened to by politicians. That’s because people are telling stories about how their workplaces in sectors like manufacturing and transport will suffer without a customs union. We need to get more of those types of stories out there.”