Over the past two weeks, Unite has been holding regional Brexit conferences across the UK to consult members on the union’s campaign to win an EU exit that works for working people.
Conferences have been held in Belfast, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol and London, with the final conference taking place in Farnborough, in the South East of England, next week.
Union officers have updated members on the impact of Brexit on industry and politics and Unite’s efforts to ensure leaving the EU does not hurt jobs and living standards. Most importantly, they have been informed by the concerns and analysis of the members in attendance.
Members also heard from, and debated with, a range of speakers, including shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling, the Welsh assembly’s cabinet secretary for finance Mark Drakeford and Scottish Labour’s Brexit secretary Neil Findlay MSP.
In the coming weeks, Unite Brexit Check will be publishing overviews of the conference discussions, videos of the conference speeches and interviews with members about their concerns regarding the potential impact of Brexit on their workplaces.
Topics of debate varied from region to region, but collectively three themes dominated the conferences: How to avoid the devastating consequences of a hard right Tory Brexit, the need to reconcile the often entrenched divides between leave and remain voters and tackling the growing inequality that underpinned the decision to leave the EU.
The need to remain within a customs union – contrary to the position of Theresa May’s government – to avoid tariffs and delays on goods, was raised by a number of members during the conferences.
Ryan Sutters, from Diaggo beverages, said: “We are a cross border organisation. Our beer is brewed, sent over the (Republic of Ireland) border through the customs hallway to us to be packaged in Belfast and then sent back to be delivered all over the world. I have no doubt that if things go against us and there is hard a border, our workplace will go down overnight.”
Graeme Ewart, from GE Aerospace, also brought up the issue, saying: “We are transferring parts on a daily basis (across the EU). If we’re waiting on a gearbox, or a turbine, or a set of blades, there’s huge ramifications on not getting products back to the customers on time. It would kill us, it would kill jobs.”
Building society worker Valerie Clark was one of those who addressed the need to bridge the gap between remainers and leavers to achieve a Brexit that doesn’t hurt ordinary people, as did community worker Siobhan McCready.
McCready said: “I speak to a lot of people who voted to come out. I think we’ve got a real a problem with engaging with them. We need to get the message out, particularly about what (Brexit) could mean to women and their families, because I especially don’t hear a message that attracts a woman’s view.”
The underlying reasons many people voted leave were also discussed, with one member describing then as a “cry for help by the left behind”.
He said: “Immigration isn’t to blame for poor work and wages, the NHS crisis, austerity or cuts to welfare, it’s the Tories.”
Unite disabled member Dave Allen agreed, saying: “People were sold the idea that Brexit was a panacea for resolving every problem they’ve ever had.”
During the conferences, Unite’s international director Simon Dubbins told members that the best chance of achieving a jobs first Brexit and reversing the policies hampering economic growth and causing inequality was to remove the Tories from government.
Dubbins said: “The final deal between the EU and the UK is supposed to come to the House of Commons in autumn of this year. That is when the crunch is absolutely coming. Labour have six tests for that deal and there’s a cat in hells chance those tests are going to be met.
“We need to pressure our MPs to make sure they vote against that deal when it comes to parliament. If the deal is voted down, it’s possible we could have a general election.”
Dubbins also reminded members that the “workplace is where our strength is”.
“That is where we need to mitigate and fight the worst effects. We need to stay organised. We need to stay united – despite the different positions we might have had,” Dubbins said.
“We need to stop employers exploiting the opportunities that Brexit is presenting them with to push our wages down, threaten our terms and conditions and threaten our standards.”
He added: “Our union is uniquely positioned to influence this process and I urge all of you to take that seriously. Take it back into your workplaces, your branches, your regions and make sure our voice is heard in this process.”