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Alessandro Bianco

Trade Unionists are not Bystanders to the Industrial Impact of Brexit

Nearly three years have passed since the Brexit referendum and still the final outcome remains unclear. In this unprecedented period of political and economic uncertainty for British workers, Unite has sought to cut through the ‘fog of Brexit,’ analyse its industrial impact on Unite members, and demonstrate the unique role of trade union representatives in mitigating any negative impact in the workplace.
Preliminary findings of the latest phase of our research - which will report in July and consists of interviews with Unite workplace reps from nearly every sector and region the union represents – finds that workers and trade unionists are not simply bystanders to the whims of big business or the political pantomime in Westminster, but can play an active role in fighting for a Brexit on our terms.
Three key themes are emerging from the interviews carried out thus far: uncertainty; Brexit fatigue; and reps’ industrial responses to Brexit.
The most prevalent theme to have emerged is the negative role that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has caused and that this uncertainty is being weaponised by some employers. This uncertainty has manifested itself in three key ways:

  • the overriding fear that employers will look to cut jobs or move production out of the UK;
  • employers using it to negatively influence industrial relations;
  • the future of EU funding in local authorities and the status of EU nationals in the NHS.

Reps are reporting that their employers are citing Brexit as a reason to attempt to freeze pay or offer a limited pay increase, offer a shorter pay deal, put off pay talks until the Brexit situation becomes clearer, or undermine and attack institutions like European Works Councils (EWCs). 
It should be noted that the vast majority of reps that have been affected in this way believe that their employer is using Brexit opportunistically to reduce pay, rights, and terms and conditions.
It should also be added that Brexit uncertainty is overlapping with, exacerbating, and acting as a cover for pre-existing issues such as austerity to undermine the ability of reps to resist their employers’ approach to Brexit.
A consistent feature since the start of this research has been the frustration and ‘Brexit fatigue’ among reps – both leavers and remainers – that Brexit shows no imminent signs of being resolved.
It is also true to say that a majority of reps – both leavers and remainers – feel that any negative consequences of Brexit can be mitigated by negotiating an agreement that protects jobs, investment and workers’ rights.
The confusion and uncertainty surrounding Brexit has created a situation where nearly half of the reps interviewed have been engaged in either defensive or offensive industrial activity as a result of Brexit. This is highly significant given that an increasing number of employers are citing Brexit to, at best, frame negotiations with reps and, at worst, attack Unite members’ pay, rights, and terms and conditions.
The lesson that can be drawn from this is that, just as Brexit can be used as leverage by the employer to try and attack reps and members, reps and members can fight Brexit opportunism by the employer to defend or improve their situation, even in the particularly chaotic social, economic and political context of Brexit. In this sense, Brexit uncertainty and fatigue do not have to define our approach to Brexit but can be actively fought against. 
Over the coming months, further interviews will help build a more comprehensive understanding of the themes outlined above. Given the complexity of the political situation, it is possible that events could change the final conclusions of this project dramatically.
Despite the confusion and division that Brexit has caused, the research carried out for this project thus far has highlighted that it is possible for Unite reps and members to mitigate the impact of Brexit. Indeed, one point has remained consistent throughout: being a member of Unite offers workers the opportunity to resist and overcome any negative consequences that may stem from Brexit both now and in the future. 
John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union, and Andrew Waterman is a PhD Researcher at the University of Portsmouth