Brexit deal is a floor, not a ceiling: Unite’s letter to Labour MPs on the day of the vote on the Brexit deal

Unite’s letter to Labour MPs and others on the day of the parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal:

Dear Friends

For years, Unite has been working with UK manufacturing to try to secure a future for the industry in this country. That meant securing a deal for future trade with the European Union.

We are now, as 2020 ends, far from the ideal position for this essential sector but UK manufacturing now stands at a crossroads, possibly its most important ever, and UK manufacturing workers need you to stand with them on the Brexit deal, poor as it is, that has finally been secured.

UK manufacturing supports the jobs of some two million people the length and breadth of the country. For half a decade they have lived with the uncertainty and absence of much-needed investment that has followed the political wrangling.

Their hope now is that this uncertainty can begin to ebb and that, with stability returning, so will investment.

For Unite, the country’s leading manufacturing union, the deal before you today does not mean that the government can put its feet up. Far from it. Unite considers that the hard graft of making this deal work for the betterment of the people of this country begins now.

On behalf of working people and manufacturing communities, Unite therefore asks that, despite its obvious shortcomings and many of your own personal misgivings, which this union shares, you to do two things today:

  1. Vote for the UK/EU trade deal; and
  2. Make it absolutely clear to this government that this deal is a floor, not a ceiling and Labour will be harrying this government to build upon it.

Back the deal – and build from it, or UK manufacturing will wither

A floor, not a ceiling

While long-standing concerns for UK manufacturing over a no-deal Brexit may have been averted with this intentionally last-minute UK/EU trade agreement, the agreement reached is thin, inconclusive, and as it stands, damaging in many ways to our manufacturing industries.

Unite regards Boris Johnson’s deal as a floor and not a ceiling in both our relationship with this significant market but also the absolute base from which domestic government-led improvements and investment must be forthcoming.

This deal can, and must be, built upon over the coming period whereas the ONLY other option on offer to UK workers at this stage – a no-deal departure [on World Trade Organisation rules] – would be catastrophic for jobs and constitute an act of gross industrial vandalism.

Boris Johnson’s deal, returning to parliament today, was never going to provide the ‘frictionless’ trade promised by those delivering Brexit nor, standardised certification, regulatory alignment or cumulation of imported components beyond the EU/UK group. This deal will therefore create real challenges for companies with global supply chains.

Unite also joins with the rest of the union movement in sharing concerns that this Conservative government has failed to provide adequate ongoing safeguards for labour rights. Alongside chapters covering competition, taxation and environment, the UK finds itself outside any formal legally binding dispute settlement procedure and trade unions outside of the scope of those able to initiate proceedings.

Cumulatively, this will mean continued uncertainty for workers and industry which is why Unite demands that the government and elected MPs work with trade unions to bring security and resolution to these important yet unsettled matters.

Save ‘just in time’

UK manufacturing has been rebuilt over the past four decades and is a major contributor of both jobs and taxes. Some 823,000 work in the sector directly with tens of thousands more in associated and supply chain industries. The sector is high value and high end – it is also very complicated, relying on integrated and ‘just in time’ supply of componentry and materials from across the globe. The UK auto sector, operating under normal circumstances, depends on millions of parts in thousands of trucks delivering componentry every day for example. Trade barriers and cross border friction will destroy the sector’s capacity to work efficiently.

Unite is therefore extremely concerned that non-tariff barriers resulting from this deal will hamper trade and damage these just in time supply chains:

Customs declarations and certification requirements, non-aligned technical standards and new product certification requirements.

Challenging rules of origin requirements will protect EU-based manufacturers while the absence of diagonal cumulation in the agreement will create serious challenges to the UK automotive sector in particular as we transition through hybrid technologies to full EVs.

Ensure a seat at the table for workers and their unions

The deal provides for the creation of a number of industrial and expert committees to oversee the agreements implementation and advise on specific challenges and transitional arrangements in specific sectors.

Further, a Domestic Advisory Groups and a Civil Society Forum should be established under the agreement to advise government. While these will never be a substitute for the (denied) right of trade unions to bring direct actions under the agreement, they can play a vital role in ensuring that the voice of workers is heard on such bodies. In reassuring working people that there will be no ‘race to the bottom’ on rights and living standards, we demand that trade unions (representing some six million workers in the UK) have the direct ability to play an active role on all such relevant bodies.

The UK government’s job has only just begun: an industrial strategy and plan now

The resources, investment and industry confidence needed to protect or create skilled, advanced manufacturing jobs will need UK government commitment and resources on an ongoing and significant scale if we’re to stand a chance of keeping pace with our advanced economic competitors.

Central government must signal that in return for the support that it seeks for its new trading order, it accepts its role and responsibility in helping to secure the new products, prioritising research and development, to build an insourced economy and to put manufacturing at the heart of a greener, transitioning, regionally-focused and better-balanced economy. This is part and parcel of the comprehensive industrial strategy desperately needed by the UK, and we call upon the government to bring forth with speed its plan to deliver it.

Unite’s calls for a better future for UK manufacturing

We call upon government to:

Act in the national interest and introduce a comprehensive industrial and manufacturing strategy and create a Cabinet-level minister for manufacturing.

Invest in and support the development of green technologies, initiate procurement measures to support UK jobs and regional development, and introduce support measures promoting diversification and the repurposing of idle plant and tooling to ensure we manufacture as much as possible in the UK. This assists in the recovery from Covid-19, Brexit and with the urgent necessity to green our towns, cities and skies as we act on the climate emergency.

Use the opportunity of on-going automotive transition arrangements to engage with industry and trade unions on developing UK automotive supply chains, including transmission, powertrain, battery, cathode/anode and cell manufacture.

Act swiftly to create the mirror regulatory and certification authorities demanded by our departure from the EU and future compliance with duel standards.

Finally, we renew our call for the creation of a cross party ‘National Council for Recovery’ bringing, local government, industry, trade unions and academics together to plan to rebuild and recover from Covid-19 and the challenges of post Brexit trade.

It would be helpful if you could raise any of the points above as appropriate in any interventions you are planning to make in the debate.

Given the above opportunities and despite your own genuine concerns about the weaknesses in the deal (and for many of you with a very heavy heart), on behalf of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers, our families and communities, Unite asks that you now back it and build on it. This union will work with you on this every step of the way.

With our sincere thanks

Steve Turner

Assistant General Secretary – Manufacturing


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