Why unions need a supply chain strategy

In 1966, the first transatlantic container ship arrived at Grangemouth. Having delivered US  Army material to Germany, the ships 266 containers were loaded with Scotch for return sailing to the US. ”

In 2021, the EverGiven ran aground in the Suez Canal with a cargo of 18,000 containers.

Contrasting the above two paragraphs shows the importance (and unavoidability) of a trade union response to international trade, and that’s the starting point for an important new document from Unite (which opens with that Grangemouth illustration)

International trade is just too important to ignore

In the latest episode of UnionDues,  we chat with Unite Director of Research John Earls about why international trade is too important to be left to economists, business people and politicians,   and what the union movement can do about it.

There are three stand-out issues here:  First, trade is global with supply chains stretching around the globe and, in some cases, into space as well. As the report notes “comparative advantage is gained from employers producing and moving goods and services into new economic territories as quickly and cheaply as possible.”  So, left to its own devices, this system is a genuine free-for-all race-to-the-bottom. 

Second, the best defence of terms and conditions is to organise along the complete length of a supply chain.

And third,  as Covid and the EverGiven show,  these chains are not robust and invincible.  There are so-called “choke points” where the chain can be compromised.

Every chain has a weak link somewhere

The existence of these weak spots is seen as inevitable –  management consultants and supply chain experts McKinsey’s found that “transparency is hard or impossible to achieve….hundreds or thousands of suppliers may contribute to a single product.”  In other words, what has been broken down into all these parts cannot be reconstructed or reunified.  And that’s an opportunity for union intervention to safeguard teams and conditions.

So far, so clear.  But the Unite document is a campaign strategy.  Telling quotes from Unite reps highlight both opportunities and challenges – from harvesting and sharing information the is already available,  to “over-the-thresh-hold” arrangements  (so that  members can be represented by the union on whatever site they are working at, at any given time) to breaking out of organizational silos.  The series of checklists in the report is a great tool to help reps along the way.

You can get copy of the document here.   The community  of interest between Unite’s plan and the work of trade justice groups like Corporate Justice Coalition really helps in resetting the terms of the debate about fair trade, sustainability and effective organising.  And given the persistent polling showing the importance of these issues to younger people, there may be a recruitment dividend too.

Thought4TheWeek and RadicalRoundUp

We have great contribution from Prof Mel Simms,  exposing the trope that older and younger workers just blame each other for precarious and poorly paid employment in her #Thought4TheWeek

And in his #RadicalRoundUpLFF’s Josiah Mortimer profiles imminent industrial action by UCU members at the University of Liverpool, why the FBU  has said the government’s new fire service advisor is a ‘harbinger of doom’ for the service, this week’s Workers Memorial Day, how GMB have made Addison Lee follow Uber into the Supreme Court, and voters are being reminded by Unison that thousands of public sector staff face a government pay freeze, ahead of the local elections.

We also look at calls for a union rebrand in the wake of US survey data, and a new push on a union app from CWU. Plus, last but in no way least, arrangements for the important, poignant, annual Workers’ Memorial Day

You can access this and all episodes here.  Next episode due on 11 May.

A version of this article also appears in Left Foot Forward

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