Why unions need a supply chain strategy

International trade is too important to be left to economists, businesspeople, and politicians. It needs trade union intervention, writes Simon Sapper.

A photo of a trade union protest with the words "The UnionDues Column" overlaid

Simon Sapper is a trade unionist and host of the UnionDues podcast

Corresponding with the launch of the UnionDues’ fourth podcast series, where John Earls, Unite’s Director of Research, talks about the necessity of a trade union approach to trade, Simon Sapper writes about what the union movement can do about international trade and 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 ship’s 266 containers were loaded with Scotch for return sailing to the US.

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

These incidents highlight 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.

International trade is too important to be left to economists and politicians

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

There are three stand-out issues at play here. Firstly, 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. 

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

“Choke points” seen as inevitable

Thirdly, as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ever Given incident shows, these chains are not robust and invincible.  There are so-called “choke points” where the chain can be compromised.

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.  Henceforth, there is an opportunity for union intervention to safeguard teams and conditions.

The Unite document is a campaign strategy, featuring quotes from Unite reps highlighting both opportunities and challenges. From harvesting and sharing information, to “over-the-threshold” 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 organisational silos.  The series of checklists in the report is a great tool to help reps along the way.

Unite’s ‘A Collective Bargaining Strategy for Trade’ report can be found here.

The community  of interest between Unite’s plan and the work of trade justice groups like Corporate Justice Coalition, helps reset 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.

That leads us onto Prof Mel Simms’ #Thought4TheWeek, where she exposes the conjecture that older and younger workers just blame each other for precarious and poorly paid employment .

And we have Left Foot Forward’s very own Josiah Mortimer previewing his #RadicalRoundUp of union news.

You can access this and all episodes of the UnionDues podcast here.  The next episode is due out on 11 May.

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