The University and College Union represents a diverse body of workers, and UK academics held a range of views on the recent European Union referendum. Since the result was announced, many academics have become increasingly worried that our union, the UCU, has yet properly to respond to the concerns of academic staff from the EU who are working in the UK. EU staff make up 15 per cent of the academic workforce in the UK. After the referendum, their legal status is uncertain and the free movement of labour is seriously threatened.
The House of Commons voted on 6 July to guarantee the right to remain to EU citizens currently living in the UK, but this vote is non-binding. There is therefore continuing uncertainty on the legal status of more than 3 million EU citizens.
But there is even greater uncertainty about the future prospects of freedom of movement. Even before the referendum, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey advocated a retreat from the principle of freedom of movement within the EU. After the referendum, several trade union leaders and shadow chancellor John McDonnell started questioning whether this principle would apply in future. It is thus quite worrying that the UCU has not taken a position in support of freedom of movement.
The end of freedom of movement would represent a significant worsening of the condition of present and future EU staff in the UK. Any restrictions on freedom of movement, and our right to work without discrimination based on nationality, will put increasing competitive pressure on EU academic staff and thus affect staff as a whole, and weaken our union.
A firm commitment on the UCU’s part to the continuing right of free movement of EU workers would contribute to undermining the racist rhetoric that blames immigrants for austerity and worsening pay and working conditions. It would thus help oppose the increase in racism – with reports of race hate crimes now peaking at five times pre-referendum levels.
We hope that union members in other sectors will take up our cause, thus contributing to a broader campaign against racism and immigration restrictions not only for EU citizens but also for all people.