Trade Unions, Race and Migration in the UK and France: The Tensions Around Class and Identity Politics
French and UK models of immigrant integration are traditionally contrasted as representing the 'assimilationist' and 'multiculturalist' approach to civic and political integration of non citizens. This has been reflected in trade union responses towards immigrant workers, where French trade unions have favoured assimilation, with some moves towards recognising different immigrant identities and cultures – but this has mainly been as a response to the mobilisation of immigrant workers (for example the sans papiersmovement in 2008). The unions' focus on the workplace within the French context, the class-based approach to representing workers and the Republican ideology has meant that unions have often lacked a response to migrant and BME interests. In the UK trade unions shifted their debates around immigration from exclusionary and restrictive to a more multicultural vision of society in the 1970s – again the result of the mobilisation of migrant workers. Recently, trade union responses in the UK have included the organising of migrant workers in specific campaigns (for example the Justice for Cleaners campaign in 2001) and the tradition of self-organising in the UK has meant there has been representation of BME group interests.There have been internal tensions however, in relation to the adoption of separatist versus integrative approaches in relation to migrant and minority groups. In both countries, trade unions have been faced with an increasing need to respond to the growing migrant population and also to tackle issues around racism and social inclusion.
This paper compares the responses of trade unions in France and the UK in relation to race and migration, exploring the internal tensions that result from their responses, and reflects on the broader tensions around class and identity politics which are brought out in the race/migration debate. This paper will discuss the ways in which trade unions have responded to the tensions around representing different minority groups and whether the issue of migration and the increase in migrant worker trade union members has intensified the need to reconfigure representation structures. This paper draws on existing research and some initial field research conducted in trade unions in France and the UK. It is an exploratory paper which aims to contribute to the debates around trade unions, race and migration and to analyse and compare similar pressures and experiences of trade unions in relation to migration and BME groups.