The union and “protect our borders”

The union is launching a national pay petition on the government’s petition website as part of our national campaign.

The NEC this week was asked to finalise the campaign strategy and agree the wording of the petition.

The wording of the petition ends with a sentence praising the work our members do, including some examples, specifically “The job retention scheme, keeping our courts running and our borders secure”.

The sentence exists to highlight the work we deem to have contributed to society to deserve a pay rise.

But one of those things is not like the others: Independent Left members of the NEC moved an amendment to remove reference to keeping our borders secure.

It is claimed that the phrase is included to highlight the work done by our members working in customs, excise and other areas ensuring duty is paid and imported goods are safe etc. But what is commonly understood by the phrase ‘keeping our borders secure’ in Britain is very simple: The hostile environment towards migrants, the deportation of immigrants and the refusal of support to refugees.

It is a phrase used as a dog-whistle by the likes of Nigel Farage, Priti Patel and Donald Trump for racist anti-immigration and immigrant policies. It cannot be used on its own without those connotations.

To illustrate the point, type the phrase into Google.

The top results include another petition on gov.uk demanding troops are used to repel immigrants at the borders; the corporate website of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security and an article on the EU’s site outlining measures taken to stop immigrants from North Africa escaping conflict and poverty crossing the Mediterranean.

What using this phrase means in reality and to the public is to normalise the policies our members follow to “keep our borders secure”, particularly around deportation and immigration enforcement. Policies we oppose and which are quite transparently discriminatory, both in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Policies which variously conflict with the equality policies of the union.

In other words, you cannot divorce praise for ‘keeping our borders secure’ from the reality of the policies employed to do that.

Our black and migrant members know what the phrase means all too well as victims of the government’s policies on ‘border protection’.

We should be no prouder of that work than we are of the work our members in DWP are asked to perform carrying out the unfair benefit sanctions and conditionality regime. Work we rightfully don’t include on this petition and work, like the border regime the union has conference policy to oppose.

There is a wider question here too. What is meant by ‘our’ borders?

PCS is in a praiseworthy position in the British trade union movement for being in favour of free movement. These borders aren’t ‘our’ borders any more than other elements of state control belong to us – they do not serve our interests. They divide workers on the basis of nationality and block people fleeing persecution and hardship from finding a better life.  

It is inconsistent for a union that believes in internationalism to be extoling the virtues of border protection.

When the vote on the amendment came, only the three IL comrades and the Socialist Party voted for the phrase’s removal. The SWP and others voted to keep it in. Picking apart the wording of a petition may seem pedantic, but political clarity is important. At best it is unnecessary, politically wrong and devoid of nuance. At worst it could be seen to be opportunistically currying support from reactionary sentiments in society.

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