Trade Unions and EU Referendum


Spain.pngTrade unions and the EU referendum

- by LI Granada member and trade union lawyer John Usher

Trade unions and the EU referendum


While accusations have been flying that the British trade union movement won concessions from the government on the vicious Trade Union Act, which received Royal Assent this week, in return for its support for the campaign to stay in the EU, it has actually taken a while for most unions to take a formal position on the EU referendum.  Many are keeping their powder dry.


The second largest union, Unison, recently came out in favour of staying in the EU, while expressing dismay at both the remain and Brexit campaigns and recognising the flaws in the EU, particularly the weakness of social Europe.


A number of other unions are firmly in the out camp. Transport union the RMT has been vociferous in its anti-EU stance for well over a decade, and train drivers’ union ASLEF, where I was once legal officer, also wants Brexit, citing the fact that the EU is a rich man’s club, the TTIP trade deal being stitched up between the EU and the US, and its conviction that it will be easier to take the railways back into public ownership outside of the EU.


General secretary Mick Whelan, who I have huge respect for, wrote in the Morning Star, that the EU offers “little for ordinary, hard-working men and women trying to earn a living in this Conservative age of austerity”.


While I don’t disagree with that position, Brexit is not, in my view, the answer to the inequality at the heart of the EU. As Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite (where I have been a legal consultant for a number of years), pointed out, life outside the EU will be worse for working people, whose employment rights will be left to the mercy of a government deeply hostile to them.


Those in the labour movement who say that rights at work are not dependent on the EU and that many of the workplace protections that exist do not emanate from or Europe, seem not to recognise just how determined the Conservatives are to sweep them away.


In spite of the amendments to the Trade Union Act secured as a result of the resistance by unions to its appalling measures and the consequent support in the House of Lords for fairly minimal changes (and certainly not through backroom deals around the EU referendum campaign), the fact remains that this government is determined to shackle the unions in any way it can and that rolling back hard-fought for workers’ rights will be part of the strategy.


Unite’s executive council has now overwhelmingly endorsed the decision that the union campaigns actively to remain in the EU, and that while urgent reform is needed, it is vital to focus on the positive message of a vision of a better Europe and the crucial benefits membership brings in terms of jobs and rights. Its campaign slogan “Vote Jobs, Vote Rights, Vote Remain” captures the position we are in, perfectly.


The campaign will be ratcheted up significantly after this week’s local, regional and national elections. There can be little doubt that encouraging trade unionists to vote to remain in the EU will be difficult and the most important message we can give to them is that staying in is not a vote for the status quo.


John Usher is a trade union lawyer and Labour International member based in Granada, Spain. He writes in a personal capacity.

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