It has long been evident that the referendum on 23 June is about whether Britain's membership of the European Union should be maintained regardless of the deal David Cameron struck with the EU member countries on 19 February 2016. As such, the questions facing unions and their members are even more profound and searching than could have been expected.
Compared to the referendum on Scottish independence, it at least gave a greater element of choice where the independence option offered the prospect - no matter how contested - that some degree of social progress could be made in Scotland after it became independent. The starkness of the binary choice where the options for unions are about which one is least worse has added to the difficulties unions face in deciding what approach to take when it has been evident for many years that the tone and terrain of the debate as well as the call for a referendum itself has been set by the right (and specifically an ideological struggle within the Conservative Party).
With the exception of three unions (ASLEF, BFAWU, RMT) which are for 'Brexit' and the NUT which decided not to take a positon, every other union that has so far taken a position is for remaining. These unions declaring support for 'Bremain' have made their support critical and conditional upon arguing for a return of the social dimension of the EU so that the advance of neo-liberalism and deregulation, it is hoped, can be halted and reversed.
Moreover, these unions fear that if Britain was to leave a number of workers' rights would be lost as the political forces set to benefit from a vote to leave would be those favouring the ending of various social rights. In other words, the forces of neo-liberalism would be strengthened, being right wing Tories and UKIP.
By contrast, the unions campaigning for 'Brexit' cite that the social dimension of the EU has already been made worthless by the tightening grip of neo-liberalism within the EU and the only way to break out of its control is to leave the EU. They cite the pressure to privatise public services, the enforcement of austerity programmes (especially in regard of Greece) and the undermining of the right to strike amongst these, and state that the vast majority of workers' rights in Britain exist separately from those provided by the EU, namely, that they are national laws derived from developments separate from the EU.
The challenge for unions arguing for a 'yes' or 'no' is three-fold. First, to get their voices heard amongst their own members given the awarding of official campaign 'yes' and 'no' status to groups dominated by business interests and the resources these groups have. Second, and following the outcome of the referendum, to try to hold the victors to the reasons why union members voted for a particular outcome given that both leave and remain camps comprise groups with different and divergent reasons for achieving the same result in the referendum. Third, the debate on employment and the economy will be restricted in practice to whether there are more or less jobs available if Britain leaves or stays rather than any discussion about the quality of these jobs, their pay or whether they are unionised or not.
But underlying this is a much more fundamental challenge for both sides - this is to explain how voting one way or the other will strengthen the rights of workers when the victors, whether the result is stay or leave, will be the right-wing political forces that are hostile to workers and their unions. This needs explaining because it is patently obvious that neither those in the unions favouring staying nor those leaving are in a sufficiently powerful position to influence the respective campaigns and camps nor help determine the political settlements after 23 June no matter which way the vote goes.
Thus, if there was to be a leave vote, neo-liberalism and the neo-liberal state would not be weakened for those forces that would be dominant from the 24 June onwards are in favour of further deregulation of the labour market with the exception of migration controls and legislation to further weaken unions. If there is a vote to stay, Cameron, Osborne et al. will be boosted in their project to shrink the state and social wage along with opening up more opportunities for businesses and implementing the components of the Trade Union Act 2016.
This suggests that the most crucial issue underlying the debate on the EU and workers' rights is a very old one, namely, how do unions build power and leverage in an increasingly globalised capitalist world.
These issues are discussed in more detail in a 'Quick Note' for the Jimmy Reid Foundation which can be found at http://reidfoundation.org/2016/05/unions-and-europe-what-are-the-choices/Suggest a correction