The Blog

Trade Unions Should Wake Up and Realise the EU Is No Friend of Workers

Many union leaders favour staying in. But the wider movement is far from united on the question. Two unions have already endorsed a 'leave' vote, and a sizeable number of rank-and-file trade unionists want out.

With the outcome of the EU referendum potentially pivotal to how we do business in the workplace, the intervention of the trade union movement in the debate may prove significant. Many union leaders favour staying in. But the wider movement is far from united on the question. Two unions have already endorsed a 'leave' vote, and a sizeable number of rank-and-file trade unionists want out.

For them, the right to elect and remove those whose laws we are commanded to obey overrides about any short-term consideration about whether what is on offer from the incumbent assortment of EU bureaucrats is better than what they might get if the Tories were given free rein at home. They remember the contribution made by their forebears in the trade union movement to the long struggle for democracy, and are no longer willing to stand idle while those hard-won gains are slowly eradicated as the price for a few crumbs from the table of transient and unaccountable political elites.

They know, too, that hostility to European political integration has never been the preserve of the political Right, and draw on the wisdom of past giants of the Left - Tony Benn and Bob Crow, Michael Foot and Peter Shore, Barbara Castle and Hugh Gaitskell - who believed that sovereignty and self-government were things worth defending.

They understand, too, that for all the talk of statutory parental leave and the working time directive, any positives for workers deriving from EU membership are now, more than ever, dwarfed by the negatives.

It isn't just about the £10bn Brussels takes annually from the pockets of UK workers, or the downward pressure on wages caused through open borders (an issue about which unions have been far too reticent).

Much more, it is about the catastrophic strategy employed by the EU, ever since the great recession struck in the last decade, to embed the politics of austerity throughout the continent.

Instead of promoting investment, full employment and strong public services, EU leaders have forced through cuts, privatisation and liberalisation - the worst possible response to the economic crisis, and the reason why so many European economies have struggled to escape from it.

This strategy of austerity is rooted in the neoliberal ideology that has long lain at the core of the EU project and has been the driver for a set of laws inimical to the objectives of trade unions.

So unions make key demands over things like public ownership. But these are often incompatible with EU laws, which are designed to let market forces rip. Renationalisation of the railways, for example, would almost certainly be illegal under EU law, which requires member states to open up their rail networks to private competition.

Similar laws would most likely prevent us from wholly owning Royal Mail or nationalising the energy companies.

Perhaps most disturbingly, EU and US leaders are currently negotiating the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal which paves the way for the privatisation of our health, water and education services.

How odd that any trade unionist could consider as benevolent and progressive an institution so wedded to rampant capitalism of this kind or would wish to join forces with the rich executors of 'free market' orthodoxy - JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs among them - who are bankrolling the 'remain' campaign.

Anyone who believes that workers' rights feature prominently on the EU's radar might wish to consider the Tory government's attempts to launch the biggest assault on those rights in a generation, through the Trade Union Bill, and ask why the EU has been unwilling or unable to raise a squeak of opposition. Or consider the EU's insistence on weakening collective bargaining arrangements as a condition of any bailout. Or its attempts to promote zero-hours contracts under flexible labour market rules.

The anti-worker bias of the EU establishment is illustrated most starkly through its management of the single currency, which has been a disaster for European workers. Control over money supply has been passed from elected governments to unelected bankers. With their obsession for reining in pay and public spending, and backed to the hilt by EU leaders, these bankers have enforced an agenda designed to please the financial markets and big business.

In Greece, the result has been mass unemployment, a collapse in living standards, huge social unrest, and renewed tensions with fellow member states.

Forcing highly diverse economies into the straitjacket of a single monetary policy was always doomed to failure, yet that hasn't stopped the EU power brokers seeking ever closer economic integration. Indeed, their desire to secure fiscal as well as monetary union was inevitable after the Greece experience. Even those limited economic freedoms enjoyed by Eurozone members will be dismantled in an effort to punish perceived fecklessness and avoid further bailouts.

And, of course, closer economic union can only work if it is accompanied by closer political union. The European superstate looms ever larger on the horizon.

That's why there is no status quo in this debate. The question of 'stay as we are' or 'leave' is actually one of 'in even deeper' or 'leave'.

The dire warnings of the scaremongers should be rejected. Their claim of three million UK jobs being reliant on EU membership has been comprehensively debunked, like so many other of their myths. The same people claimed the UK could not survive outside the euro. They were wrong then and wrong now.

That's not to argue that leaving the EU would somehow be a panacea for the problems of workers and trade unions. How could it be, when they face a Tory government itself wedded to austerity and privatisation? But a Brexit would at least redraw the battle lines in such a way as to leave us with one identifiable enemy - the one at home - and one over which we have some degree of control via the ballot box.

Leaving the EU would be a progressive step, in the interests of workers and democracy alike. Trade unions should seize the moment.