TUC leader Frances O’Grady responded gleefully to Jeremy Corbyn’s intervention into the European Union (EU) referendum debate.
“The broader labour movement is united behind the benefits of EU membership for working people,” she opined.
“Many of the biggest cheerleaders for Brexit have spent years dismissing rights like paid leave and maternity protections as ‘red tape’ to be binned.”
A moment’s thought shows how ridiculous O’Grady’s position is. For one thing, the labour movement is far from united.The RMT union, for instance, supports the new Lexit campaign (see below) and other unions are likely to follow.
O’Grady’s argument can easily be turned on its head. David Cameron and George Osborne, the bosses’ CBI organisation, the International Monetary Fund, and the US and Chinese governments all support a Remain vote.
Does she really believe they are committed to labour rights?
The TUC’s position is not surprising. In the mid-1980s key sections of the labour movement, despairing of any attempt to challenge Thatcherism, bought into the myth of a “social Europe”.
While those myths may have had some basis in reality 30 years ago, they hardly stand up to scrutiny today. As Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, admitted in 2012, “The European social model has already gone.”
The notion of the EU as a protector of workers’ rights doesn’t fit with the reality of what has taken place in countries such as Greece.
The harsh bailout programme imposed there saw pay for some public sector workers fall by a third.
The minimum wage fell by 22 percent. The number of industry-level agreements with unions has fallen by three-quarters since 2010.
Instead there has been an explosion in company-wide agreements, 80 percent of which have led to pay cuts. In Greece as in Spain, Portugal or Ireland, the EU has proved a disaster for workers.
The substantive arguments offered by pro-EU unions are feeble. The Unite union informs us that “because of the EU” we get “protection at work”, “holidays”, “time off work”, “fairness at work”, “sickness rights”, “equal pay” for men and women, “maternity rights”, “parental leave”, “protection from being discriminated against” and “healthcare on holiday”.
It would come as a surprise to many workers to hear that they are no longer discriminated against or that they benefit from fairness at work.
But if the EU gives us all this, what exactly is the point of trade unions? In reality these rights were won by struggle.
By the 1970s workers in Britain had fought for and won much stronger legislation than that guaranteed by the EU.
Equal pay legislation came in the wake of the strike by women workers at Ford Dagenham in 1968. Paid holidays and maternity leave in Britain both exceed the minimum EU standards.
Those employment rights resulting from EU law are primarily of an individual nature.
As John Hendy QC pointed out, “They have little application to most terms and conditions of employment to protect or encourage good pay and decent jobs.”
In practice, these measures are now generally embedded in British law. They will not vanish if we vote to leave.
We will have to fight to defend them. In the same way we will have to fight against measures such as the Tories’ anti-union bill, to which EU membership provided no barrier whatsoever.
Rather than sowing illusions in this bosses’ club, the TUC should promote the kind of coordinated, collective struggles that can protect workers’ rights.
Campaign to exit left
A united left wing campaign to leave the EU launched last week.
Lexit: The Left Leave campaign is backed by the Socialist Workers Party, the RMT union, the Indian Workers Association, the Bangladeshi Workers Council, the Communist Party and others.