TUC union federation general secretary Frances O’Grady joined growing calls led by the right and big business for a “People’s Vote” on Brexit on Sunday.
She hitched the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to a deal that keeps Britain wedded to the European Union’s (EU) free market policies and undermines freedom of movement for migrants.
O'Grady did not rule out pressing for a general election if there is a disastrous Brexit deal. But the overwhelming focus of her speech was to signal a significant shift among union leaders, the majority of whom have resisted lining up behind the People’s Vote campaign. It came as delegates to the TUC’s congress in Manchester prepared to debate Brexit on Monday.
O’Grady said she was “serving notice” on Tory prime minister Theresa May if “her deal doesn't deliver for working people then the TUC will throw its weight behind the call for a vote on the terms of Brexit".
O’Grady pointed to the deep crisis of the Tory government.
A no-deal or the Tory deal vision of Brexit would both hit workers and migrants’ rights—because they’re based on Tory austerity and racism. “No deal would be devastating for working people, but so would the prime minister’s proposals,” acknowledged O’Grady.
Mick Cash, RMT rail workers’ union general secretary, hit out at the TUC’s calls as cover for rerunning a referendum on Brexit. “How are you going to win a deal?” he said. “It is to mobilise, it is to get on the streets, it is to fight back.
“The so-called ‘People’s Vote’ is another referendum, but they won’t call it that. We don’t need a new referendum—we need a change of government.”
Cash called on delegates at the TUC conference to vote against the TUC General Council statement on Brexit on Monday.
The TUC statement said, “The trade union movement has a responsibility to unify all workers whether they voted Leave or Remain. And the best way of achieving this is directly to link the fight for a new deal for workers in Britain”.
But a People’s Vote would make Remain and Leave the main line of division among working class people. This would weaken the labour movement’s ability to mount the sort of united fightback against the Tories that is needed.
The best way to fight for a socialist Brexit is through raising the level of struggle to force a general election and then kicking out the Tories.
And the TUC’s support for a the EU’s neoliberal single market would make it harder to win the “new deal for workers” it talks about.
O’Grady said that “working families in Britain deserve better”. All workers in Britain deserve better—achieving that means leading a fight to boot the Tories out, not lining up behind the EU and big business.
Fight for migrants rights and freedom of movement
Frances O’Grady said she’s “always been clear” that migrant workers aren’t to blame for low wages.
“No workers, whatever passport they hold, could be blamed for low pay,” the TUC union federation leader told Socialist Worker. “That blame lies squarely and firmly on the shoulders of the bad bosses.”
She wasn’t very clear about whether the TUC supports freedom of movement for European Union (EU) migrants.
The TUC general council statement barely referred to defending migrant workers’ rights.
But it said, “The UK should look at other EU countries’ models of free movement and it should use all domestic powers to manage the impact of migration.”
Talk of “other models” in practice means restricting freedom of movement.
The TUC’s proposals for Brexit would also make it harder for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government to break from Tory free market policies.
The statement made clear its support for the European Union’s (EU) single market. “We should not rule out unrestricted access to the single market through continued membership outside of the EU as this meets our tests,” it said.
“Several other countries are outside the EU but inside the single market.”
O’Grady brushed aside fears that single market’s rules would block Corbyn policies, such as nationalisation. “When I look around Europe, I think it shows it is possible to have railways in public ownership,” she said.
“There’s plenty you can do within existing competition rules if you have the will to do it.”
The EU’s single market rules allow nationalisation of individual companies that continue to compete with private ones. They do not allow nationalisation of whole industries, such as the railways, to be run as a public service.
The TUC leadership’s position of backing the single market and equivocating on free movement shows the the main dividing line should not be between Leave and Remain. The main dividing line should be between those who want to fight workers’ and migrants’ rights and those who want to attack them.
A socialist, anti-racist Brexit would say, “No to the single market—yes to freedom of movement.”