Posted on October 30, 2015 at 12:59 PM

Owen Tudor - Head of the TUC’s European Union & International Relations Department
Owen Tudor
Head of the TUC’s European Union & International Relations Department

By Owen Tudor*


The TUC has long been committed to the model of Social Europe as outlined by Jacques Delors.

The deal he set out is still the only deal in town: a free trade area, but not unfettered free trade In other words:

  • Rights at work to counterbalance the right to trade,
  • Free movement of labour, goods and capital,
  • Decent work with social dialogue, social protection and public services ,
  • And a successful, competitive economy in which wealth is shared fairly.

And what we got in the early years was pretty much what Delors promised.

  • A raft of health and safety measures that created the safest workplaces on the planet,
  • The Working Time Directive, providing a legal right to paid holidays for all for the first time in the UK,
  • Equal treatment for some of the most vulnerable workers, such as part-time, temporary workers and subsequently agency workers too.

And once the UK crashed ignominiously out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, we had the longest sustained period of growth in Britain’s modern history.

That growth created decent jobs with wages that were, if not fair, at least better than they had been.

British workers did not suffer the same decline in earning power that US workers have done since 1980 – at least until the last decade. Many of those jobs –  four million according to research the TUC helped fund – are in trade with the rest of the European Union.

That growth attracted migrants from the new member states of Eastern Europe.

Generally our communities stayed tolerant and welcoming, securing fair employment status and decent wages for them, allowing them to contribute to sustaining that boom.

We should never be complacent - and we wanted much more to be done on exploitation, undercutting and provision of housing and public services – but we held back any rising tide of racism and fascism, as other European countries have not.

And then there was the crash.

Since 2008, we have seen austerity across Europe; a virtual freeze on new rights for working people; attacks on collective bargaining and harsh regimes imposed on countries like Ireland, but most especially on Greece.

In addition, we have so-called trade agreements like CETA, TTIP and TiSA that are attempts to hand power and wealth to corporations through mechanisms likethe Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

None of these are because of the EU – indeed the UK government imposed austerity purely from choice!

If this process had brought wealth to us all, or at least the social cohesion of being ‘all in it together’ that might have been acceptable.

But in sum, the conditions are not good for urging union members in Britain to vote enthusiastically for remaining in the European Union.

And now David Cameron’s desperate attempt to fend off UKIP and pacify his backbench Europhobes has delivered a pig in a poke referendum based on a secret renegotiation agenda.

We were concerned before the General Election in May that Cameron’s agenda for Europe would be more anti-social than Delors’.

Given what he has been doing to our rights in the Trade Union Bill, it would be remarkable if he let this opportunity slip.

Employers and right-wingers have been lobbying persistently for changes to the Working Time Directive - rolling back on Court of Justice judgments, making the opt-out permanent – and the Temporary Agency Workers Directive.

They argue that workers’ rights should be decided nationally, so that while the labour market continues to develop - with zero hours contracts the latest massive loophole to be created – the measures that protect workers from exploitation should remain frozen and increasingly inadequate.

Our understanding is that No 10 planned to introduce its workers’ rights agenda late in the EU renegotiation process – a rabbit from the hat – so that David Cameron could bang the table one last time to demonstrate his ability to stand up for Britain (or at least, Britain’s bosses), when it was too late for the trade union movement to organise effective resistance.

That’s one reason why the TUC has been ‘banging on’ about the threat to workers’ rights, from the Tory agenda on Europe.

But there is another reason.

TUC polling after the election showed that if the Tory renegotiation agenda put emphasis on attacking workers’ rights, then working people were going to be less likely to vote to stay inside the EU.

Free markets have losers as well as winners, and a lot of our members rightly feel that they have lost out not just to globalisation, but to the single market also.

They feel insecure, worried about their jobs and livelihoods and the future for their kids.

The rights provided by the European Union are often the only line of defence against the harsh winds of competition, liberalisation and deregulation.

So we have had no hesitation in telling the UK Prime Minister that he will lose our members’ votes to stay in the EU if he tries to worsen workers’ rights.

Irish trade unions are helping us tackle the Trade Union Bill and I understand Congress has raised this matter with the UK ambassador to Ireland, in no uncertain terms.

But this is a matter of concern for all EU trade unionists, as the emergency motion adopted recently by the ETUC shows.

Unions need to persuade their governments not to agree to any dilution of workers’ rights as proposed by David Cameron.

Like so many other examples of union solidarity, this is worth doing not just for us, but for yourselves.

If Cameron gets his way, British workers will undercut workers in Ireland. How long then before your own government starts trying to dilute rights here?

Cameron's reform agenda is a virus that threatens not just British workers, but also the entire European Social Model.


*Owen Tudor is Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department. This is an edited version of speech he delivered at a recent debate in Dublin, on the EU and Brexit, organised by the Charter Group.

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