From the TUC

Cameron’s EU renegotiation strategy: a virus infecting the European social model

25 Oct 2015, by in International

On Friday I spoke at an event in Dublin organised by the Charter Group – Irish trade unionists supporting the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – about the United Kingdom’s EU referendum. This is an edited version of the speech I gave.

Ever since Jacques Delors came to our Congress in 1988, the TUC has been committed to Social Europe. The deal he set out is still the only deal in town: a free trade area, for sure, but not unfettered free trade.

  • Rights at work to counterbalance the right to trade.
  • Free movement of labour, as well as of goods and capital.
  • The ILO’s vision of decent work, with social dialogue, social protection and public services, decent jobs and fundamental rights at work.
  • And a successful, competitive economy that produces wealth that is shared fairly.

On top of that (we’re trade unionists, after all), we want peace in Europe, equality, and human rights.

I’m tempted, as we finally reach the week predicted by the Back to the Future film franchise, with its other sort of Delorean model, to say we’d also have liked hoverboards.

What we got in the early years of the single market was pretty much what was promised.

  • A raft of health and safety measures that has 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; rest breaks; and work-life balance.
  • Equal treatment for many of the most vulnerable workers in the economy, such as part-time and temporary workers, subsequently agency workers too.

But since 2008, we have seen austerity adopted by governments across Europe as well as the European Commission and the Central Bank; a virtual freeze on new rights for working people and attacks on collective bargaining; harsh regimes imposed on countries like Ireland and especially Greece; and the turn to so-called trade agreements like CETA, TTIP and TiSA that are in reality merely attempts to hand power and wealth to corporations through mechanisms like investor-state dispute settlement.

None of these are because of the EU – indeed the UK government imposed austerity purely out of choice.

In sum, the conditions are not good for urging our members to vote enthusiastically for remaining in the European Union.

On top of all that, David Cameron’s desperate attempt to fend off UKIP and pacify his backbench Europhobes has delivered us a pig in a poke referendum based on a secret renegotiation agenda.

We are regularly told that there is no agenda on workers’ rights. But given what he has been doing to our rights in the Trade Union Bill, it would be remarkable if he let this opportunity slip by.

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

The Minister for Europe admitted as much when he wrote to us at the end of the summer.

Above all, they argue that any future workers’ rights should be decided nationally rather than at European level, 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 and abuse should remain frozen, increasingly inadequate.

Our understanding is that No 10 planned to introduce its workers’ rights agenda late in the negotiation process – a rabbit from the hat – so that David Cameron could bang the table one last time to demonstrate his gamesmanship and ability to stand up for Britain (or at least, Britain’s bosses), when it was too late for the trade union movement to organise resistance and we had already gone too far down the road of backing the stay in campaign to be able to deflect him.

That’s one reason why we have been ‘banging on’ about the threat to workers’ rights, so hard and so loud and so early.

But there is another reason.

TUC polling after the election – and we understand this is confirmed by polling from both the in and out camps – showed us that, if the renegotiation agenda put emphasis on attacking workers’ rights, then working people were going to be less likely to vote to stay in.

Free markets have losers as well as winners, and a lot of our people rightly feel that they have lost out not just to globalisation, but to the economic rules of the single market too. They feel insecure, worried about their jobs and livelihoods, concerned about the future their kids will grow up in.

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

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

We need the help of Irish unions on the referendum renegotiation. The European Trade Union Confederation adopted an emergency resolution on the subject at its Congress last month.

We are calling on trade unionists and politicians around the EU to persuade their governments not to agree to any dilution or undermining of workers’ rights David Cameron proposes.

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

If David Cameron gets his way, British workers will be undercutting workers in Ireland, and how long will it be before your government starts asking why they can’t get away with lower workers’ rights too?

Cameron’s reform agenda is a virus that would seriously harm British workers, but it could also spread and take the European social model down too.