This week NIPSA, Northern Ireland’s largest trade union at its conference voted to advocate that its members vote to leave the bosses club that is the European Union. The Socialist Party welcome this decision. NIPSA will not be the only union opposing the EU- combative unions RMT, ASLEF, the Bakers’ Union have also advocated leaving the EU.
Unfortunately however, most leaders of the trade union movement have decided to support David Cameron’s campaign to stay in the EU. In Britain, Trades Union Congress (TUC) leaders have been very vocal in defending the EU. In a ‘Better Together in Europe’ leaflet, current TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady is quoted alongside right-wing figures such as Virgin’s Richard Branson and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney . Her predecessor, Brendan Barber, went one further and co-authored an article with David Cameron. Closer to home, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is also advocating a vote to remain.
They claim that there is a “social Europe”, but the reality, of course, that is there is an “austerity Europe”. They claim that staying in the EU will defend jobs – but, in fact, the opposite is true. The EU prides itself on the free movement of capital which means many jobs going to eastern Europe as bosses search for cheap labour. EU competition directives ban governments from saving jobs by nationalising industry, as Corbyn has demanded for the steel industry.
Some union leaders also claim that the EU acts as a check on the Tories and even that it has granted us various rights. However, the British government already has opt-outs to many relatively progressive EU employment laws such as the Working Time Directive. Other EU employment regulations such as the Posted Workers’ Directive – which allows migrant workers to be paid less than the legal minimum in their host country – are designed specifically to drive down wages and undermine trade union rights. In 2009, this Directive was used in an attempt to undermine conditions for construction workers at Lindsay Oil Refinery, provoking a series of strikes.
Similarly, in December 2007, the European Court of Justice delivered a crushing blow to trade unions when, in the Viking and Laval decisions, it decided that the right of businesses to freedom of establishment must take priority over the right of trade unions to take industrial action to safeguard the interests of their members. British Airways bosses used the ruling to stop the BALPA pilots’ union striking against plans to set up a subsidiary with worse terms and conditions.
More fundamentally, our rights were not granted from on high by benevolent EU leaders but won from below by workers’ struggle. It’s misleading for trade union leaders to claim otherwise. A jewel in the crown of EU employment law is the Equal Pay Directive, which formally guarantees equal pay for women. This was won first by the mass strikes in France after World War II. Later, the French government demanded equal pay be included in the Treaty of Rome as they feared being at a trade disadvantage. However, it was only much later that this law was enforced across Europe, again following the heroic strikes of women munitions workers in Belgium, Ford workers in Britain and countless others in the decades that followed.
The Socialist Party believe it is a mistake for trade union and labour leaders to support the bosses’ EU and echo the fearmongering of the political establishment. Instead, they should follow the example of unions like the NIPSA and the RMT, which is prepared to tell its members the truth about the EU.