Report of a speech made at a TUAEU meeting.
Labour and the TUC have been arguing that the EU protects TU rights. The truth is that the requirements of capitalism, entrenched in the EU treaties, will always trump TU rights. The forward plan for the EU ‘Europe 2020’ will make matters even worse, especially for young people.
It is worth looking at why the labour movement moved from hostility to the EU to supporting it.
Thatcher was not in the best position to sell Europe to a labour movement which did not trust her. Delors was sent for and he promised the TUC a ‘Social Europe’ and the protection of TU rights. He offered money and lavish training events and the TU establishment was generally won over.
There were dissident voices, most notably Tony Benn and Bob Crow who exposed the EU’s anti-democratic nature and its clear capitalist ideology and constitution.
But superficially ‘Social Europe’ appeared to have some substance. The problem was capital’s insatiable demand for cheap labour. Although the ‘free movement of labour’ was providing cheaper labour, existing bargaining agreements still protected wages and conditions for many.
So a few firms acted. The existing workforce was sacked and replaced by a new workforce on lower wages and conditions. In the Viking case, in Scandinavia, the existing workforce was replaced by Lithuanian workers. It was followed by a massive strike and then the case went to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) who found in favour of the employers.
Its judgement stated that the right of the firm to operate was higher than TU rights since it was one of the ‘four fundamental freedoms of the EU’. It was therefore established that the rights of capital trump TU rights in the EU. This was reinforced by similar rulings in the Laval Case, the Ruffurt case, Luxembourg v the Commission and others.
In the UNISON v Parkwood Leisure case the ECJ ruled in favour of the employers when they refused to implement a TUPE transfer right which entitled employees to a nationally negotiated annual pay rise.
It is important to note that when Eastern European countries joined the EU, one of the conditions imposed on them was the withdrawal of TU bargaining rights. That was also one of the conditions imposed on Greece as part of the ‘bailout’ imposed on them under the threat of the destruction of their economy.
This was followed by the ‘Posted Workers Directive’, which allows firms to take workers from one EU country to another and circumvent existing agreements by paying the workers at rates from their country of origin. In large infrastructure projects in Holland for example, contractors have sacked almost all their Dutch workers and replaced them with agency Portuguese workers on much lower wages. These workers also have ‘accommodation and transport’ charges deducted from their pay. The profits of the agencies are actually higher than the workers’ total wages. Yet the ‘Truck Act’ in the UK had made such practices illegal in the early 20th century, through TU campaigning.
Unemployment in the EU is high, averaging 10% and 20% for the youth. In the southern countries of the EU unemployment is higher; for example in Greece youth unemployment is 50%.
‘Europe 2020’ has been put forward as the EU solution. The plan is subtitled ‘ A European Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’. Its main concept is ‘flexicurity’, changing permanent jobs into insecure, temporary and zero hour contracts. Britain’s higher employment rate is given as an example of how to do this. The message to youth from the EU is clear – if you want a job you must accept ‘flexicurity’. No wonder Cameron is in favour of remaining in the EU.
Privatisation is a key strategy of the EU. This is why they have been negotiating with the US in secret to impose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) on us. It will remove current protective standards in areas such as food and the environment and lower them to US standards to help transnational corporate interests. A key aim of TTIP will be to facilitate access to the privatisation of the NHS and education.
Most of these issues are well known in the TU movement, particularly by the leadership, who, because they can’t defend themselves, say: ‘ Stay in and change it, reform it.’
So is it possible to reform the EU? Firstly that would require treaty change agreed by all 28 governments. Secondly what reforms would we want and are they compatible with EU capitalist principles? Suppose the reform said, ‘The freedom of a firm to operate in a country must respect existing bargaining agreements including posted workers and jobs will be advertised to local workers. Firms cannot sack existing employees and then use posted workers to do the work on lower wages and conditions. Nor can we accept TTIP.’ Can anyone believe EU and the corporations behind it will accept this? Most importantly, why have TU leaders, the ETUC and MEPs not campaigned to reform it before?
A vote to leave is hugely important for a progressive future in Britain and in Europe. Britain leaving will be an important step. The Trade Unions and the left must be seen to oppose the EU. In Europe the disappearance of ‘Social Europe’ and the attack on workers is all too apparent. Support for the EU by Social Democrats has resulted in the main opposition to it being taken up by right wing forces. Unless the left leads this fight, the campaign will move in the wrong direction.
Latin America has shown that internationalist cooperation can be combined with national sovereignty and democracy. ALBA is an example; Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela are successfully cooperating for mutual benefit and have even created a clever trading currency for their mutual interchange called the Sucre, which saves them all a lot in international trade.
The key question is recovering our democracy. Join Trade Unions Against the EU (TUAEU), vote leave and join the movement to rebuild Britain.