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25 April 2016
Trade unions: myths of EU 'Remain' campaign
Dave Semple, PCS union rep
When Jeremy Corbyn, flanked by Blairite minders like Alan Johnson, made his first serious intervention in the EU referendum debate, he declared that if we voted Leave, the Tories would dump equal pay, annual leave and maternity rights.
This follows months of the Trades Union Congress cranking up the left wing of Project Fear. General Secretary Frances O'Grady famously and disgracefully declared in February: "Most of the rights we depend on derive from Europe".
Socialists must be absolutely clear that, in or out of Europe, our rights are under threat. We can choose, like O'Grady, to hide behind the skirts of the European Union or we can choose to organise and campaign for our rights.
The European Union has not prevented Tesco attacking the pensions of staff, or the premiums they enjoyed for working anti-social hours.
It has not prevented the government's quest to break up national pay bargaining for council workers and teachers, or their attack on public sector pensions, or the strike ban they imposed against Prison Officers.
All of these have been imposed without a peep from the EU, the institutions of which are fully behind the Tory plan to make City spivs ever richer and workers ever poorer.
Maternity rights were not a gift from the European Commission; they were first wrested out of the hands of employers by strong unions.
This is why strongly unionised jobs often come with more than the statutory minimum entitlement to maternity leave.
Managers routinely ignore these rights - and un-unionised workers have no redress, for fear of angering the boss.
Union leaders associated with the establishment-led Remain campaign are allergic to the kind of industrial struggles that can secure rights like these.
A huge section of the working class will not be convinced by this scaremongering.
They will be repulsed by Labour activists standing beside Tories on high streets, handing out leaflets promising that the EU will secure jobs - the same Tories who have slashed more than a million public sector jobs.
Workers will be instinctively repelled by a blood-spattered establishment promising jam tomorrow while hospitals go bankrupt, libraries close and school places evaporate.
They are right to be repelled - and someone has to speak for them. This is why the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is organising a working class, socialist Leave campaign.
We must fight on two fronts - to push these union leaders into fighting austerity and to build a socialist Leave campaign that rejects EU-mandated austerity, privatisation and deregulation.
How the bosses' EU acts against workers and trade unions
The 'Remain' campaign, including unfortunately most trade union and Labour Party leaders, says that workers' rights would be more adversely affected by a vote to 'Leave' the European Union (EU). This is not true! Workers and trade unions are already under attack from the EU. Although 'accepting' the right to organise in trade unions of a workers' choice (part of International Labour Organisation - ILO - principles, not an EU right), when this comes into conflict with the bosses' objectives of the single market and the rights of businesses to exploit their workers, the capitalist EU invariably comes down on the side of the bosses.
Here is how the bosses' EU acts against workers and trade unions and facilitates the 'race to the bottom':
- Viking case: The Viking shipping line wanted to reflag its Finland to Estonia route to Estonia to take advantage of cheaper wage rates. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling accepted the right to strike against this but limited its scope and said it was possible that 'collective action' taken by workers to protect their interests could be unlawful because it infringed the 'employer's interests'. Employers have the right to extend their business and pay the wages and implement conditions of a cheaper jurisdiction, ie they can avoid collective agreements and conditions.
- The Laval case was similar; this Latvian company won a contract to renovate Swedish schools and refused to sign a collective agreement with the building workers' union in Sweden, because it wanted to employ workers at Latvian wage rates. The union organised a blockade of Laval sites and the company could not do business in Sweden. Laval claimed the blockade infringed its corporate rights. The ECJ said industrial action must be limited if it obstructed the right to carry out business in services. It forced the union to pay Laval damages! This judgement and fine were condemned by the ILO!
- Posted Workers' Directive: The Directive has come under criticism for reducing rights of posted workers (workers sent to employment abroad by their employers) and undermining the rights of workers in the nation where the work is carried out. Employers need only adhere to a minimum number of basic rights in that country.
- The Lindsey Oil Refinery strike in 2009 overcame the use of lower-paid agency labour from Italy and Portugal, and thereby the Posted Workers Directive, by determined industrial action to defend the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI), a collectively negotiated agreement. Appeals were made to the agency workers in their own languages and the strike defeated the EU's regulations.
- The ECJ ruled in the Rϋffert case that collectively negotiated agreements in Germany did not apply to certain contracts. The Posted Workers Directive limits the employment protection which can be provided in public building and works contracts, and rides roughshod over workers' rights. Thompsons Solicitors, a major trade union law firm, said the Rϋffert decision was 'absurd'.
- The Temporary Agency Work Directive (TAWD) established a minimum common standard of employment rights for agency workers but they may be below standards already in force in many countries! The directive was criticised for facilitating the 'race to the bottom'.
- Work Agencies have been criticised for using the 'Swedish derogation' of the TAWD, where they offer an agency worker a permanent contract of employment and pay the worker between assignments. A worker entering into such a contract gives up the entitlement to equal pay (with permanently employed workers) in any post taken. Workers on 'zero hours' contracts are not considered to be on a 'derogation' contract and are not entitled to a regular wage.
- In the Parkwood Leisure case, EU courts ruled that trade union collective agreements incorporated into the contracts of employees should not be protected during a Transfer of Undertakings and Protection of Employment (TUPE). These workers had originally been employed by Lewisham council but their work had been outsourced. Their nationally negotiated local government contracts stated that their wages should rise 'from time to time' according to collective bargaining agreements, but both British courts and the ECJ ruled that such 'dynamic' agreements do not need to be adhered to after a transfer has taken place! The collectively-agreed pay rate of workers at the time of their transfer continues to be protected under TUPE regulations but the decision means the ECJ has shifted the traditional interpretation of TUPE, as a set of legislation to protect workers, to concentrate on the 'Rights of Establishment' (ie employers) instead.
- The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposal for 'harmonisation' of EU and US trade and business laws at the lowest level, usually US legislation. It will allow US companies, particularly the 'Big Pharma' drugs corporations, to buy up en bloc NHS services, for example. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 enshrines this principle.
- The EU single market mechanism forces 'open public procurement', competitive tendering, within the EU. This was also enshrined in the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which promoted privatisation in public services. The First Railway Directive puts forward 'liberalisation' and competition for railway and freight services in the EU, code for privatisation.
The truth is, in or out of the EU, the only defence against the bosses' attacks is to build independent, strong and fighting unions with a class-conscious membership, which links this to the idea of changing society in a socialist direction.
This second of the above articles was posted on the Socialist Party website on 25 April 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.
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