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Usdaw and the EU referendum

This is an expanded version of the article in the 2016 ADM special of the Activist (no 61)

Delegates to ADM will be debating a statement from the Executive Council setting out the leaderships’ case for remaining part of the EU.

This contrasts sharply with the position of Usdaw in the 1975 referendum, where Usdaw, along with a majority of the Labour Party (including Jeremy Corbyn), campaigned to leave the then EEC.

Today, because of the vacation of opposition to the EU by the workers movement, then the most prominent opponents of the EU (aided by exaggerated publicity in the mainstream media) are Ukip and the Tories, who have put forward a series of false arguments, often on a xenophobic basis, around migration.

Whilst the document explains the false basis of these myths, this is not sufficient. Such arguments play upon real fears of lack of jobs, housing and public services experienced by working class people as a result of policies of austerity and privatisation carried out by successive Labour and Tory governments. Alternative policies such as a mass council house building programme, scrapping the rip-off PFI contracts in the NHS and other public services, renationalisation of the privatised utilities to name but a few, are needed to counter such arguments fully. Yet these won’t be expressed by big business on either side of the referendum, and points to the need for our movement to mount its own campaign independent of the right and starting from a principled basis based on our members interests.

Document suggests that Usdaw changed its mind as a result of the ‘Social Chapter’ ushered in by then EU president Jaques Delors. Yet the Social Chapter is in reality fairly weak – Tory governments for years opted out of implementing it altogether, and even when Blair implemented it key parts such as the Working Time Directive were not fully implemented, and that are other aspects such as TUPE are disregarded by employers, as Tesco drivers in Doncaster found out to their cost a few years ago.

There has been much confusion about the two EU courts, one part of the EU and the other separate to it. The European Court of Human Rights was created by the European Convention on Human Rights, the statutes of which are incorporated into the Human Rights Act. Many trade unionists will undoubtedly want to defend the provisions of this legislation which has become a bête-noir of the right-wing press and which the Tory right wish to replace with a ‘British Bill of Rights’. But whilst the EC statement tries to conflate this with the EU, it is a separate institution which leaving the EU would not affect membership of.

The EU’s court, on the other hand, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has passed down many vicious anti-worker judgements including the Viking and Laval cases which undermine trade union rights among ferry workers. In this case the issue was compounded by the European Commission, giving the decision the status of statutory regulation rather than case law, which directs national courts to enforce ‘business freedom’ where it conflicts with collective agreements and union rights.

Closer to home for Usdaw members, as reported in the 2015 Annual Report, it was the ECJ who decided that to support the UK government in restricting the need for redundancy consultation for Ethel Austin and Woolworths workers in stores under 20 staff. This was after Usdaw had won a victory in an Employment Appeal Tribunal here in the UK.

The reality is such concessions as the Social Chapter have been wrested out of the governments in Europe by workers struggles. It was the weakness and inability to lead such struggles of many trade union ‘leaders’, compounded by the defeat of the miners in 1984-85, which saw British union ’leaders’ turn to the EU as their salvation.

This is reflected in the question of the government’s new anti-union laws. Instead of leading a serious struggle against the TU bill, the EC statement on that subject makes no mention of following the call supported at the TUC to support any union finding itself outside the law in resisting it.

In reality the EU is a series of treaties to allow European capitalists to create the biggest market possible to maximise their profits. The establishment of the Euro, as a common currency for many EU countries is a natural extension of this, and has in fact allowed the wealthier capitalists in countries such as Germany to take advantage of lower-wage economies in the euro-zone depressing the euro’s value to boost its exports.

This is reflected in the structures of the EU, which are split up into 3 main bodies – the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament. The latter is the one that we elect every five years, which the statement euphemistically says ‘plays a key part in agreeing European Union laws and Directives’. The reality is that is merely a rubber-stamping body with incredibly limited power. The real decision making is made by the other two bodies – with the appointed, not elected European Commission as the statement says ‘[carrying] out much of the European Union’s day-to-day work.’

The European Council (and subordinate Councils of Ministers) ultimately makes the major decisions of the EU. This body is made up of the heads of governments of each EU states, and any fundamental pro-worker reform of the EU – as advocated by most left and trade union, would need to be passed through this body.

Any left-led government coming to power in Britain would be impeded by the EU from carrying out popular policies like renationalising the railways, as the Tsipras government was ’waterboarded’ at the European Council to drop its fight against austerity in Greece. If multiple left governments were to come to power, enacting anti-austerity and socialist policies then why be restrained by the neo-liberal EU when they could instead take practical steps towards establishing the beginning of a real Socialist Federation of Europe.

The EU bosses’ club should be rejected, a Europe in workers interests will not come through it.

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