Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A Major Swing

A major swing to reject the constraints imposed on the trade union movement by the European Union is taking place, dramatically demonstrated by the GMB union’s congress deciding last month to change policy and now to support Britain leaving the EU and its single market. 

This is a significant change in what was previously the most pro-EU of Britain’s unions. 

The GMB’s position against membership of the single market now aligns the union with the position of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership. 

It will boost campaigning within the wider labour movement, opening the door wider for insisting on the restoration of full sector-wide collective bargaining, on the lines outlined by the excellent Institute of Employment Rights Manifesto for Labour Law. 

The GMB policy-making body congress voted for the ending of free movement of labour and to seek “advantageous terms of trade” outside the EU customs union. 

The GMB sees opportunities in leaving the EU for expanding collective bargaining and defending jobs. 

Leaving the single market can free trade unions to enforce collective agreements without employers using EU legal loopholes to undermine them. 

Additionally, outside the EU, a Labour government can direct target state investment and stem the offshoring of jobs according to GMB, something which is illegal inside the single market. 

It is worth looking at the history of this change in policy. 

It was only in 1981 that former GMB general secretary David Basnett (1973-1985) said that “anyone who thought Britain should not be in the European Economic Community wanted [their] head examined.”

Basnett’s comments contrasted with then Labour Party and TUC policy which called for unconditional withdrawal.

The attitude of the wider movement was that, when workers required redress over low pay, job cuts or the unfair sacking of a shop steward, workers through their unions resorted to collective action to deliver justice. 

Workers’ rights did not involve a tribunal judge to adjudicate over individual disputes.

The former pro-EU GMB position tied lay representatives and officialdom.

For example in three GMB congresses in the early 1980s the central executive council managed to have every anti-EU motion remitted. 

Basnett’s successor John Edmonds called on the Labour Party to fully embrace Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist project of the new European single market. 

Edmonds went even further in 2000, demanding that Gordon Brown reverse his opposition to Britain joining the euro. 

Before 1988, GMB operated at the TUC as a focal point of pro-EU opinion. 

This laid the groundwork for Jacques Delors in 1988 to lobby the TUC to support “a social Europe.” 

This was the package of individual employment rights held as a social democratic counterpart to the EU neoliberal single market. 

Britain’s trade unions had to surrender the union closed shop and sector-wide collective bargaining. 

It also had to accept the supremacy of EU law and the precedence of the EU “four business freedoms” over workers’ rights. 

A post-1988 generation of trade unionists arose in TUC-affiliated unions which were forced to accept the EU framework.

In reality it was a pessimist’s charter which supported the notion of a “floor” of individual workers’ rights which it was wrongly believed no Tory government could undermine. 

The unions’ surrender of collective rights for individual employment rights in the EU framework set the labour movement on a path of managed decline. 

Workers’ rights within the myth of social Europe were subsequently watered down by EU treaty changes which entrenched further “labour market flexibility.”

Attacks on workers by the John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May governments were met with acclamation from EU institutions. 

The European Court of Justice in 1996 ruled that the Major government’s two-year qualification period for unfair dismissal did not infringe EU law. 

Despite Labour reversing this, it was further extended by the later coalition neoliberal government of Tories and Liberal Democrats to deny justice for many workers. 

Similarly, when the Cameron government gutted the Health and Safety Executive, the very agency tasked with enforcing the EU-derived Working Time Regulations, the effects of the “austerity” public spending cuts rendered unenforceable many of its provisions. 

The legal mechanism to enforce other individual employment rights resides in the employment tribunal — a poor bargain for the trade union movement. 

Employment tribunals have expensive hearing fees, legalistic doctrines that are generally employer-friendly and anti-worker, while its three-month time limits on making a claim force claimants to rush claims which can then be thrown out for technical and bureaucratic reasons. GMB has found EU law a hindrance to protecting its members. 

Whenever GMB members have faced redundancy in Britain’s industries due to crises in the capitalist free market, successive governments have refused to nationalise or support jobs with state investment in line with EU rules. 

It is these experiences that laid the ground for GMB’s gradual shift from EU-enthusiasm to being one of begrudging support which was reflected in its approach to the 2016 EU referendum to one of seeking an “angry Remain vote.” 

The backing of the TUC and most trade unions for Remain in the referendum was based on two pessimistic propositions.

First, that a Tory government would tear up the “social Europe” individual employment rights, as porous and leaky as they were. 

The second, more understated, was that there was no prospect of a Labour government any time soon to reverse any damage. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the popularity of the Labour manifesto have created the conditions in which GMB and others in the movement have reassessed their stance on the EU and dealt a severe blow to the previous pessimism.

The commitment of a future Labour government for state-led investment in manufacturing, for nationalisation of strategic utilities and the pursuit of sector-wide collective bargaining are only possible outside the EU and its single market.

The attachment of Corbyn-sceptics to single market membership needs to be understood in the knowledge that EU law’s “four business freedoms” will make much of Labour’s popular manifesto impossible to implement.

The Morning Star has consistently pointed out that leaving the EU single market would be “a step towards restoring democratic control of our economy and would remove an obstacle to progress.” 

Therefore, trade unionists who want to see Labour’s manifesto put into practice need to vote Labour everywhere and support a people’s Brexit from the EU single market.

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