Labour Research June 2016


Should I stay or should I go?

What positions are UK unions adopting in relation to this month’s historic referendum on whether Britain should remain in, or leave, the EU?

Don’t walk away from Europe, but stay in and fight for a reformed “people’s EU”, in which workers’ are protected and multi-national corporations held in check. That is the message coming from Britain’s largest trade unions in the run-up to the crucial vote later this month on whether the UK should remain or leave the European Union.

A Labour Research survey of 27 of the 30 largest TUC-affiliates, including the largest 19, shows that 13 unions are backing a “Remain” vote in the referendum. The Remain camp includes the four largest unions — the Unite general union, the UNISON public services union, the GMB general union and the Usdaw shopworkers’ union.

Three unions are in the “Leave” camp — the RMT transport, ASLEF rail and BFAWU bakers’ and food workers’ unions (although the BFAWU’s long-standing position calling on the UK to leave the EU was due to be debated at its annual conference this month). The remaining 11 are neutral.

Union positions on referendum 

Remain Neutral Leave

Unite (general) NUT (teachers) RMT (transport)
UNISON (public services) NASUWT (teachers) ASLEF (train drivers)

GMB (general) PCS (civil service) BFAWU (food workers)

Usdaw (shopworkers) ATL (teachers)
CWU (communications) Prospect (specialists)
UCATT (construction) UCU (lecturers)

Equity (actors) EIS (teachers in Scotland)

FBU (firefighters) CSP (physiotherapists)

Community (general) NUJ (journalists)
MU (musicians) SoR (radiographers)
RCM (midwives) FDA (senior civil servants)

BECTU (broadcasting)

TSSA (white collar transport)

Protecting employment rights

The most common reason cited in support of continuing EU membership is the protections given by EU treaties and legislation for workers’ rights, and the potential threat to these rights, under a Conservative government, should Britain leave the EU (see feature on page 13). 

Usdaw noted that many members had benefitted from EU employment rights “which the current Conservative government are unable to attack, repeal or water down”. 

And the response of the UCATT construction workers’ union emphasised the improvements EU legislation has brought for its members, particularly the Working Time Directive guaranteeing paid holidays and limits to working hours. 

Announcing Unite’s support for remaining in the EU, general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Rest assured that outside of the EU, left at the mercy of a Conservative government, these protections will be swept away.” He said this probability “is reason alone to campaign to remain in the EU”.

UNISON took the decision to back a Remain vote following a consultation of local branches in March and April, with branches encouraged to survey their own members as to what position should be taken. 

Of the 159 branches responding, 78% wanted UNISON to take a position, and 95% wanted that position to be for Remain. The issue of employment rights was the most important one for 75%.

In taking a position on the referendum, other unions referred to long-standing policies on EU membership adopted at delegate conferences, or decisions taken by executive committees. 

And a number of unions, including Usdaw, the CWU communications union, the FBU firefighters’ union and the TSSA white collar transport union, have confirmed their positions at annual conferences held since the referendum date was announced. 

Impact on jobs

Unite said its decision to back Remain was taken by its executive council, “drawn from workplaces across the UK”. This agreed that, “while the EU needs urgent reform to restore the project to its original mission of solidarity between nations, continuing membership is still the best hope for the jobs and rights of Britain’s workers”. 

Several unions also cite the impact on jobs, investment and trade if the UK leaves. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett told the union’s annual conference in April that “the best way to grow our economy is to ensure we can trade with, influence and benefit from being in one of the world’s largest trading blocs”. 

The motion adopted by the CWU annual conference noted that “revenues and jobs in companies where we have members would be put at risk by Brexit”.Similarly, delegates at the national policy conference of the Community general union adopted a motion last year noting that thousands of its members work for exporting companies, and “millions of jobs depend on our EU membership”. 

And Unite has backed statements by Airbus and by several engineering firms where it is has members, highlighting the risk to their operations if there was a vote to leave. Unite campaign material also stresses the importance of EU trade and investment to the jobs of its 500,000 members in manufacturing. 

Impact on NHS

In the health sector, a statement announcing support for Remain by the RCM Royal College of Midwives refers to EU membership ensuring “a vibrant economy that allows the government to invest in the NHS”. 

It also refers to healthcare colleagues from across the EU who “help to fill the vacancies on our maternity units” and EU rules which mean the 33,000 nurses and midwives from other EU countries “must have training and skills equal to UK trained staff”. This “helps to ensure high standards and good quality care in our NHS”, the union says.

Impact on entertainment

Unions in the entertainment sector are also in favour of Remain. As well as workers’ rights, a statement from the MU Musician’s Union mentions the importance of three EU copyright directives in “protecting the intellectual property rights of our members and ensuring that they receive remuneration for the use of their work”. 

The Equity actors’ union referred to the benefits of various European funding streams for culture, while the BECTU broadcasting union referred to “the repercussions for investment in the UK creative sector” in the event of Brexit. 

BECTU also referred to the EU’s commitment to social dialogue as well as workers’ rights, while both the MU and Equity raised concerns about the ending of freedom of movement for performers working across Europe should the UK leave the EU. 

Arguments for Brexit

In the Brexit camp, the ASLEF decision was decided by its executive committee and endorsed by its annual conference in May. “EU rail liberalisation” and the “wider liberalisation agenda”, the treatment of Greece and the lack of democracy and accountability were all cited as reasons for the decision. 

These factors are also cited among the six reasons for leaving the EU identified by the RMT in a statement issued in April, and reflect the union’s longstanding opposition to EU membership. 

Referring to the “4th railway package” — the set of planned changes to rail transport regulation currently being finalised by the EU — the union said that the new policy framework was “set to further entrench rail privatisation and fragmentation”. 

An RMT spokesperson told Labour Research that the union viewed the EU as a “bosses’ club” and anti-worker, and that the 4th railway package illustrated the degree to which the European Commission had been captured by the corporate lobby. 

The package will require EU member states to put their rail services out to competitive tender and will make integrated public ownership bringing together rail infrastructure and services “extremely hard”, the spokesperson said. Moreover, he said that EU rail laws made it “impossible to bring all the railways back into public ownership”.

Following its conference decision to support Remain, the TSSA said its general secretary Manuel Cortes “rejected the argument that the EU would prevent a future Labour government from re-nationalising the railways”. His view was that “no European directive would stop Labour taking back rail into public ownership”, the union said.

Cortes said that while no-one is saying the EU is perfect, the union’s view was that “our members would be worse off in the event of a UK exit”.

The RMT statement also refers to the promotion of undercutting and of social dumping, “leading to the decimation of UK seafarers”, and EU directives’ requiring the tendering of public ferry services. Other reasons identified were the imposition of austerity and privatisation on member states, attacks on collective bargaining enforced on countries which have received EU bailouts, the threat posed by the TTIP trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and USA and the lack of democracy in EU decision-making. 

Transatlantic trade and investment partnership 

The potential threat posed to public services and workers’ rights by the TTIP trade treaty currently being negotiated between the EU and USA has been raised by unions in both the Leave and Remain camps. 

Similar concerns have been raised about the recently-agreed EU-Canada CETA treaty and the proposed trade in services agreement (see Labour Research, February 2016, pages 12-14).

Responding to these concerns and to union and civil society campaigning, the European Commission and US trade representative put out a joint statement in March 2015 affirming that the trade agreement would not prevent public provision of water, education, health, and social services. 

It also said that governments would not be required “to privatise any service” and would not be prevented from “expanding the range of services they supply to the public, or “providing public services previously supplied by private service suppliers”.

The European Commission says that such exemptions will apply to all agreements it is negotiating, with a general right for national governments to regulate any service deemed to be a public service. 

But head of UNISON’s international unit Nick Crook told Labour Research that a legal opinion received by the union on the agreed CETA text shows that there is “no exemption from public services in the investment chapter” meaning that “services that have already been opened up to the private sector could be open to challenges for indirect expropriation if they were brought back into the public sector”. 

While not prohibiting the return of the services to the public sector, Crook said that the potential cost could be prohibitive because of challenges by private companies. 

The UNISON branch consultation document on the referendum however, warns that leaving the EU “will not protect UK public services or workers from free trade agreements”. 

The union says that the UK government’s “preference for global regulation and its agenda to open up public services to further privatisation” means that “bilateral treaties made by the UK rather than the EU may even be more of a threat to public services than the current treaties”. 

Crook also points to what he says is a clear policy position from the European Parliament and some national governments in the EU “that they won’t accept anything that does lead to privatisation of public services”. This provides “more guarantees in negotiating these treaties at the European level than we would have if the UK were to do it bilaterally”. 

Owen Tudor, head of the international department at the TUC, told Labour Research that a possibly bigger threat would be the deal a post-Brexit British government would do with China. Tudor points to recent government encouragement of Chinese involvement in the UK economy, and the likely “competitive” approach of a post-Brexit government to negotiating trade agreements. 

This would involve offering “more than the EU would” in terms of market access and investor rights, Tudor said.

EU needed to regulate global capital

Many of the criticisms of the EU from the Leave camp are actually shared by the Remain camp. However, the Remain camp argues that tackling these issues means unions need to work together with progressive forces across Europe to reshape the EU. And they warn that Brexit would strengthen the hand of those championing more liberalisation and lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights in the UK. 

Some also argue that the EU is an essential mechanism for progressives wanting to better regulate global capital and address other issues that require transnational action. For example, the motion adopted by the CWU conference in April said that the EU was in need of “significant reform to become more democratic and to advance a socially progressive economic agenda”. 

However, it went on to say that Brexit would do nothing to achieve these aims in the UK while leaving a number of basic employment rights under immediate threat from the government. It also referred to global issues which “cannot be dealt with without international co-operation”. Writing in the Daily Mirror, CWU general secretary Dave Ward said that the EU was too focused on pushing competition and too restrictive when it comes to public investment, but that we should “not kid ourselves” that we can “get by in the world today without working together and doing business with other countries”.

Ward added: “We cannot deal with tax avoidance, vast inequalities in wealth or climate changes without being part of organisations like the EU. And we cannot prevent workers in this country being undercut without fair standards across Europe. So being part of the EU, and shaping it for the better is necessary if we are going to achieve social justice in this country.”

Reforming the EU

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite and TUC general council spokesperson on Europe, told Labour Research that to secure change, the UK cannot act “in isolation” outside of the EU. At the national gathering of the Another Europe is Possible Campaign (calling for a radical “In” vote), Turner argued that unions needed to work together across the continent to build a Europe “that will hold to account the banks and the corporations”, to prevent “the corporate power grab that is currently underway by global capital in trade agreements like TTIP and CETA and “build a more democratic Europe that delivers benefits for all”.

Turner said: “Solidarity across Europe in this way strengthens all of our fights for social justice”, adding that “you can’t walk away and think that you can throw stones from the outside and make a difference.” A similar approach is taken by the GMB general union, which describes its position as “an angry yes”. The union told Labour Research that while there were plenty of problems with the EU, “many of the rights we’ve fought for over the years are guaranteed by Europe”.

It said there was a need to fight to make Europe a Europe that works for working people, not big businesses, and that this could only be done from within, with “too much at risk” if the UK left the EU. However, the RMT spokesperson said that the EU was “unreformable” pointing to the need for alignment among 28 member states to get “the changes we would want”.

In announcing UNISON’s support for a Remain vote, general secretary Dave Prentis said that the union had repeatedly warned against the slow drift towards dogmatic austerity across the EU. But he added that “the world is an imperfect place, and it’s always far better to work to change flawed institutions, than to walk away in search of a perfect option that doesn’t exist”. 

Brexit would strengthen UK government neo-liberal agenda

When it comes to pushing an agenda of liberalisation and deregulation, UNISON and other unions pin the blame closer to home. 

Nick Crook, head of the international department at UNISON told Labour Research that, rather than the EU imposing privatisation on the UK, it is the UK “that has taken the liberalisation and privatisation agenda into the EU”. It was “quite clear”, he said, that “most of the privatisation of UK public services has come from UK domestic legislation”.

As for the imposition of austerity and attacks on collective bargaining, this could be attributed to the right winning elections and therefore holding the key decision-making levers at the EU level, according to Crook. 

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told the Another Europe is Possible meeting that while the FBU was highly critical of the EU, the main enemy was at home. Wrack said that like the EU, the UK is also a “bosses’ club”, and that the idea that what is on offer is some form of left-wing exit needed to be “knocked on the head”.

A statement on the EU adopted by the FBU executive says that it has been a succession of UK governments that have pushed most firmly within Europe for neo-liberal policies and agreements. These include, for example, those pushing further privatisation. It adds that leaving the EU would likely mean a huge attack on workers’ conditions, with the UK government introducing “more ‘flexibility’ and deregulation as it signs bilateral trade deals and tries to compete on its own in the global economy”. Furthermore, the union says, Brexit would also help a range of Tory and far-right populists into power at Westminster and “benefit the far right and the racists in Britain and across the continent”. This would make European-wide workers’ solidarity and workers’ unity much harder. 

Union information for members

The RMT spokesperson said that despite differences of opinion among unions, the campaign would be respectful and the labour movement would remain united. And the union emphasised that it will not be aligning itself with the Conservative and UKIP-dominated official Leave campaigns. 

Education and civil service unions are remaining neutral, as are the specialist CSP physiotherapists’ and SoR radiographers’ unions. The PCS civil service union told Labour Research that it viewed the debate around Europe as “debased, with a narrow focus on immigration and social security issues”. It said it would remain neutral and produce information for members examining the pros and cons of each side, an approach it took in relation to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The Prospect specialists’ union is also informing its members on a neutral basis, and has set up a micro website with detailed information on the various issues under consideration. 

Some pro-Remain unions, including Unite and the GMB, have also set up specific web pages as part of wider communication activities to inform their members about the issues and encourage them to vote and share their views, with high-profile campaign events also planned.

The NUJ journalists’ is another union remaining neutral. But its delegate meeting in April passed a motion noting the vital role journalists have to play in ensuring that the debate about any EU membership “is properly informed”, and reminding members of the NUJ Code of Conduct regarding accuracy and fairness. 

It also called for protections for members “who may face inappropriate pressures from proprietors and editors” in reporting on European issues.