REVIEW: Europe, the EU and Britain: Workers’ Rights and Economic Democracy

29 January 2018 By John Foster Last summer's international seminar organised by the Institute of Employment Rights brought together trade unionists from Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, Germany and Britain in London’s Marx Memorial Library to discuss the EU.

29 Jan 2018| News

29 January 2018

By John Foster

Last summer’s international seminar organised by the Institute of Employment Rights brought together trade unionists from Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, Germany and Britain in London’s Marx Memorial Library to discuss the EU.

The publication of its proceedings reminds us, in timely fashion, that a progressive and pro-worker outcome to Britain’s current negotiations is not just vital for us in Britain but for workers across Europe.

But, as Steve Turner of Unite notes in his foreword, this is not what is currently on offer. Both options being canvassed by the Tory government are dangerously neoliberal and reactionary.

That being pushed by Theresa May and her allies will incorporate all elements of EU law into British law, including competition law, in a bid to secure preferential access terms for big business, particularly the City of London.

The other, the “Singapore model” offered by Boris Johnson, would seek trade deals modeled on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

John Hendy QC graphically demonstrates the problems posed by the two alternatives. “No-one can doubt that free trade agreements (FTAs) present a complete surrender of parliamentary sovereignty to multinational corporations. But the EU is not an alternative to FTAs.”

He instances the threat posed by EU law as applied in the recent judgement in favour of the Norwegian-Danish-owned firm Holship against Norway’s dock labour scheme, won by Norwegian workers 40 years ago to end casualisation on the waterfront.

Norway is not a member of the EU. But it is a member of the single market and comes within the jurisdiction of EU-based law. It was this that doomed its dock labour scheme.

In December 2016, Holship was able to secure a judgement in the European Free Trade Area court that the scheme infringed the “right of establishment”, which in EU law gives primacy to the rights of business to set up subsidiaries and employ labour without hindrance. This Holship can now do in Norway. Union opposition has been ruled illegal.

Hendy goes on to underline the wider problems facing the trade union movement within the EU, a warning amplified by the contributions of trade union representatives Mauricio Miguel from Portugal and Pavlos Kalosinatos from Cyprus.

The biggest threat is not so much EU laws as the EU treaties on which they are based and the policies which result.

EU law does defend basic minimum rights for workers on an individual basis. But EU policy, derived from the Lisbon Treaty, sees collective bargaining itself — the direct exercise of power by trade unions in wage setting — as detrimental to the operation of the free market.

The 2012 EU policy statement on labour market developments in Europe spelt this out and its implementation, through Troika bail-outs and more generally, has resulted in a precipitate decline in the proportion of EU workers covered by collective bargaining.

In 2008, 1.9 million Portuguese workers were covered by collective agreements. Now the number is less than 225,000. Elsewhere the fall has been equally sharp. And, as any trade unionist knows, legal rights mean very little without the collective strength to enforce them.

Hans Modrow, honorary president of Germany’s Die Linke, underlined the consequences of this social and political reversion. The destruction of hopes and expectations driven by the EU’s austerity policies and its neoliberal, pro-business solutions to crisis, is directly associated with the “weakening of the social struggles of the community at large”, opening the way for the right.

This is why what happens in Britain is so important for workers across Europe and Modrow spells out the real alternative: “The Labour Party has gained new support from many sections of the public based on principles of working-class collectivism, public ownership and social solidarity. This result has opened up new hopes for working people across the whole of Europe.”

The challenge for us now, Modrow asserts, “is to place these principles as the top priority in the negotiations on the future of Britain’s relations with the EU … whereby Britain would not be subject to the neoliberal competition policies of the EU but instead would base her freedoms on the principles of economic and social solidarity.”

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Originally published in the Morning Star