The EU debate, thus far, has been dominated by the voices of big business and right wing politicians. The media coverage has been skewed toward these interests with, for example, not one trade union leader or representative of working people given a platform to speak on such programmes as BBC Question Time and Newsnight.
There has already been much heat and a severe lack of light in the debate over whether Britain should leave the European Union.
The referendum starting gun was fired after Prime Minister David Cameron came back from Brussels waving his new deal for Britain in the EU. The deal related little to worker’s rights, focusing instead on protecting the interests of finance capital and cutting migrant’s rights to benefits.
The EU is by no means a perfect construct: undemocratic in many ways, taking sovereignty from member states and doing the will of its neo-liberal masters - it has become big and unwieldy.
All that said, the EU has not just been about business, it has also provided a bulwark for the defence of trade union rights.
Back in 1988, then EU President Jacques Delors argued that the free market must have rules, that Europe must deliver real benefits for workers and that trade unions must have an equal place at the table.
Many of the worker’s rights were contained in what became known as the “Social Chapter”, which John Major’s Government did so much to avoid with its opt out in the early 1990s.
It was only when Labour came to power in 1997 that Britain signed up to the Social Chapter in full. The reticence of successive British governments to embrace the social agenda over the years is something to be born in mind, when assessing whether it is wise to leave worker’s rights totally in the gift of Westminster politicians.
Among the gains for workers, achieved as a result of the Social Chapter have been the right to 20 days paid annual leave a year, the right not to be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average, the right to equal treatment for part-time, fixed term and agency workers, the right to high standards of health and safety at work and protection for workers subject to outsourcing or business buyouts.
In terms of equality, the EU has also offered a lead, pushing the right to equal pay and protection from discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age and religion or belief.
Women have gained, winning the right to paid time off for anti-natal appointments and protection for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace. Parents also have the right to 18 weeks parental leave per child.
The TUC estimate that six million workers gained new or enhanced rights to paid holidays due to the EU (2 million of who previously had no annual leave). Some 400,000 part time workers, mostly women, gained improved pay and conditions when equal treatment rights were introduced.
Immigration has been an issue that has figured large in the EU debate. Opponents point to Britain having lost control of its borders with migrant workers coming into the country.
There have been problems with migrant workers being used as a cheap workforce to undermine those already in work in the UK. These problems though can be overcome by implementing minimum standard legislation - not least on pay, terms and conditions. Also, migrant workers need to become trade union members. If all the migrant workers were members of unions then there would not be the capacity for bosses to use this transitory workforce to undermine other workers.
The great illusion of the EU debate, fuelled partly by Cameron, is that migrant workers come to the UK in search of benefits. The reality is that they come here because work is available, not to gain benefits. If the work disappeared, so would most the migrants. According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, migrants contribute 64% more in taxes than they take out in benefits. A study by University College London found that EU migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK finances between 2000 and 2011.
The biggest tragedy of this whole debate would be if Britain were to sleep walk out of the EU on the back of far right engendered anti-migrant hysteria.
Beyond economic migration, there is the issue of dealing with problems like the refugee crisis engulfing large parts of Europe. Surely, there is a better chance of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving on UK shores together as part of the European block, rather than alone as little England, stranded in northern Europe.
The EU is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Critics are right to highlight the dominance of neo-liberal ideology at its heart and the influence of the corporations and banks.
However, surely the way to change things is from within, rather than shouting from outside.
As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has pointed out, workers are unlikely to be better off inside the EU. The present Conservative Government, and before it the Coalition, has hardly shown itself the friend of workers. “The current government has already shown its appetite to attack workers’ rights. It’s cut TUPE — protections for workers when their organisation changes hands — for outsourced workers, hiked up tribunal fees and extended the period before which workers can qualify for unfair dismissal claims,” said Frances. “Without the back-up of EU laws, unscrupulous employers will have free rein to cut many of their workers’ hard-won benefits and protections.”
The labour movement needs all the friends it can get in the fight against the ongoing attempts to destroy workers’ rights. Surely standing together with other workers, as part of a reformed European Union, gives a better opportunity to resist the attacks. There is no benefit in cutting ourselves off from a body that could be developed – working within – for the benefit rather than the detriment of workers. The past shows that the EU can provide a bulwark of rights and basic protections for workers that would not otherwise be available – certainly not as part of an isolated UK led by David Cameron or Boris Johnson.
* Isolation would not be splendid - see Tribune, 29/5/2016
Wanstead & Woodford Guardian letters - 26/5/2016