Why Unions Are Better Off Inside EU

11 February 2016

I am a proud trade unionist. Organised labour and the trade union movement have been central to every social progress in this country. There can be no real democracy without proper industrial democracy. The strike is not a breakdown of collective bargaining - it is the indispensable cornerstone of that process.

For nearly 20 years, I have worked in solidarity with workers around the world to realise their rights at work: workers in Colombia or Guatemala who face assassination or violence for standing up for their co-workers, workers in South Korea who see their unions banned, workers in mining communities in Central Asia fighting for decent working conditions and health and safety.

So it is with real anger that I watch Cameron and his millionaire’s cabinet going way beyond anything Thatcher attempted in the 1980s.

Attacking all routes by which ordinary people can express dissent or improve living and working conditions: they’ve already limited access to justice through changes to employment tribunals, pulled back domestic workers rights and gagged civil society. Now they propose to go further threatening the basic right to strike.

This is a right internationally recognised and defended as a human right by the International Labour Organisation. With the Trade Union Bill they are reversing social progress and want to send us to join a club of dictators and repressive regimes.

Employers will be able to break strikes by bringing in agency workers to cover for strikers. Think of the safety implications! It will lead to worse public services.  It will increase the risk of blacklisting – just at a time when brave campaigners are winning that fight. All of it taken together fundamentally undermines the rights for unions to organise, negotiate and strike in defence of their members at work.

The motivation for many eurosceptics in the Conservative Party (and, by extension UKIP) is to remove the blockages that the EU provides to extend their damaging domestic agenda. The EU acts as an essential block on many of their attempts to weaken workers’ rights.

The EU referendum is not about the future of the prime minister or the dramas of the Tory Party or which mad right-winger is running which leave campaign, but about working people – about workers’ jobs and workers’ rights.

We take for granted the benefits of EU membership: including a minimum four weeks’ paid holiday; a right to parental leave; extended maternity leave; the same protection for part-time workers as full-time workers, anti-discrimination laws, and protection for the workforce when companies change ownership.

It is thanks to our collective work that David Cameron has not been able to renegotiate away our rights, and we must now ensure working people keep these rights by remaining in the EU.

Labour MEPs are working not just to protect but to extend these rights. To ban abusive zero-hour contracts. To stamp down on abuse of these contracts to exploit workers and avoid paying fair wages, and to tackle employers who exploit workers from other countries to undercut wages – this would be the agenda we would be advancing if we were the ones renegotiating reform.

At a time when progressives across Europe are striving to improve rights for their workers, the Tories are working hard to undermine them. We must not give them a free hand to do it – we must defeat the Trade Union Bill in the courts and on the street if necessary with European human rights rules as our weapon.

We must push for stronger rights for working people with our brothers and sisters across Europe, not withdraw into an isolated state based on exploitation and greed. The only effective answer to organised greed is organised labour. We must fight together – we in the Labour Party are ready for that fight, and I hope that you are too.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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