EU Referendum: Why we shoud leave the EU. A personal view by Stephen McLean

Here are some arguments for leaving the EU from the perspective of ordinary workers and trade unionists.

We are unlikely to hear these arguments in the mainstream media. In campaigning to leave the EU, it is vital that we completely distinguish ourselves and separate ourselves from the reactionary and racist arguments being put forward by the likes of UKIP, the hard Right of the Tory party and echoed in the Sun, Express, Mail, Telegraph etc. A principled argument in favour of leaving highlights the fact that the EU is far from being a bulwark against big business, or the TTIP agreement. Nor does it in any way guarantee, protect or consolidate workers’ rights or environmental protection.

Since its inception, the EU has been a bosses organisation, this had made it easier for them to push their neoliberal, privatising agenda against all member states as well as reinforcing ‘Fortress Europe’ against those (such as Syrian refugees) fleeing war zones that are being bombed by EU member states, as the disgraceful ‘deal’ brokered to send refugees back to Turkey and fast track Turkey’s membership of the EU, despite Turkey having probably the most appalling human rights record in Europe.

UNISON is not recommending its members vote any specific way, so this is a personal view. However, it is an argument that puts the interests of ordinary workers and trade unionists ahead of those of big business and right wing governments.

Wouldn’t we lose our employment rights?

Union leaders sometimes claim that the EU is the only thing standing between unscrupulous bosses and workers’ rights.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady claimed, “It’s the EU that guarantees workers paid holidays, parental leave and equal treatment of part-timers.” 

In reality, it was the unions that O’Grady leads that won those rights. Their struggles mean that some British workplace legislation, such as health and safety, is stronger than the EU demands.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 came out of a mass upsurge in union struggle that toppled Edward Heath’s Tory government. It’s been under relentless Tory attack. But the EU’s “Better Regulation” agenda won’t give workers more protection. It makes clear that “suppressing unnecessary administrative burdens” is crucial for business. That’s because the EU is no friend of workers’ rights—and that doesn’t only apply in countries such as Greece where it’s imposing brutal austerity. It is based on “four freedoms” for bosses. The EU guarantees them the right to set up business, provide services, move capital and hire labour across its member states.

There was no real mention of “social rights” in the Treaty of Rome of 1957 that founded the EU. It only began adopting some weak measures to sugar the pill. EU “directives” have little impact on workers’ terms and conditions, and do not protect union rights. Unfair dismissal rights and the minimum wage have nothing to do with the EU.
If workers’ rights clash with the “four freedoms”, the EU always comes down on the bosses’ side.

In 2007 Finnish ferry company Viking tried to operate from neighbouring Estonia to get around a union agreement. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in the bosses’ favour, saying that workers taking action could restrict Viking’s “right” to relocate. British Airways bosses used the ruling to stop the Balpa pilots’ union striking against plans to set up a subsidiary with worse terms and conditions.

Our rights are under attack from the Tories and the EU. Only workers’ struggles will defend them.

Doesn’t the EU give us equal pay and holidays from work?

We don’t have equal pay in Britain—or in the EU. Women workers are paid on average 14 percent less than men, according to official figures. The Equal Pay Act, which formally guarantees equal pay, had nothing to with the EU. A Labour government introduced it in 1970 after women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant in east London went on all-out strike.

The Equal Pay Act is now largely superseded by the Equality Act of 2010—legislation that would remain after a “Brexit”.
Much of EU employment law has also been implemented through British legislation, and is often stronger than the EU requires. For instance, the EU’s minimum annual holiday period is four weeks, yet in Britain it’s 5.6 weeks.

EU directives on maternity leave guard against some discrimination and all women are entitled to. 14 weeks’ leave. But parents in Britain can qualify for up to 50 weeks of shared leave, 37 of which are paid. The Tories and the EU both talk up the importance of “competitiveness”—meaning they want to level down these rights. The bosses will attack them whether Britain leaves the EU or not. We can’t rely on any bosses or rulers, in the EU or elsewhere, to protect ordinary people. The key to defending workers’ rights and resisting racism is struggle.

Doesn’t the EU guarantee our human rights?

Since 1953 Britain has recognised the European Court of Human Rights. The Human Rights Act makes its judgements binding in Britain. The Act is British law—it has nothing to do with the EU. The Court is a body of the Council of Europe. It is nothing to do with the EU. It has 47 member states, almost half of them non-EU members. Other human rights provisions come through international treaties. Britain is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Labour Organisation, among others.

None of these have anything to do with the EU. Nor do measures won from struggle inside Britain, from the Magna Carta onwards. Some measures came through the EU, against workplace discrimination for example. They are now British law and won’t be repealed if we leave the EU.

The problem with all these measures is that governments ignore them whenever they get away with it. Whether inside or outside the EU, the only rights that count are the ones we fight to uphold.

Stephen McLean
UNISON Branch Chair