The TUC is in danger of rendering the trade union movement completely irrelevant to the lives of the very people it exists to represent. It has called Brexit wrong from the outset. So cynical was it about the ability of the working-class to defend itself against a Tory government outside the EU that it threw its lot in with the ranks of the Establishment – big business, the banking industry and all – in an attempt to keep us hitched to an explicitly anti-socialist and anti-democratic institution, and one which has at its core an agenda of austerity, privatisation and the rule of market forces.
One might have thought the TUC would seek to quickly redeem itself once it became clear that so many millions in working-class constituencies had voted Leave. But no. Its grudging acceptance of the result, it’s perception of Brexit as some great setback for workers, it’s constant fearmongering, and its insistence that the UK remain inside the Single Market threatens to widen yet further the gulf between the movement and ordinary working people.
The TUC has given no sign that it recognises the many negative aspects of the Single Market, such as the £9bn net annual contribution fee which would be better spent on our public services and the anti-worker rulings of the ECJ (as demonstrated by the Viking and Laval cases). In particular, it has been criminally silent over the damaging effects of free movement on wages, public services and social cohesion. By allowing big business to shunt workers from highly-diverse economies around the continent, free movement has become an exploiters’ charter.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has argued that the best way to guarantee workers’ rights and to secure jobs and prosperity in the future is by staying inside the Single Market. No, Frances. The best way to achieve these things is, as ever, through strong and effective trade unionism.
We shouldn’t forget that most advances made by British workers – such as the national minimum wage, equal pay, and health and safety improvements – came about through the UK parliament following campaigns by trade unions. By suggesting that the only way workers’ pay and conditions can be defended is through the Single Market, the TUC is undermining the struggles of previous generations of trade unionists and spreading despair about the movement’s ability to win victories in the future. Its stance will also inevitably lead to workers questioning whether there is any point in joining a trade union in the first place.
Those who believe the EU to be some great protector of workers’ rights might want to ask themselves why there is no minimum wage standard inside the EU, and why, on things like maternity, parental and annual leave, existing arrangements in the UK are superior to those laid down by the EU.
They might also like to ask why the EU was completely impotent when the Tory government implemented the Trade Union Act – the biggest assault on workers in a generation – in 2016.
The TUC is at a crossroads. With trade union membership having halved since 1980, with workers under increasing pressure, with the growth of the gig economy, with the widening chasm between the political class and ordinary people, the movement needs to decide whether it wants to stay anchored in its public sector comfort zone, virtually absent from private industry and its old working-class heartlands, or whether it wants to reconnect with the millions who need trade unionism more than ever but see it as irrelevant to their lives.
The first step must be to recognise the reasons why so many millions of workers voted for Brexit, and to embrace it.
Labour Leave shares a number of viewpoints from external commentators, both Leave and Remain, without necessarily endorsing any of the viewpoints therein.
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