The leaders of Britain’s biggest unions have called upon their six million members to vote to remain within the European Union (EU), on the grounds that they don’t trust Britain’s current Conservative government.
Ten trade union figures, including the leaders of Unite, Unison and the GMB, have signed a letter urging their members to vote Remain to secure workers’ rights, which they say were won within the EU and would be eroded under a Tory government.
Showing contempt for the British people, who voted the Conservatives into government last year with a slim majority, they wrote: “We simply do not trust this government if they are presented with an unrestricted, unchecked opportunity to attack our current working rights.”
They list parental leave rights, holiday pay and equal treatment of workers among the rights secured through negotiation with European leaders, ignoring the fact that in many cases those rights pre-date British membership of the EU.
“Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the British trade union movement worked in solidarity with our European partners and fought hard to secure valuable working rights legislation at EU level,” they say, adding: “If Britain leaves the EU, we are in no doubt these protections would be under great threat.”
And although they acknowledge problems with the EU as it currently stands, they are adamant that they can be overcome, allowing “Europe” to move forward with a “renewed social agenda”.
The referendum campaign has so far been dominated on the Remain side by Conservative figures including the prime minister David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne, both of whom have mainly relied on “Project Fear” tactics to scare people into voting to remain part of the bloc.
But Labour voices are beginning to break through, making a case for a reformed Europe which protects workers’ rights while turning its back on the federalising agenda which so far has been the hallmark of the EU.
The TUC’s Frances O’Grady, who didn’t sign the letter but nonetheless supports the Remain campaign, has echoed her colleagues’ argument in a Guardian debate, saying: “If we left the EU… we’d see a wholesale review of every workplace protection guaranteed by the EU as the Conservative government decided which EU laws to keep and which to bin. Rights such as paid holidays, emergency parental leave, life-saving health and safety protections and time off for antenatal appointments would all be up for review.
“I don’t trust this government to not start watering these rights down.”
But others within the trade union movement are not convinced. Countering O’Grady was Enrico Tortolano, campaign director for Trade Unionists Against the EU. He said that fears a Conservative government would be “free to attack workers in ever more aggressive ways” are “not justified”.
“It is not the EU that protects our rights; the EU is their greatest threat. We have rights because trade unions and the labour movement fought for them.”
Indeed, the right to paid holiday entitlement cited by the union leaders was first introduced in Britain via the Holiday Pay Act 1938 – fully 35 years before the UK joined the European Economic Community, as it was then known – which the TUC acknowledge (and take credit for) on their own website.
“The right to vote has always posed a threat to organised capital, especially since the Second World War when reform of the economy in the interests of working people began to be realised,” Tortolano argued.
“Today the EU has become the means by which people are once again segregated and marginalised from those in power. As EU laws become more distant from democratic control, they inevitably act against the interests of working people and in favour of large corporations and corporate finance.”