(AFP) – Britain’s major trade unions have finally come out in support of the European Union, judging that fears of a post-Brexit economic fallout outweigh concerns about the bloc’s faults in promoting workers’ rights.
Unions have kept a low profile amid the strident back-and-forth between supporters of the EU and those wanting to leave, in contrast to big business which has come out strongly in favour of remaining.
“The dream of a social Europe, upon which so many trade union hopes have been pinned, has proven to be difficult to realise,” Philip Whyman, professor of economics at the University of Central Lancashire, said of the unions’ reluctance to commit.
“Indeed, the measures taken in the aftermath of the Euro-crisis have taken the EU in the opposite direction,” he added.
The austerity imposed on southern European nations was “difficult to reconcile with the promises of a ‘social Europe’,” he said.
The term “social Europe” has been used to describe a European Union that helps boost wages and workers’ rights instead of a more free-market model that pits workers in different countries in competition.
Free movement of European workers worries some in Britain’s workforce, who fear that cheap labour from eastern European countries is undercutting wages.
But with just over two weeks to go until the June 23 referendum on whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union, the country’s leading unions have broken their silence.
“To date, the debate about our membership of the EU has been dominated by business, but today I want to change the tone and set out why working people should vote to remain,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) federation, said last week.
– In or out? –
The TUC claimed in a recent report that an “average” British worker would suffer a wage cut of around £38 pounds ($54, 48 euros) per week because of the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
The general secretaries of Unite, Unison and the GMB were among 10 trade union leaders on Monday to urge their members to vote to stay in the EU, warning in a letter to the Guardian newspaper that a Brexit would threaten workers’ rights.
“After much debate and deliberation we believe that the social and cultural benefits of remaining in the EU far outweigh any advantages of leaving,” stated the letter.
Four million of Britain’s six million TUC affiliated workers are represented by unions that are in favour of remaining.
Other unions representing around two million workers are still to declare and around 100,000 workers are represented by unions in favour of leaving.
The RMT transport union is firmly in the “Lexit” (“Left exit”) camp backed by socialists who want out of the EU.
Former president Alex Gordon has said the EU offers few social benefits for Britons, and that Brexit would bring down the Conservative government of David Cameron.
“The Tories will split after the referendum, Cameron will not stay, so we should guarantee (Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn gets a majority and leads the next government,” he said during a recent debate.
– ‘Privatisation disease’ –
But Dave Prentis, general secretary of public sector union Unison, disagreed that Conservative divisions would lead them to lose power and enable a Labour victory.
“The EU caught the British privatisation disease, the zero-hour contract is a British thing, not an EU one,” he added.
“Those deregulations would happen more quickly if we leave the EU.”
Left-wing supporters of the EU also point to European directives that guarantee certain rights for British employees, such as four weeks of paid leave and maternity leave.
Recent polls have shown a tightening in the race, and it remains to be seen whether the intervention has come too late to influence voters of the traditionally pro-Europe Labour Party, which has its roots in the trade union movement.
A further complication is Corbyn, the party’s hard-left leader who has been a critic of the EU throughout his lengthy parliamentary career.
For the workers themselves, including steel workers marching in London recently against job losses, the message is mixed.
“They are both fighting each other saying you’ll lose your jobs and somebody else says no you won’t lose your jobs,” Terry Hanby, a steelworker for 34 years, told AFP.
“Where do you go from there?”