Frances O'Grady at the TUC Congress: photo: wikimedia commons Frances O'Grady at the TUC Congress: photo: wikimedia commons

The TUC should focus on the problems facing working people. Workers’ rights and the Single Market don’t go together, argues Martin Hall

The position taken by Frances O’Grady in her article in The Times on Thursday, in which she makes the case that the best way to secure long term workers’ rights is to remain in the Single Market after Brexit, while no great surprise, will not be welcomed by the millions of working people who voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. Many will ask what trade unions are for, in particular the leadership of the TUC, if it feels that it has no direct role to play in the advancement of the rights of working people in post-Brexit Britain. 

Not content with going with this line during the campaign, and in the process effacing the history of working people fighting for their rights, O’Grady is now emphasising it once more, and in so doing going against the policy of the Labour Party, which is to leave the Single Market, following a transitional period. Jeremy Corbyn has recently restated this position. Also, the Labour Party voted against the current version of the EU Withdrawal Bill on Wednesday over workers’ rights – no mention of this in the article.

You have to wonder what her aim is here, as it cannot be the election of a left government committed to a radical manifesto and the betterment of working people. That will not be furthered by taking a line that will tank Labour in the polls, allow UKIP to rise, and lose it the next election. Despite what the continuity Remain end of the Labour Party would have people believe, it is clear that taking what is effectively a Remain position would be electorally disastrous, as 70% of Labour constituencies voted out in 2016.

No mention is made in the article of the Labour Party at all, and while the TUC is not affiliated to it and is not allowed to endorse any party in a General Election, it is well within its rights to push policies that are in the interests of workers. In that context, it is worth considering why the General Secretary of the TUC is not referring to or indeed endorsing Labour’s policy of a Brexit that puts the interests of working people first.

The context

UK Trade Unions predominantly bought into Jacques Delors’ vision of a social Europe after his famous speech in 1988. The context was a decade of Thatcherism and defeats for the left, leaving many to take the view that the best method of preventing further losses was to put their faith in the EU. 

However, the EU that the centre-left put its faith in nearly 30 years ago is no more, if it ever really existed. It has been moving in a rightwards direction in terms of workers’ rights for many years now, as shown by among other things the Viking and Laval cases, two instances of the European Court of Justice’s privileging of the rights of capital over labour. Only this week, the Greek government voted through legislation to limit strikes, which has been demanded by international lenders in exchange for further bailouts. This is an attack on the ability of workers to take collective action within an EU country.

Many of the Unions backed Remain in 2016; indeed, Unite the Union produced a leaflet entitled ‘What has Europe ever done for us?’ In it, ten rights and laws were attributed to the EU, despite many of them having been won by industrial struggle in countries across Europe. However, since Unite and others argued for Remain, Jeremy Corbyn has cemented his position as leader of the Labour Party, after its excellent General Election result, in which the Tories lost their majority. The context is different.

The Trade Union bureaucracy has an ignoble history of tripartism and concessions to the bosses.

The Single Market

Jeremy Corbyn has made it clear that the UK must leave the Single Market after Brexit. Counterfire campaigned for Lexit. Why?

It is the economic base upon which the entire structure of the EU is erected. It is impossible to be in it without effectively being in the EU itself.

It is a barrier to nationalisation, ethical trade and local procurement based on need.

It is a market based upon a neoliberal economic model and privileges the free movement of capital over the rights of labour.

Any leftist government that wants to inject public money into a managed economy and shift the economic ground away from the prioritising of free trade cannot do so if bound by its strictures. Counterfire set outs its view in more detail last year.

What are the principal concerns of working people in the last couple of weeks? Who benefits from the media focus on Brexit?

The collapse of Carillion has left thousands of people without income. Despite it issuing profit warnings, the Tories have been continuing to bung tax payers’ money in its direction, most recently a further two billion. As argued by Counterfire earlier this week, construction is ‘notoriously weak in union organisation’. Shouldn’t the TUC have something to say about that?

The NHS is in crisis: people are being treated in car parks, and in corridors. Shouldn’t the TUC have something to say about that?

The continuity Remain end of the Labour Party and its allies in other parties benefit from the ongoing media focus on Brexit. As Counterfire argued last week, they ‘need to take the conversation away from the NHS crisis, pay, austerity, education – in short, all the areas where Corbyn and the left are making headway’. What we have from Frances O’Grady is another attempt to take us back to a world before Corbyn and before the seismic shock of Brexit, which has dealt the establishment a gigantic shock and split the ruling class. Trade Union membership desperately needs to increase, particularly outside of the public sector, principally in the areas in which many leave voters work. This means that trade unionism must speak to people’s concerns.

Much of the media exists in a Brexit-obsessed bubble, despite the severe day to day problems for working people in the UK. Articles which put forward a choice between the Tories, who are in crisis, and the EU, which is in crisis, do nothing to speak to the material reality of people’s lives. Labour’s policies for its next government do address that reality.