The TUC’s 149th Congress, representing the whole British trade union movement, has today adopted a statement that sets out the tests we will apply to the outcome of the Brexit negotiations currently underway.
Will good jobs at decent wages be preserved, and will people’s rights at work be protected and enhanced?
Although the TUC and most unions campaigned for Remain in the referendum, we accept the outcome. But that doesn’t mean we’ll accept a Brexit that results in worse jobs, worse rights at work or lower living standards.
The statement adopted overwhelmingly by unions in Brighton calls for a transitional deal based on the current rules, including membership of the single market and the customs union, and respecting the judgments of the European Court of Justice.
Just as we didn’t back remaining in the EU because we thought it was perfect – far from it – we’re not calling for a transitional arrangement for anything other than pragmatic reasons. In the short term, we don’t see any realistic alternative that would protect workers’ rights (and keep up with advances secured by the European TUC) and ensure job-preserving tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of the EU.
The Prime Minister has promised to protect and enhance our rights. But the EU Withdrawal Bill, which MPs will debate again on Monday. would provide all sorts of ways to whittle back those rights without even proper Parliamentary scrutiny. And she’s got form promising workers a better deal and then reneging. Workers on boards, curbs on high pay, a fair deal for pensioners were all promised then abandoned.
Ministerial promises that we can have trade with the EU but without playing by the rules or paying in to the budget are similarly unbelievable. And the suggestion that we can replace lost trade with our nearest neighbours by doing new deals with low-wage economies like China, India and Mexico would be laughable if it wasn’t also so dangerous.
A transitional deal after March 2019 will give the UK time to negotiate a new relationship with the EU that meets those tests as well as protecting the economy and the peace process in Ireland, and the jobs of trade union members in Gibraltar.
That new relationship mustn’t be a free trade deal that allows rapacious multinationals to gut public services like the NHS, or undermine workers’ rights. It mustn’t allow foreign investors the sort of private tribunal to defend their rights to make a profit like the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions that have blighted free trade agreements with countries like Canada and the USA.
The single market safety net
The TUC statement argues that, as we leave the EU, we should stay in the single market unless an alternative method can be found to guarantee the rights at work that apply when we leave and maintain a level playing field with the rest of Europe if any new workplace rights are introduced. Free trade agreements don’t deliver that.
The single market’s rules would ensure a safety net, stopping a race to the bottom developing. But it would not prevent future British governments from improving our rights at work: we could exercise our sovereignty by building on that safety net, with workers on boards, greater union access to people in workplaces without a union, and extending the coverage of collective bargaining through stronger rights to recognition and modern wages councils in low pay sectors.
The statement also sets out plans for managing migration better, so that we continue to meet the single market’s rules without allowing undercutting through the exploitation of migrants by bad bosses. As the TUC has argued before, the flexibility other single market members use to manage migration could be explored further.
And there’s a lot that the government could do already without the sort of damage to the economy and our relations with other European countries that recent leaked Home Office proposals would do.
But whatever we do about migration, the British trade union movement is clear that migrants are not to blame for lower wages, lost and insecure jobs, or increased pressure on public services. It’s bad bosses and politicians committed to cuts who are to blame. Stronger workplace rights, enforcement and an end to the cuts are the solution.
Lastly, we’ll continue to call for a people’s Europe rather than a bosses’ Europe. With our colleagues in the European TUC, we will argue that Europe needs a pay rise, that the pressure for privatisation and liberalisation must end, and investment must be boosted to stimulate growth and productivity.
Above all, while we remain in the EU and after we leave it, the TUC will work with the ETUC to promote stronger rights for working people to prevent growing inequality and provide decent work for all.
Owen Tudor is Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department. This article first appeared on the TUC website. Copyright © 2017 Trades Union Congress.