THE legal opinion obtained by TSSA and the IWGB, suggesting that Theresa May’s post-Brexit “Workers’ Pledge” is effectively meaningless, is unsurprising to say the least.
Anyone who would believe the promises of a government that has presided over the implementation of the latest anti-trade union legislation, that has done nothing to address zero-hours contracts or the gender pay gap, and that has actively participated in wage stagnation through a politically motivated austerity programme, needs to have their head examined.
What May means when she says: “Workers’ rights will be safe in my hands” is anybody’s guess but it certainly doesn’t mean what it says on the tin.
This vicious anti-union, anti-working-class government will use any opportunity to attack workers’ rights — and Brexit presents all kinds of opportunities in all kinds of directions.
So, the question is how should we, as a labour movement, respond?
First, we need to be realistic about what protections are actually afforded by EU legislation.
The trumpeted 48-hour Working Time Directive has so many exemptions it’s more like a wet paper towel than a safety net.
And, as anyone who has ever worked for a temping agency will know, most casual employment brokers require you to sign a waiver before you’re offered work, regardless of whether they intend to offer you anything near 48 hours.
Similarly, the right to 20 days’ paid leave per year is in fact less than the UK minimum of 28 days, and legislation on equal pay was brought into UK law in 1957, long pre-dating our membership of the EEC, as it was.
And yet the gender pay gap persists. And this really is the point.
There are some positive protections that have been brought into EU law (although these seem to be constantly overestimated by fans of the neoliberal bosses’ club) but we have still suffered almost 10 years of brutal austerity, zero-hours contracts still exist and workers have not had a real pay rise for years.
And for every protection, there are judgements of the European Court of Justice that put the rights of transnational business to operate across borders before the rights of workers to organise and bargain collectively.
The idea that the EU, with the principles of free movement of goods, services, labour and capital — the agenda of free-market capitalism — at its heart, can act as some kind of champion of workers’ rights is a nonsense; it is contradicted by the evidence of our own daily lives.
Second, we need to answer the question of where workers’ rights actually come from. Even a cursory glance at history shows that oppressed people have never been granted rights or freedoms except when they have fought for them and won them, through their own blood and sweat.
Far from relying on the EU, or any other supranational institution, to guarantee our rights, we need to look to the traditions of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Burston School Strikers, the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders, and all the other heroes of our movement.
We need to build our organisations and our power to force change. Because no-one will hand it to us on a plate.
Make no mistake about it, this Tory government will use Britain’s withdrawal from the EU as an opportunity to launch a further attack on workers’ rights, just as it would have used any renegotiation of our membership.
To confront this, we need to take on this government and its big business backers.
We must fight to defend and extend our rights as a first step towards a revolution which puts the interests of the many, not the few, at the heart of a new society. After all, we have nothing to lose but our chains!
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