Do Trade Unions have a Brexit Britain Problem?   

Recently, in Bella Caledonia, there was an article asking if Scottish (inter)nationalism had a Trade Union problem.
I read it with interest, but came to a far different conclusion – that trade unionism has a Brexit Britain problem.
My starting point is that the independence movement in Scotland is very largely internationalist, European-facing and outward-looking. The body politic in Scotland is more Scandinavian social democratic, than free market Brexit Britain.
That appeared to be revealed, at its most obvious, when Scotland voted decisively to Remain inside the European Union, at 62% to retain our place in the single market, to retain our Freedom of Movement, to live, work, study and retire in 27 neighbouring countries…and to offer the same welcome to people from those 27 neighbours here. Indeed, our hospitality, tourism and farming sectors (amongst others) relied on staff from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and elsewhere, for the sectors just to function. Britain decided (unnecessarily) to drag the entirety of Scotland’s economy out of the world’s biggest international single market…and no UK party offers any route back. Not one. Only independence provides it.
And when it comes to Trade Unions, there can be no doubt (after this past fortnight) that Brexit Britain is hell-bent on removing all of our human rights where it can, with the latest culture war “opponents” having been selected (and amplified by a compliant UK media) as being Trade Unions here in Brexit Britain, and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
I have a question for those readers who are in a Union (and – full disclosure – I am a member of the Musicians Union myself, and would encourage any musician to join). The question for us Unionised folks is this:
Your rights to form a trade union and to join a trade union of your choice are safeguarded by Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Do you think those rights will be respected in Brexit Britain, more than it would be in an independent and European Scotland?
Not a chance.
And that is why trade unions have a Brexit Britain problem.
In Indyref1, in 2014, there was a lot of talk of people in Newtongrange having more in common with Nottingham than Norway; and people in Bathgate having more in common with folk in Burnley than Barcelona. Brexit well and truly smashed apart any notion that folk in Burnley (66.6% Leave vote) have anything special or unique in common with folk in Edinburgh (74% Remain vote). The number of the beast seemed somehow appropriate for Burnley’s vote – and for those of us who value and appreciate the value of Article 11, and the ECHR, and the right to a Union, and all of the good that collective support can bring for people, we should not kid ourselves that Brexit Britain can be reformed from within. It cannot.
Perhaps worse, it will not.
When the Labour leader [Sir] Keir Starmer, refuses to back the rail workers right to strike, when the Transport minister had point blank refused to even meet for negotiations, then we know that the auld sang (the Internationale) is not being sung any more, at least not in Brexit Britain.
If folk here want to support the right to unionise, I would politely ask: do you think independent and internationalist Scotland (within Europe, and respecting the ECHR in Strasbourg) would be a more hospitable place than Brexit Britain for your union and its members in the 2020s and 2030s?
Because if you choose to vote No in Indyref2, you can be assured your vote will be interpreted in Brexit Britain as you voting No to the chance to get your European rights and passports back, and voting No to the ECHR, and voting No to the Single Market, Erasmus, Freedom of Movement, and the Customs Union.
It’s a worrying prospectus.
But in the week when Keir Starmer won’t stand up for striking rail workers, and the ECHR is the tabloid target of choice, this is the week where I’d ask Trade Unions to at least consider: does trade unionism have a Brexit Britain problem?
And might an internationalist, European, independent Scotland not be a more hospitable place to further your cause?
It might be the catalyst for a reboot of politics in the rest of the UK too…

Comments (21)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Oi, mentioning my home town! Heh, I was part of the 33.33%, and quite astonished at the outcome. The power of the press indeed. I’ve no idea though if the same referendum was done again, whether the outcome would be any different. We do however now have 6 Green Party councillors so it’s not all bad.

    1. John Learmonth says:

      I doubt any of the Greens frequent the Miners Arms near Turf Moor though!
      Great little boozer and the best Bennie and Hot in the N.West.

      1. 220630 says:

        I think you’re thinking of the Burnley Miners’ Social Club – ‘Women Dancing – Blokes with Bollocks Out’ (as its Northern Soul and Motown nights are advertised).

        But you’re right: Burnley Miners’ is the biggest consumer of Bénédictine (‘benny’) outside of France. I have it on authority from a local Burnley fan that it’s also recently installed rosé on draught. I’m a big fan of neither. I’m a bourbon man myself.

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I’d point to the hopeful signs ripe for using by trade unions. Brexit has opened the way for exploitation of workers, notably the use of agency staff to break strikes. I’d be interested to hear about trade unionists fighting against the erosion of EU backed rights. We need an optimistic way forward and the seeds are there.

  3. 220630 says:

    My right to form a trade union and to join a trade union is also safeguarded by current UK legislation. You have a legal right to join a trade union. Your employer must not treat you unfavourably because you join a trade union, take part in trade union activities, or use the services trade unions provide for their members. You have a legal right to be accompanied by a trade union rep at grievance and disciplinary hearings and appeals. You have a legal right to take industrial action. Union reps have a legal right to reasonable paid time off to undertake union activities.

    ‘Do you think those rights will be respected in Brexit Britain, more than it would be in an independent and European Scotland?’

    I’ve no reason to suppose that they won’t be. If you feel you’re being denied your trade union rights, talk to your union rep, who will help you seek recourse through the law.

    1. 220630 says:

      I’m heartened by the fact that more than 118,000 workers joined trade unions in 2020, bringing trade union membership in the UK to 6.6 million workers. Unionised workers have higher pay, better terms and conditions, and safer working environments than non-unionised workers. Join a union!

    2. Jacqueline Tosh says:

      With the current leader of the Labour Party not backing the Rail Workers, what impression does that give you of support from the traditional party of the workers?
      The Tories are hell-bent on demolishing everything that has been protected by EU law, and if the Labour Party continue as they have been, who will support you?

      1. 220630 says:

        Yep, I’d certainly support the five Labour front-benchers who joined striking rail workers on picket lines last week against Keir Starmer’s attempts to distance his party from what Grant Shapps and other Conservatives are calling ‘Labour’s strikes’.

        And, of course, any and all attempts (democratic or otherwise) to remove unionism’s legal protections are to be resisted. And British unions will resist any and all such attempts, with or without the support of the politicians, regardless of whether or not Scotland is an independent country, and regardless of whether or not the UK continues to recognise its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights as agreed by the Treaty of London in 1949.

    3. Martin says:

      ‘Do you think those rights will be respected in Brexit Britain, more than it would be in an independent and European Scotland?’
      ‘I’ve no reason to suppose that they won’t be. If you feel you’re being denied your trade union rights, talk to your union rep, who will help you seek recourse through the law.’

      And I have every reason to suppose that they won’t be. When Brexit Britain leaves the European Convention of Human Rights (which is Brexit Britain’s intention as stated on numerous occasion by Tory MPs and ministers) it will take only a simple majority of Westminster MPs voting on this at that particular moment to take all those right away. And listening to Tory MPs taking those rights away was and is the point of Brexit.

    4. Derek Thomson says:

      If you’ve no reason to believe that your trade union rights will not be protected once the Britannia Unchanged mob have had their way, you’re not paying attention.

      1. 220630 says:

        Which is why we have to struggle continually to make sure that those who would remove our legal protections don’t have their own way.

        I don’t see how making Scottish government independent of UK government would change this. We’d surely still have to defend our employment rights against private interests operating through government whether Scotland was an independent country or not. Why would Scotland be exceptional in this regard? Why would our rights be safer under an independent Scottish government?

        1. Jacqueline Tosh says:

          Perhaps because they are not ultra right-wing as the current U.K. Government are, nor are the virtually so as the current Labour Party are?

          1. 220630 says:

            But there’s no guarantee that private interests might not use the power of government in an independent Scotland to seek to remove our legal protections. We wishfully think that an independent Scotland might be exceptional in this respect, due to some supposed native genius we Scots have for social justice, and that this could therefore never happen. But there’s nothing in the Scottish government’s prospectus for independence that would prevent any such power-capture or otherwise make our rights any more secure than they currently are.

            Even some indication of who would write the constitution that would limit the power of an independent Scottish government, and the process by which it would be written, would be something. But, no; we’re just being asked to vote the government a carte blanche and naïvely trust that ‘independence’ will sort itself out after the event by whatever processes the government deems meet.

  4. Tom Ultuous says:

    I posted this by mistake on the Coming Full Circle article.

    While I support trade unions and the rail workers this sticks in my craw.

    7 April 2016
    RMT Press Office:
    TRANSPORT UNION RMT today set out six key reasons why it will be advising members to vote to the leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum:

    1. Leave the EU to end attacks on rail workers
    New EU rail policies are set to further entrench rail privatisation and fragmentation. That will also mean more attacks or jobs and conditions and EU laws will make it impossible to bring all of rail back into public ownership.

    2. Leave the EU to end attacks on seafarers and the offshore workers
    The EU has promoted undercutting and social dumping leading to the decimation of UK seafarers. The same is now happening in the offshore sector. EU directives also require the tendering our public ferry services.

    3. Leave the EU to end attacks on workers’ rights
    It’s a myth that the EU is in favour of workers. In fact the EU is developing a new policy framework to attack trade union rights, collective bargaining, job protections and wages. This is already being enforced in countries which have received EU “bailouts”.

    4. Leave the EU to end Austerity
    If you join a union you expect members of the union to protect each other in times of trouble. The European Union has done the opposite. It has used the economic crisis to impose austerity and privatization on member states. Instead of protecting jobs and investment EU austerity is driving UK austerity.

    5. Leave the EU to stop the attack on our NHS
    The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and the United States will promote big business at the expense government protections and organisations including our NHS! Environmental regulations, employment rights, food safety, privacy laws and many other safeguards will also be secondary to the right of corporations to make even bigger profits.

    6. Leave the EU to support democracy
    The vast majority of the laws that affects our lives are now made in the EU and not the UK. We have no say over those Laws. As the late Tony Benn said in 1991…
    “We are discussing whether the British people are to be allowed to elect those who make the laws under which they are governed. The argument is nothing to do with whether we should get more maternity leave from Madame Papandreou [a European Commissioner].”

    RMT will be promoting the six key points direct to members across all sectors of the transport industry through the union’s RMT NEWS, through branches and reps and through the union’s social media platforms.

    RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said:
    “RMT is proud to stand up for the tradition of progressive and socialist opposition to the European Union, an organisation wedded to privatisation, austerity and attacking democracy.
    “It would be frankly ludicrous for a union like ours to support staying in a bosses club that seeks to ban the public ownership of our railways, attacks the shipping and offshore sectors and embraces the privatisation of the NHS and other essential services that our members depend on.
    “RMT has set out the six core reasons for our members to vote to leave and we will be campaigning hard on this platform.”

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      That aged well.

      I said, in 2014 all the bad things Bitter Together said would happen with a YES vote would happen after a NO vote.

      I wonder how much of what RMT said about the EU in 2016 is still true. It certainly looks like the Tories are doing exactly what the RMT said the EU were planning to do.

      And we have a Labour party cosying up to the government of the day just as they did in the Great unrest of 1910-1914 which only ended when the government found a reason to declare war on Germany.

      History never repeats but it sure as hell rhymes a lot.

      Who can we, the ones the power holders consider ignorant plebs, no matter our qualification, mere experts, trust?

    2. Jim says:

      It’s true that the RMT supported leaving the EU
      RMT general secretary Mick Cash said that RMT had reaffirmed its long-standing policy of opposing UK membership of the European Union and called for a out vote in any referendum on the issue.

      “EU policies are at odds with the aspirations of this union as the various treaties and directives are demanding the privatisation of our rail and ferry industries.

      “The EU is also secretly negotiating trade deals with the US and Canada which will decimate of health and education sectors and hand huge powers to transnational corporations over nation states and their governments.

      “The Tories will be campaigning to stay in the EU come any referendum as they support this right wing, neo-liberal, anti-worker agenda,” he said.

      However much of the Left did take a position to support leaving as part of the Lexit (Left Exit rather than Brexit campaign). We could debate the rights or wrongs of this, though personally I voted to remain, but it does seem to me that the RMT position is related to this position on the left.

    3. 220630 says:

      Aye, the unions have a long history of opposing the UK’s membership of the capitalist club.

      I’ve always been ambivalent about the EU. I admire the principle of subsidiarity by which its government is organised, but that ambivalence took a mighty dent in 2015.

      In January 2015, Greece elected a left-wing Syriza government. The government attempted to renegotiate its debts with the EU, and failed. The EU wanted its money paid back, even though everyone knew the Greek economy was so feeble it would cripple the country to do so. So the government held a referendum in July 2015 on whether the EU’s repayment plan (Unlike the vacuous 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the 2015 referendum had this substantial referenda). The Greek people (twice) rejected the repayment plan, but the EU ignored that rejection and eventually forced to country to accept onerous financing terms that have kept Greece in a deeper recession than that which the US experienced in the so-called ‘Great Depression’ in the 1930s.

      Whether you agree with the Syriza’s politics or not is irrelevant. This is about sovereignty and democracy: Twice the Greeks voted to reject the EU’s fiscal mandates, and twice they were ignored to the benefit of the banks and to the dreadful cost of Greek workers.

      That is how the EU behaves when faced with the will of a member nation. And that’s why the unions distrust it.

  5. Jennifer Houston says:

    What exactly do you mean by ” internationalist, European-facing and outward-looking”? if the last two or three years have been extremely “international”, in fact most of the countries of the world seem to be singing from the same hymnsheet. Most of the policies we have seen from the Scottish and British governments have come straight out of the unelected World Economic Forum (aka Davos), which many people have never even heard of. Politicians from all over the world go there and meet with the 100 biggest companies, behind closed doors, and plan for the entire world. A lot of people on both left and right seem to be happy to take their coin – including Open Democracy (look up who funds them!) They also groom and cultivate a lot of politicians around the world – Macron, Trudeau, Ardern to name a few – see here etc:

    The European Union is going down a very negative route as well, and the UK is following behind more slowly. They seem to wish to “track and trace” every move of their citizens’ movements via QR code IDs – not the behaviour of a free and democratic society. You shouldn’t have to ask government permission to do everything, go anywhere etc That’s something big business can adapt to easily but small businesses are bankrupted by. The SNP seem to be mostly on board with this.

    Is this the kind of internationalism and outward looking set up we want? Where Scotland is run as a region of Britain as part of the European area by unaccountable figures in some kind of shadowy conferences? This isn’t some kind of “theory”, it’s real. If you read their own literature they even tell us what they want to do. Trade unions are a minor inconvenience to these people, they’re beyond left and right,

  6. Jim says:

    I have no doubt that remaining in Brexit Britain under the Tories will see a further attack on the right to take effective industrial action. Therefore as a Trade Unionist and supporter of Independence I think it’s important to remove the legislation that makes it harder to strike, remove zero hours contracts, remove the fire and rehire policy and to give full rights and recognition to Trades Unions. Let’s create a different Scotland, where workers can organise not hampered by Tory anti-union laws.

  7. Niemand says:

    ‘The number of the beast seemed somehow appropriate for Burnley’s vote ‘

    What do you really men by this? It comes across as a crass thing to say that shows deep misunderstanding of the Brexit vote but then the lack of real knowledge of south of the border on these pages combined with regularly demonisation makes it hardly surprising.

    1. 220630 says:

      The ‘666’ reference is a classic example of demonisation.

      Prepare yourself! This is going to be the level of debate this time around too.

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