USDAW - Annual Meeting
To be checked against delivery
It is a pleasure to be back at an USDAW conference and this time to bring the greetings of the ETUC to the Union. It would have been a bigger pleasure if Hannett’s Everton had not beaten United last week but you all know what good losers we United fans are....
You can see that I’m not that much of internationalist despite a couple of years working out of Brussels.
It was a big change. As I told the Northern Region of the TUC, there’s pluses and minuses. I don’t get approached to buy something Pat Bottle so much, and I’m a bit better off as a result.
And while it’s a pleasure to be here, it is with sadness when considering the plight of the Littlewoods Index workers being thrown onto the scrapheap.
I know the Union is doing everything possible to help and if the ETUC can support in an way, we will.
Very understandably, the rest of the emphasis here is on the General Election on May 5. Those of us who lived and worked for the Movement through the dark days of the 80s and 90s will know how important this election - any general election - is for the trade unionism.
With that memory of the Thatcher/Major years burning so deep, with those wounds still red raw, we can never join those who have the luxury of saying there is not much difference between the parties, or that it’s time to punish the Government for the stand on Iraq. Congress I tell you, apathy is not an option for us with a conservative Party making some headway.
Just look at the time since 1997 - and compare it with what went before. Not much difference? Of course there is. Of course we want a bigger difference and we have our disappointments. But on any trade union test - and I give you four - full employment, public services, labour law, help for the poorest - the differences from the Tory years are immense.
I have looked at the Tory programme - no Warwick agreement with new rights there. Just a desire to restore the old conservative opt-out from the European Social Chapter, European Social Policy has provided a solid raft of employment rights for British workers rights like pro-rata rights for part-time and temporary workers, a minimum four weeks paid holiday, new information and consultation rights, European Works Councils and others. The Conservatives want us out from all that.
And yet I have to face it, Europe has rarely been less popular in the UK. If the Government called referenda on either the euro or the new constitutional treaty in the near future, the polls indicate that it would lose. I am engaged on behalf of the ETUC in the referendum in France - and I sense that, even there, in the country of the main originators of the European idea, the mood is surprisingly hostile.
Apart from the nationalist right and the racists from whom I expect nothing but rampant xenophobia, there is a mood of eurosceptism which encompasses some on the left, including many here - a feeling that Europe is going right-wing, becoming neo-liberal rather than social democratic; that it is facilitating jobs emigrating to cheap locations.
These points also all surfaced at a TUC conference on the new EU constitutional treaty two weeks ago. And given that there is a British referendum to be scheduled on the constitutional treaty next year, people here are beginning to turn the attention to the new constitution- of course, the French may vote it down in 5 weeks time and the UK and the trade unions might not have a decision to make. But given that the Germans, Greeks, Italians, Spanish - about half the French are supporting, I thought to provide some background and refer to the ETUC position to help inform the debates to come.
Of course the Common Market, founded 1957, was essentially just that. It was why many trade unionists did not like it.
Yet its motivation was never pure and simple capitalism. It was believed by the founding fathers - they were all men - that free trade would merge and intermingle the economies of France and Germany so that these two ancient foes, who had been at the heart of the two world wars of the 20th century, could never fight again.
And unlike the North American Free Trade Area - which remains free trade only - the European Union soon developed a social dimension; trying to balance the common market with social rules. In that system, unions became a respected social partner. That was an attractive position in Thatcher’s Britain and in 1988, the TUC changed from negative to positive on the EU.
In 1992 in the Maastricht Treaty, unions achieved the right to negotiate agreements with employers on behalf of all the workers in Europe and the agreements would become European law. The achievements have been many. I mentioned some of them earlier.
There would have been other achievements but our Labour Government, in the name of the flexible labour market and worries about unemployment levels in France, Germany and Italy where social standards are higher than here and trade union freedoms are more extensive, is resisting measures such as:
removing the individual opt out from the working time directive, and
introducing proper protection for temporary agency workers. That’s another debate for another day.
But Europe is not a neo-liberal construction even if many would like it to be. Social Europe is alive.
health services and labour law - aspire to European standards
unemployment pay - double
basic old age pensions double
Now we have this constitutional Treaty for Europe, drawn up by a convention of which the ETUC was a member.
Some want to transform Europe into an effective counterweight to the Americans, less aggressive, less military but using its economic power - for peace, for a more just world development system, for a better environment, for spreading trade unionism - a Europe which can deal with the US on an equal footing, not as a subordinate, a Europe which is different from the USA.
But it’s not just America. To be able to handle the rise and rise of China, India, Russia and perhaps Indonesia and Brazil - the new superpowers- we need this region to act together.
But others including traditionally the UK, take a different view - free trade, a single market, supremacy of nation states.
The constitutional treaty inevitably is a compromise between federalists and those pro member states. In truth, it is not easy to answer the question is it more Europe or less. In some areas, foreign policy, it’s a bit more. In others, it is a bit less - for example the power of the Commission is reduced. On voting rights, it will be much easier to run a Union of 25 states than under the current treaties.
On our areas, it is more with rights and protections for workers and unions. That is good in a time of great danger and challenge, a time of uneasiness about globalisation and Europe.
The fact is that separately we have secured a victory over Bolkestein. After an ETUC demonstration of 75,000 trade unionists a month back, that proposal is being fundamentally reconsidered. We can’t be complacent. Our opponents might come back at us but Bolkestein today looks less like Frankenstein and more like Mickey Mouse.
There are welcome commitments on full employment, services of general interest (ie. Public services) and on social dialogue.
In the constitution, there is the inclusion of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in full in the Constitution. The UK Government has sought to limit its impact in liberating our laws from the Thatcher Government but few independent legal experts think that they have.
In the Charter, there are guarantees about the rights to organise and to strike. These principles will underpin rights in the older member states and, more importantly, compel their inclusion in any new member states, for example Turkey. This is a massive blow in favour of democracy and trade unionism in Europe. Europe underpinned the return of democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece; now its doing it in Eastern Europe.
We campaigned for the inclusion of the Charter in the Nice Treaty. We did not succeed. We have now been successful.
So the Constitution is not one for a federal Europe nor unfortunately for a socialist Europe but neither is it a Constitution for untamed capitalism.
One other thing - if the Constitution is voted down, there is no alternative strategy for the EU. It will be paralysed while 25 countries scratch their heads about what to do next.
The worry must be that all social policy will stop eg the opt out. All environmental policy will come to a halt. What will strengthen is nationalism with one nation state blaming the country next door.
And what won’t stop is the workings of the market, relocation, restructuring and privatisation. International capitalism has never needed a Constitution. It fares very well in without democracy in the Middle East and China. We would benefit from a constitution - and the present text is the only one on offer now and in the foreseeable future.
Britain must never turn its back on these battles for Europe, any more than it could turn its back on the great wars of the 20th century in which the men and women of Scotland paid a particularly heavy price for the tribal conflicts of Europe. Our motivation is never again.
Securing a good European future, too, is vital for the future of trade unionism here, in Europe, and everywhere. If unions lose in Europe - the world’s strongest base by far for trade unions - we lose everywhere. Win here and we can export our model of welfare, public services and strong unions to the poor and dispossessed in the developing world.
Best wishes to USDAW.
Thanks for your attention.
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