As the battle to win the EU referendum on June 23 hots up, the votes of the UK’s 6.5m union members are likely to play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome. That was certainly the view of David Cameron, the prime minister, who has sanctioned concessions in his government’s Trade Union Bill at the end of April in order to get their support in the referendum campaign.
And as the cries from either side become ever more febrile and shrill, union members may take what their own unions say a little more seriously. But for the unions themselves, there is the risk that their voice gets subsumed under the umbrella of whichever camp they are in.
Whether they are championing a vote to leave or remain, unions are ultimately concerned with improving the rights and working conditions of their members. This is something they will be hard pressed to achieve, whatever the outcome on June 23.
The bulk of Britain’s unions are campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union. The Trades Union Congress and Scottish Trades Union Congress, along with the three largest unions, Unite, UNISON and the GMB, have declared their support for a vote to remain. And a larger number of smaller unions such as the construction union UCATT, the entertainment unions, the USDAW retail workers’ union, the CWU communications’ union, the FBU fire fighters’ union, and the transport TSSA union have also stated their opposition to leaving the EU.
By contrast, only three unions – the ASLEF and RMT specialist transport unions and BFAWU bakers’ union – have stated that they will campaign to leave the EU. A further set of unions – the NASUWT and NUT teachers’ unions, PCS civil servants’ union and Prospect professionals’ union – have decided not to take a position, preferring to provide information for members to guide their decision making.
The unions campaigning for Brexit argue that the social dimension of the EU has been made worthless by the tightening grip of neoliberalism within it. This includes the pressure to privatise public services, the enforcement of austerity programmes (especially in Greece), and the undermining of the right to strike.
They say the only way to break free from this is to leave the EU. And they are confident that the vast majority of workers’ rights in the UK exist separately from those provided by the EU. Namely, that there are national laws derived from developments separate from the EU.
Unions in favour of remaining in the EU, however, are arguing for a return of the EU’s social dimension and have made their support conditional on this. Their hope is that the advance of neoliberal economic policies and deregulation can be halted and reversed.
They fear that if Britain leaves, a number of workers’ rights would be lost, as the political forces set to benefit from Brexit would be those in favour of ending various social rights. In other words, the forces of neoliberalism would be strengthened, as the Leave camp is led by the right-wing Conservative and UKIP parties.
Whether they are arguing for or against EU membership, all unions face similar challenges. They will struggle to get their voices heard among their own members, as the official campaigns are dominated by business interests with resources that will likely crowd out what the unions are fighting for.
For the same reason, unions will likely struggle to hold the victors to the reasons why their members voted once the referendum is over. Ultimately, unions on both sides seek the same result from the referendum, but have a different approach to achieving it.
Plus, the debate on employment and the economy will be restricted in practice to whether there are more or fewer jobs available if Britain leaves or stays rather than any discussion about the quality of these jobs, the pay offered or whether they are unionised or not.
But underlying this is a much more fundamental challenge for both sides – to explain how voting one way or the other will strengthen the rights of workers. Whatever the result of the referendum, the victors will be right wing political forces that traditionally are hostile to workers and their unions.
This is important because union members on both sides of the debate aren’t in a sufficiently powerful position to influence the respective campaigns – nor help determine the political settlement after June 23, no matter which way the vote goes.
Thus, if there was to be a leave vote, the dominant forces from June 24 onwards are in favour of further deregulation of the labour market, with the exception of migration controls. Similarly, if there is a vote to stay, the UK’s Conservative government will be boosted in its project to continue shrinking the state, along with opening up even more unfettered opportunities for business and diminishing the power of unions with the Trade Union Act 2016. Without a strong voice, the referendum is a lose-lose situation for unions.