United Kingdom: Referendum on continued EU membership: Views of the social partners

Ahead of the UK referendum on 23 June 2016 on the country’s membership of the European Union, the central social partner bodies, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress, both strongly support continued EU membership though not all employers and unions do so. The stance of key companies, employer groups and trade unions could prove significant in influencing the outcome of what looks likely to be a closely fought referendum.

On 23 June 2016 the UK will hold a referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. The designated lead campaign organisations are, on the ‘remain’ side, Britain Stronger in Europe, and on the ‘leave’ side, Vote Leave. The UK’s main employer and trade union organisations are also making clear their views on the issue and, to varying extents, engaging in the campaign. This article looks at the positions on EU membership adopted by the UK’s main employer and trade union organisations and their role in the referendum campaign.

Employer organisations

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is strongly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, arguing that to do so would be in the best interests of the economy, investment, jobs and living standards.

On 14 April 2016 the CBI launched a publication Two futures: What the referendum means for the UK's prosperity (PDF) detailing what the ‘two futures’ of remaining and leaving the EU may mean for British business and the UK’s prosperity. It argues that ‘a future inside the EU would secure the benefits business already receives from membership and build upon them following the prime minister’s renegotiation [of the terms of the UK’s EU membership]’. A future outside the EU is ‘uncertain and could have a lasting negative impact on the economy’.

While the CBI is not formally campaigning for a specific outcome in the referendum, it says it will continue to represent the views of its members in the debate in a way which is compliant with the Electoral Commission’s referendum rules, e.g. through the media. According to the CBI, 80% of its members say it would be better for their business if the UK was to remain in the EU.

Large companies operating in the UK generally tend to favour continued UK membership of the EU. Thirty-six of the FTSE 100 companies put their names to a letter supporting the ‘remain’ campaign. Some foreign-owned companies such as Siemens and Airbus have reportedly told their employees that they support continued UK membership of the EU and that Brexit could affect the competitiveness of their UK operations and future investment decisions.  

Exceptions to this general picture include JCB, whose chairman, Lord Bamford, has argued that the UK would be better off negotiating trade deals in its own right. The CEO of Legal & General has also publicly supported Brexit.

There are indications that small and medium-sized enterprises are more likely than their larger counterparts to favour Brexit. Among SMEs in particular, the impact of EU regulation is frequently cited as a negative consequence of EU membership. Reflecting this, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) have officially taken a ‘neutral’ stance in the EU debate (and in March, BCC director general John Longworth resigned after publicly supporting Brexit).

Nevertheless, a BCC survey in April showed that 54% of the 2,231 respondents would vote to remain in the EU (down from 60% in a similar survey in February), and that 37% would vote to leave (up from 30% in the BCC’s previous survey). The data on voting intentions reflected business size and export activity. Those trading with other EU markets expressed the strongest support for remaining in the EU, with preference for leaving being higher among those that do not. Business people representing large firms were significantly more likely to vote to remain than those in smaller businesses.

Trade unions

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has actively argued in favour of the UK remaining in the EU with the aims of preserving the range of workplace rights currently underpinned by EU law and maintaining the jobs, trade, investment, wages and living standards it believes are reliant on continued access to the European single market. The homepage of the TUC’s website highlights a dedicated EU referendum section that provides a range of briefings, press releases and other resources supporting the TUC’s case for remaining in the EU.

The TUC recently commissioned and published an independent legal opinion (PDF) from a leading barrister identifying the ‘potentially very significant’ implications of Brexit for EU-derived workers’ rights in the UK. In the opinion, author Michael Ford QC writes that ‘It is easy to contemplate a complete reversal of the gradual increase in social regulation protecting workers which has taken place since the 1960s’.

Commenting on the legal opinion, the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:

‘Voting to leave the EU is a big risk for everyone who works for a living. Brexit would mean working people are haunted by years of uncertainty, as rights like paid holiday, parental leave and equal treatment for part-timers and contract workers could be stripped away over time. The EU guarantees these rights, but generations of trade unionists fought for them. If we lose them because of Brexit, it could take generations to get them back again. The biggest cheerleaders for Brexit think that protections at work are just red tape to be binned. Bad bosses will be rubbing their hands with glee if Brexit gives them the chance to cut workers’ hard-won protections.’

The TUC has also published a series of briefings highlighting the risks of Brexit in a range of other areas including the National Health Service, women’s rights and race equality.

A number of major TUC-affiliated unions are similarly campaigning in favour of remaining in the EU, including the two largest, Unison and Unite. The position of the TUC’s third largest affiliate, GMB, is less whole-hearted. It describes its stance on the issue as an ‘angry yes’: the GMB says it will ‘fight to make Europe a Europe that works for working people, not big businesses, but we can only do that from within, not by leaving’. Some other unions have yet to determine their formal position on the issue.  

Exceptionally, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers' Union (RMT) and the train drivers’ union Aslef are both campaigning to leave the EU. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is supported by the RMT and officials and activists from some other unions, is also running its own ‘leave’ campaign to make ‘the socialist case against the EU’.

Commentary

The stance of key companies, employer groups and trade unions is predominantly in favour of remaining in the EU and could prove significant in influencing the outcome of what looks likely to be a closely fought referendum. The UK government recognises this and in April Brexit campaigners accused prime minister David Cameron of making eleventh-hour concessions over some of the most controversial provisions of the Trade Union Bill in order to secure more active union campaigning in support of UK membership of the EU.

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