Trade unions call for vote on EU reform treaty

In September 2007, the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress voted to support calls for a UK referendum on the proposed EU reform treaty. The move reflects trade union anger at the UK government’s ‘opt-out’ from the Charter of Fundamental Rights; under the terms of the treaty, the charter is to be given legal enforceability. However, the opt-out was confirmed at the Lisbon summit in October 2007, and the UK government plans to ratify the treaty in parliament.

The annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), held on 10–13 September 2007, adopted a resolution calling for a UK referendum on the EU Draft Reform Treaty. Union leaders also urged the UK government to drop the ‘opt-out’ it has secured from legal enforceability of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is to be granted under the reform treaty (UK0707049I). The ‘solidarity’ chapter of the charter guarantees a range of rights for trade unions and employees.

Key points of resolution

The resolution, put forward by the GMB general union, noted that the Labour Party’s 2005 election manifesto included a commitment to hold a referendum on the previous EU constitutional treaty. It also noted that the position of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), prior to the June 2007 European Council meeting in Brussels that agreed the reform treaty package, had been ‘no legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, no treaty’ – a demand satisfied for 26 EU Member States but not the UK.

The resolution called on the Labour government to ‘honour [its] pledge’ and hold a referendum on the ratification of the new reform treaty: ‘the pledge was right at the time of the election and is right now. Europe can only be developed with the wholehearted support of its citizens.’ The TUC was ‘bitterly disappointed that the Charter of Fundamental Rights will not apply to British workers and their trade unions, and [called] on the government to show commitment to Europe’s social dimension as this is necessary for British trade union support for the future development of Europe’.

Trade union debate

TUC delegates voted against a separate motion, which was put forward by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), calling on trade unions to campaign for a ‘No’ vote on the reform treaty in the event of a referendum.

During the debate, the GMB General Secretary, Paul Kenny, stated that the proposed reform treaty ‘clearly falls within the promises [of a referendum] made by the government to the electorate at the last election and to refuse to honour this by means of ducking and diving may cost the Labour Party at election time’. He also accused the government of ‘giving way’ to pressure from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to opt out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights ‘to ensure British workers did not get rights of access to European courts to enforce improved rights’.

Supporting the resolution, the Joint General Secretary of Unite (UK0612019I), Tony Woodley, declared that the UK government’s approach to the charter would ‘[leave] British workers as second-class citizens … If the government wants to have a social opt-out then we must demand a democratic opt-in’.

Only one speaker, representing the Community union, questioned the resolution’s support for a referendum. He expressed the view that a referendum campaign was likely to be dominated by anti-EU ‘disinformation’ and ‘xenophobia’, rather than ‘the concern which we share that the Charter of Fundamental Rights should apply here’.

ETUC view

In a speech to the conference ahead of the debate, the President of ETUC, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, told delegates:

If the treaty goes through, as I hope, we will all need to work to end [the UK] opt-out. To throw out the treaty because of the attitude of the UK government to the charter would be a setback for all the workers of Europe, especially those in the new Member States. I hope that you will reflect on this need for solidarity as you handle the difficult situation in the UK.

Commentary

The conference vote added the TUC’s voice to those calling for a referendum on the reform treaty; other groups who have taken this stance include some Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) as well as the Conservative Party, the UK Independence Party and a number of national newspapers. Trade unions are highly critical of the UK’s opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and apparently hoped that a referendum would pressurise the government into dropping the opt-out to ensure trade union support.

However, the opt-out, along with the UK’s other ‘red lines’, was confirmed at the EU summit in Lisbon on 18–19 October 2007 which finalised the treaty. Moreover, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, insisted that the treaty did not represent ‘fundamental change’, and would be ratified in the UK by parliamentary vote rather than a referendum.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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