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Trade Union movement must reconnect with working class post-Brexit

I want to see a thriving trade union movement rooted in the lives of ordinary working-class people, reflecting their wishes and fighting their corner.

by Paul Embery
February 1, 2017

Paul Embery is the Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and National Organiser of Trade Unionists Against the EU.

It isn’t just the Labour Party which needs to find a way of reconnecting with the working-class in the wake of the Brexit vote; it’s the trade union movement too.

By throwing its weight behind the Remain campaign, the trade union establishment estranged itself even further from the millions in working-class communities who should be its natural audience but do not see trade unionism as being relevant to their lives.

Many trade union leaders ended up in the bizarre position of lining up with the Establishment to defend a neoliberal, austerity-promoting, pro-privatisation, undemocratic institution, so many of whose laws are explicitly anti-socialist. They didn’t trust British workers to defend themselves outside the EU, so they took a position of ‘better the devil you know’. It was ultra-cynicism masquerading as strategy.

The portrayal of the EU as some great guardian of workers’ rights was always overblown. Most advances won by working people in Britain – such as the minimum wage, trade union recognition, equal pay, and health and safety – came about through our own parliament as a result of trade union campaigning.

The suggestion that such protections will simply evaporate when we leave the EU is implausible. And those making such a claim should explain why it is that, even under the current Tory government (which is certainly no friend of workers), existing arrangements for things like annual, parental and maternity leave are better than the minimum requirement set by the EU.

By arguing that workers’ rights could be secured only through the EU, trade union leaders devalued the many victories won by the movement in the past and undermined confidence in what we can achieve in the future.

Having called it badly wrong, they should have moved quickly after 23 June to get on the right side of the argument by applauding working-class people for their courage in defeating the Establishment, embracing the opportunities presented by Brexit and showing that they were in tune with the people they claim to speak for.

But the signs are that they haven’t learned those lessons. The TUC perversely bemoans the long overdue fall in the pound – a welcome and necessary thing if we are ever to revitalise manufacturing in this country.

And, on free movement, union leaders remain ambivalent at best, criminally silent at worst. This disastrous policy, which commodifies workers, atomises society and contributes to the undercutting of wages, has, more than anything else, contributed to the rupture between working-class communities and the political class.

I want to see a thriving trade union movement rooted in the lives of ordinary working-class people, reflecting their wishes and fighting their corner.

The trade union movement needs urgently to get out of its public sector comfort zone and make itself relevant again to the masses. It will not do so by continuing to be seen as an arm of a tin-eared liberal establishment which for years was impervious to the legitimate concerns of workers.