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The Brexit Vote and Inequality

Research & Commentary
June 24, 2016

by Owen Tudor

The head of international relations at the British labor federation explains the implications for workers of leaving the European Union.

Post-referendum update: Read Owen Tudor’s response to the June 23 vote in favor of leaving the European Union in which he identifies urgent steps to lessen the negative impacts of Brexit on working people. 

The commentary below was originally published by Equal Times on June 13.

With just a few days before the June 23 referendum in Britain on whether to remain a member of the European Union, it looks like the vote could come down to the wire. But unions are stepping up their call on members, their families and communities to think about their jobs, their rights at work and their pay, and vote to remain.

A few British unions have consistently opposed EU membership because of the right-wing policies of European governments, such as the attacks on Greece and on collective labour rights. And some have chosen not to get involved because of their traditions of political neutrality. But the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) and unions representing two-thirds of union members have been pressing the case for a Remain vote.brexit

Union voices are an increasingly important part of the referendum campaign, probably more than in any recent general election. Both sides have been painting themselves as the champions of social justice and working people (in some cases for the first time in their political lives!).

This contrasts with the early stages of the campaign, which was characterised by the media as a contest between upper-class Conservative politicians backed by the banks on one hand and hedge funds on the other. That’s still how some people are portraying the campaign. But union campaigning has forced workers’ concerns onto the agenda.

In large part this has helped the Remain campaign, which has focused mostly on the economy and the risks of leaving the EU. The TUC began the campaign with a hard-hitting legal opinion from one of the country’s leading employment lawyers, showing just how many workplace rights would be at risk if the UK left. Equality rights, paid holidays, health and safety, fairness for part-time, temporary and agency workers are all underpinned by EU laws.

[pullquote]EU laws underpin UK equality rights, paid holidays, health and safety, and fairness for part-time and temp workers.[/pullquote]

The economic impact of what’s known as “Brexit” has been a contentious issue in the referendum, but the vast weight of evidence has been that it would be very bad news for jobs and investment. TUC-funded research has shown that 3-4 million British jobs depend on trade with the rest of the EU, and whilst no one would claim that they would all be lost, it would be an enormous risk.

And the jobs which would be lost would be in manufacturing (the TUC estimates that the sector would be hit seven times harder by Brexit than services), which generally provides better paid, higher skilled work. TUC research showing that this could lead to average wages being £38 a week lower if the UK left the EU was – almost uniquely during the campaign – not seriously challenged.

The National Health Service will be key to the last few weeks of campaigning, even though health services are not an EU competence. Leave campaigners have argued that the NHS would benefit from cash released by not paying into the EU budget and because migrants from eastern Europe would no longer take up beds and resources if they were unable to exercise free movement to the UK.

Unions from the health service have responded by arguing that the economic damage done by Brexit would reduce spending on the NHS, and have pointed to the hypocrisy of proponents of privatisation and cuts suddenly claiming to be the saviours of the NHS.

Opposition to immigration, however, has been the main card played by the Leave campaign, and some of that has been pretty nasty. Migrants do, of course, prop up, rather than clog up, the NHS, and they are more often than not the first victims of the exploitation by bad bosses that has also undercut existing workforce terms and conditions. Unions have argued that what we need is stronger laws against that exploitation and undercutting, rather than an attempt to divide the working-class on racial grounds.

Unions and the TUC have engaged in the campaign on social media, in broadcast and print media, with educational materials for members as well as hard-hitting reports and fact sheets on key issues. We have also argued the positive case for what a future, more social Europe could look like, with campaign group Another Europe is Possible arguing a similar line. A lot of the union campaigning has been on the ground, in workplaces, not least because of tight electoral spending limits that cover communications with members as well as public campaigning.

The result is bound to be close, whoever wins, and unions will need to shift immediately from referendum campaigning to defending workers’ rights from attack if Leave wins, or pushing for more rights, and a better, more social Europe if we vote to stay in.

Owen Tudor is the Head of the European Union and International Relations Department at the British labor federation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

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