Return Union Rights

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John Boyd argues that the proposed new EU constitution would do nothing to win back and safeguard trade union rights for British workers.

Some circles in the labour movement have been attempting to sell the new EU constitution based on its supposed protection for workers. But the right to withdraw labour isn't guaranteed in this far-reaching document, whatever its supporters might claim.

They have used the inclusion of the EU charter of fundamental rights in the new constitution to argue that it represents a good deal for workers. The 24 pages of this charter have now been inserted as section II of the 852-page EU constitution.

On the surface, their argument may appear to make sense. Article II-28, the right of collective bargaining and action, states: "Workers and employers or their respective organisations have, in accordance with union law and national laws and practices, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels and, in cases of conflicts of interest, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action." But focusing on this article and especially the concluding three words "including strike action" is a callous attempt to sell a certificate of approval for the whole EU constitution so as not to upset a largely discredited and unpopular new Labour government.

This exercise is being carried out without regard for the dire implications for democracy, peace, the public sector and public ownership, judicial matters and human rights - and the threat to trade union rights contained within the charter of fundamental rights. This was drafted four years ago by the EU commission president, representatives from member state governments, national parliaments and the European parliament.

But why did the EU even need a charter of fundamental rights, a declaration setting out human rights in member states? There is already the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and the 1989 European social charter. This became the 1992 Maastricht Treaty's social chapter, for which Britain notoriously had an opt-out until the Labour government signed up belatedly in 1997.

But despite existing human rights treaties, the EU Court of Justice stated that it wanted the EU charter of fundamental rights as a guide to making judgements and for the charter to become part of EU law and, therefore, the bloc's judicial process. In effect, it wants to add to its juristiction the power to decide the fundamental rights of citizens of member states when a case is seen as a "human rights" issue - something open to very broad interpretation. This is instead of leaving these matters to the existing Court of Human Rights.

The EU Court of Justice would then reign supreme over national constitutions and courts on all human and civil rights matters affected by EU law, deciding the boundary between EU law and national law on human rights matters. This represents a huge extension of EU powers over us all.

The labour movement should remember the role and history of the EU court. Its aim is to further the interests of the EU. This includes the European single market, which is defined as the "free movement of capital, services, goods and people" - meaning labour.

Competition is part of the ethos and thrust of the EU. It has seen so many jobs exported from Britain that trade unions have forecast that manufacturing will disappear altogether. It would be a mistake to think that the charter of fundamental rights represents any deviation from this aim.

The official "explanation" of the constitution's article II-28 states: "The right of collective action was recognised by the European Court of Human Rights as one of the elements of trade union rights laid down by article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights." It adds that the "limits for the exercise of collective action, including strike action, come under national laws and practices, including the question of whether it may be carried out in parallel in several member states." This would allow Britain to continue with its Thatcher-era anti-trade union laws.

Equally of concern for the labour movement is the threat contained in article II-52. While it doesn't lay down any specific limitations to collective action, it makes clear that such rights could be removed if it was seen as justifiable by the EU Court of Justice. Rights could be removed if it was seen as "necessary" and was designed to "genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the (European) Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others."

The EU court, not our Parliament in Westminster, would decide ultimately whether restrictions should be placed on collective bargaining, strike action or a general strike. In other words, there is no way around the restrictive trade union legislation that was imposed by Thatcher and has been kept in place by the Labour government. These are "national laws" and, under article II-28, won't be overridden by the EU.

I f current attempts to sell the constitution to the labour and trade union movement using the EU charter of fundamental rights are successful, it would leave us with fewer rights than we have now. Historically, no rights have been handed over on a plate. From the movement's roots in the Tolpuddle Martyrs and beyond, the right to collective bargaining and to strike has had to be won by workforces or trade unions using their own resources. All the rights awarded to workers have been established after great struggle and have then had to be defended.

The charter contained in the EU constitution does not sanctify the right to strike. In fact, it makes it clear that this could be taken away if there was the "need to protect the rights and freedoms of others."

The only way to get rid of Thatcherite anti-trade union legislation is through extra-parliamentary action in Britain led by the labour and trade union movement. It cannot be left to laws or charters penned by elite politicians or bureaucrats in Brussels.

It is essential that all the implications for democracy, peace and human rights, including the right to strike, are discussed and understood before a conclusion on the EU constitution is reached.

John Boyd is secretary of Campaign Against Eurofederalism and chairman of TEAM, the international alliance of 60 eurosceptic organisations. This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 2 September 2004. http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/