How rights at work are best protected

Much of the debate on the left around rights at work, how they were won and how they are best protected and the role of the EU has been dangerously lacking in any real world analysis. Talking of a conflict between the role of the EU and that of the Labour movement in the UK simply a false dichotomy. However, I’m in little doubt that defending rights at work is easier in the context of the UK retaining its membership of the European Union.

Rights at work were not ‘gifted’ to people in the UK by the European Union. Nobody serious has ever suggested that were the case. These rights were hard fought for through many different struggles in workplaces and in wider society but they finally came about through positive legislation by Government’s in Parliament - significantly, but not entirely, Labour Governments elected to do so.

It is equally true to say that rights won in other European Union member states were also won in this way: progressive change argued for by the wider movement and legislated by Social Democratic governments or by winning a broader consensus for social change. The European Union was largely incidental to much of this process until in the context of its broadening role and the creation of the single market ‘level playing field’ socialists and democrats with other progressive forces organised to ensure the ‘level playing field’ also applied to rights at work. The result of that successful co-operation was a consensus to legislate rights at work into the protocols of the Maastricht Treaty. In fact you can trace the Conservative anti-European ideological shift to the reactionary response to these victories. The John Major Government, which now seems like a period of centre right moderation, negotiated opt-outs from the Maastricht Social Protocol based on their objections to protections to the rights of employees at work.

In a recurring and self-defeating lapse of memory it is rarely highlighted that the UK’s opting in to the Maastricht Social Protocol came about as a direct result of the landslide victory achieved by Labour under Tony Blair in 1997. It was never ‘forced on the UK’ by the EU. The signing the protocol was one of the first acts of the Labour government, carried out in the first week after the election. It was the first real advance in rights at work since the 1970s.

The Conservatives, with a few exceptions, from their election in 2010 would have loved to trash the rights of people at work and in some areas they succeeded. They were prevented from doing so on a wholesale basis by the practical internationalism of socialists and democrats working with the unions that had written the protection of rights into the binding international treaties that constitute the European Union. The protection of the treaties made for the best protection we had. It did, however, renew the zeal of many in the Conservative Party who wished to accelerate the race to the bottom in an ‘offshore’ Britain.

Progress for working people and the winning of rights, collective and individual protections is the stuff of practical politics and depends of winning and defending legislative gains through every mechanism available. It is also for some the stuff of romantic illusions. The Labour movement, despite sacrifice and heroism, singularly failed to defend the rights of working people against the prolonged assault of state Thatcherism. In 2019 the Labour movement is historically weak. Most strikes and industrial actions fail. In the modern economy battles will be even harder to win.

Recognising this reality is fundamental otherwise repeated defeats are the probable future.

There is a plain and simple fact. Without elected socialist government and legislated rights it is down to one simple question: without the protection of the European Union treaties do you trust Boris Johnson?