Raph Piggot (Feedback, January SR) correctly attacks the EU for its role in imposing austerity on Greece and now Italy. However, the EU’s Social Chapter safeguards many workers’ rights — its working time regulations imposes a limit of 48 hours a week; young people under 18 are protected from super-exploitation by not being allowed to work more than 40 hours a week. Equal pay has been enshrined in EU law since 1957.
True, most of these rights were won by working class action — for example, the women’s rights won by the Ford women in their strikes of 1968 and 1984. The battle for the 8-hour day was fought across many countries since the 19th century. However, capitalists always seek to overturn hard-won rights — to make “a bonfire of regulations”. So it’s surely better that the EU supports them than not, though of course workers must always rely on their own strength.
Certainly, many workers voted Leave as a protest against austerity, imposed in 2010 not by the EU but by the Tories and Lib-Dems. But Wayne Asher’s article in the International Socialism Journal (Winter 2018) clarifies just how important petty-nationalist and anti-immigrant attitudes were. The Leave vote cannot, therefore, be seen as progressive. Raph says nothing about the defeat represented by the ending of free movement.
According to one recent poll, 59 percent now think Britain should remain inside the EU; more than 100 seats that backed Brexit now want to remain; most constituencies now have a majority that support Remain.
Brexit undoubtedly represents a major crisis for the British ruling class. However, the majority of British workers will be worse off under Brexit. Thousands of British workers could lose their jobs if firms relocate to Europe to avoid tariff barriers. This is presumably why five out of six trade unionists recently surveyed support a second referendum. Indeed, a majority of the advanced sections of the working class voted Remain — Labour voters, trade unionists, members of the nationalist parties.
Brexit means a greatly reduced influence for British trade unions within the EU-based European Trade Union Confederation. Moreover, campaigns fighting for UK workers’ rights will be outside the EU-wide campaigns.
It isn’t obvious that the best way to fight the EU is to leave. The long-term socialist unity of the European working classes will be more easily achieved if Britain remains in the EU or as close to Europe as is compatible with respecting the result of the referendum. The left’s slogan should be Remain and Replace.
Nevertheless, Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey are doubtless correct in refusing to sanction a second referendum, as this is likely to alienate working class Leave voters. The fight against austerity is the one that unites the working class — those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain.