Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016 was driven by many factors, but one is often overlooked: the dismantling of trade union power and workers’ rights. When Britain voted in a referendum which, for many, was asking them “Are you happy with the status quo?”, workers had suffered the longest squeeze in wages since the Battle of Waterloo. The halving of trade union membership since 1979 – a collapse particularly marked in the private sector, where membership is now little over 13% – contributed to this protracted stagnation.
Workers, after all, had been stripped of bargaining power when it came to demanding higher wages. Simplistic generalisations often made about the triumph of leave should be avoided – most full-time and part-time workers voted to remain, as did a majority of those whom pollsters classify as working class under the age of 35 – but that real wages had fallen or stagnated for so long fuelled the disillusionment that Brexit fed on. When rightwing Brexiteers argued that migrants were undercutting wages, they were redirecting blame away from the weakening of unions and the so-called “flexible labour market” – but they had a receptive audience. In many ex-industrial areas, the replacement of jobs that had security and prestige with ones lacking both fed that disenchantment: the ingenious slogan “take back control” appealed to many for a reason.
How perverse, then, that the Brexit deal may only accelerate the justified grievances that helped drive the referendum result in the first place. According to new research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), workers’ rights – along with environmental protections – are at serious risk of degrading because of the trade deal. The agreement specifies that if Britain fails to keep to a “level playing field” on social and environmental protections – designed to prevent a race to the bottom, where Britain slashes rights to attract businesses to its shores – then the EU could respond with tariffs. But the IPPR believes the burden of proof is so high that the government could easily water down protections. That would mean it was unscrupulous bosses who took back control, not their workers.
This should set a challenge for Britain’s weakened labour movement. It is certainly up against it: as Tony Blair put it in 1997, even after Labour’s planned reforms the country would still have “the most restrictive union laws in the western world”, and David Cameron’s 2016 Trade Union Act made strike action even harder. The number of workers on zero-hours contracts has sharply increased, and the rising trend of agency and temporary workers with precarious terms and conditions has been accelerated by the pandemic.
However, there are examples of unions successfully defying defeatism. The Communication Workers Union prides itself on using the power of mobilising people to defy the punitive thresholds needed to legally go on strike: in a ballot in 2019, more than 97% of postal workers voted for industrial action. Two smaller unions – United Voices of the World and the Independent Workers of Great Britain – have shown that it is possible to organise insecure workers and to win. Last month, the IWGB won a 10-year battle to end the outsourcing of cleaners at the University of London, and won a high court victory over the government’s failure to protect gig economy and precarious workers in the pandemic; earlier this year, the UVW celebrated as a major NHS trust was forced to abandon its use of private contractors.
A fight for a new “normality” after the pandemic beckons: the danger is that, as with the aftermath of the financial crash, it becomes an excuse for businesses to attack workers’ terms and conditions – so they can unfairly extract more value out of their employees – and for the Conservatives to roll back the state, aided by a Brexit deal that permits the diluting of hard-won rights and protections. You would hope that Labour – the clue being in the name – would offer leadership here, too. But its decision to order its MPs to vote for the Brexit trade deal in its entirety means it will be hard to take its objections seriously. The argument here, of course, is that Labour is voting to stop no deal, but this is a nonsense – the deal will pass in parliament whatever the opposition chooses to do. The truth is Labour is trying to win back its leave voters angry at the party for having veered into a remain direction in the run-up to last year’s election. That is legitimate, but it was the same political calculation made by Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership, leading to his vilification as a Brexiteer by those who now cheer on or say nothing about Labour voting for the hardest possible Brexit deal.
With the opposition party missing in action, it falls to the trade unions to make the case for workers’ rights, both in word and in deed. Britain’s political tumult did not land out of a clear blue sky: it was driven in large part by the social and economic consequences of the labour movement being brought to heel by Thatcherism. When the “war” is over, the government must not be left to define the “peace”: the trade unions must assert themselves in the struggles to come.