A SEA of hands went up at Britain’s annual trade union gathering this week in favour of keeping close ties with the European Union.
Labour leaders representing some 5.6 million workers, meeting in Brighton for the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said they embraced the European single market and warned of the perils of a “hard Brexit”.
But their reluctance to commit to the single market’s requirement for the free movement of people illustrated the dilemma at the heart of Britain’s labour movement.
“We were never starry-eyed about Europe,” said Len McCluskey, leader of the TUC’s largest union, Unite. His union backed remaining in the single market with the caveat that employers should not be able to pay foreign workers lower salaries than domestic workers.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the practice of employers advertising abroad for jobs they are not advertising at home should be stopped.
She also suggested options such as reserving public sector jobs for British citizens could be of interest.
The TUC in a motion urged Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to “use all the domestic powers at its disposal to manage the impact of migration”. The RMT transport union, which campaigned in favour of Brexit ahead of last year’s referendum, was the only one of the TUC’s affiliated unions to openly oppose the umbrella body’s policy on the single market.
It accused the EU of propagating “key anti-worker policies”. “It was (former Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher that campaigned for the single market. We should be working for socialism, not collaboration with the bosses,” said RMT representative Edward Dempsey.
“The European social model is always focused on individual workers’ rights and we should remember that we’re a collective movement.”
Some leftists said that they rejected the idea of staying in the single market altogether, and were furious that the Labour Party has called for doing so during a transition period after Brexit.
But Sally Hunt, head of the University and College Union, said that immigration “enriched” British society and argued in favour of free movement of people.
“It is the employers who depress wages, not immigrants,” she said.