“They pretend to be soft and cuddly do the Outers,” Gordon, an old engineering union shop steward told me, “but look at what they have done in the past and said they would do in future if they ran the country. The simple truth, Jack, is that Brexit would put at risk a generation of progress on the rights of working people,” he concluded.
He is spot on. You could not trust Boris Johnson or Michael Gove as far as you can throw them. Let me tell you a story of how six million workers had rights denied to them for a decade that ultimately were only won because we are in the European Union; rights that would go if we came out.
The Thatcher government reluctantly agreed in 1981 to introduce into British law obligations imposed by the European Union Acquired Rights Directive. The British Transfer of Undertakings Regulations, or TUPE as it was called, would protect the jobs and pay and conditions of employment of workers on transfer from one employer to another.
However, the Tories excluded six million public servants when they introduced the regulations. “It is with a heavy heart that we do this”, said one Minister, but what followed was 10 years of a shameful auction on who could pay the least to the fewest as tens of thousands of public servants were privatised with no protection on transfer. Typically wages would be cut up to a quarter, workforces would sometimes be halved and in extreme cases all of them sacked and replaced with a new and cheaper contractor workforce.
As a National Officer of the T & G, I saw the consequences throughout the 80s and the pain of those facing privatisation with no protection. I remember what happened to the caterers and housekeepers at the Fire Service Training College in Moreton-in-Marsh with local, long-serving women bursting into tears. And I remember the pain on the face of my uncle Mick, a street cleaner facing privatisation. Many of his workmates were disabled and there was no place for the disabled in that brutal 1980s world of privatisation without protection.
Then in 1990, I sat down with the Eastbourne Dustmen. Their work cleaning Eastbourne was being transferred to a contractor, UK Waste Control. But they were all being sacked and replaced with cheap labour. One Dustcart driver was a reader of the Financial Times! He read an article on the Aquired Rights Directive protecting all workers on transfer, public as well as private and said “here, we’re in Europe, why doesn’t that apply to us?”
I then took the case of the Eastbourne Dustmen to the European Court of Justice and the European Commission. I have to say those Brussels “bureaucrats” were a damn sight easier to deal with than Britain’s Tories. “Your government has broken the law,” said the European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs. “We will take action to protect British workers rights”, she said. “Why should British workers alone not enjoy the social protection of the rest of Europe?”.
And we won. In 1993, the Tory government gave in and a shameful decade of mass privatisation with painful consequence for jobs and pay and conditions was brought to an end.
This was the triumph of Social Europe over Tory Thatcherism, but that dreadful era is to where we would return if we were to leave Europe. Boris Johnson could not have been clearer. “Scrap Social Europe” he has said. Leading Tory Brexiteer Daniel Hannan has said all contracts between employer and employee should be “free contracts” with no statutory protection. There is no question but that Brexit would see a bonfire of British workers” rights.
So my friend Gordon is right. Phoney promises from Brexiteers pledging all will be well in a Britain isolated from Europe are just that, phoney. The best bet for British workers right now is to vote Remain.