(This article also appears on the Workers Liberty website and in the AWL’s paper Solidarity)
If the bankruptcy of the trade union bureaucracy were in any further need of demonstration, then the antics of soon-to-depart GMB general secretary Sir Paul Kenny over the European Union (EU) referendum adds a new chapter.
First, Kenny orchestrated a motion to the TUC Congress, which would have pledged the trade union movement to campaign for Brexit if David Cameron extracted some concessions from other European powers on the working time directive, agency workers and other workers’ rights. The key phrase was: “Congress gives notice that it will campaign for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum if these rights and protections are removed.”
After some behind the scenes horse-trading, Kenny withdrew the resolution in favour of TUC general council statement. This softened the stance, warning the prime minister that “you will lose our members’ votes to stay in the EU by worsening workers’ rights”. It added that if British workers’ rights were further undermined, the “pressure to put TUC resources and support in the referendum behind a vote to leave the European Union will intensify dramatically”.
Kenny spoke to the resolution and rhetorically repeated his threat in the Congress debate on Tuesday 15 September. He said: “If Cameron secures the sort of cuts to workers’ rights he is seeking — will you be able to stand up and say to members and beyond that ‘yes — we know your protection under the working time directive and rights to proper earning on holiday pay are going, yes — we know crucial rights for agency workers are going, that health and safety laws designed to protect the work life balance are being denied to you, that free trade agreements threaten your job and your public services. But forget all that — We want you to vote yes to support these attacks.”
Second, Kenny made a similar attempt at Labour Party conference on 28 September. This time the GMB motion was composited, with Kenny moving the resolution so as to add his own caveat. Actually the motion stated: “Conference supports the membership of the EU as a strategic as well as an economic asset to Britain and the Labour Party approve of UK membership of the EU”, adding that “Conference recognises that Europe needs change, but notes that the path to reform is working with our allies across Europe”.
Kenny put his own spin on it, stating that “Free movement of labour has become the right to exploit workers in one member state by employment of people through the now notorious umbrella agencies”. He chastised Labour Party leaders who “by blindly embracing a Europe at any price, merely encourage Cameron and the CBI to push for even more attacks on working people”.
Kenny penned a crass justification of his position, published in the Morning Star on the same day. Kenny criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to vote to stay in the EU in the referendum and fight for reform. Kenny opined: “This retreat on the European Union is a big mistake. The EU needs reform. All those ideals of a social Europe, of solidarity and raising pay and conditions to a standard, have been lost. The EU has become an exploiters’ charter.” Apparently, because Cameron is going around Europe trying to sell off working people’s rights “Jeremy’s original ‘wait and see’ position was correct. So why give them a blank cheque? That’s bad negotiating tactics.”
Kenny pretends he is conducting negotiations, when in fact he’s not even at the table. It is no blank cheque to commit to staying in the EU and pledge, as Corbyn has, that a future Labour government would overturn any opt-outs that Cameron secures. In fact such a position is more likely to persuade other European leaders not to give ground to Cameron. Even if Cameron were able to extract some concessions, it would take workers in Britain back to the situation in 1993, when the UK belonged to the EU but the Tories opted out of the social chapter. Most unions then were for staying in, for good reason.
Instead of seeking to fight alongside workers across Europe to level up rights and protections, Kenny appears to think that if his poker game fails, somehow leaving the EU will be okay for workers. What Kenny fails to explain is how leaving the EU would strengthen workers’ rights. A Tory-driven “leave” campaign might topple Cameron, but only to replace him with someone more right-wing like Johnson. And a Eurosceptic-led Tory party would immediately slash workers’ rights even further in pursuit of trade deals and concessions with world markets. Kenny’s position is strategically wrong and tactically completely inept.
Kenny then makes a classical sleight of hand, exclaiming “And Labour wants us to fund the In campaign, to stand on platforms next to Tory bastards and then to convince our members to swallow it?” To campaign alongside the Tories, he warns, would be “as bad a mistake as it was in Scotland. Worse.”
This is nonsense. The “quit EU” camp, will be dominated by reactionaries such as Lawson, Farage and quite probably a few current Tory cabinet members. The risk of being pulled behind them is not hypothetical. Already the anti-EU Pledge campaign, driven by right-wing Torie, has roped in the RMT union (briefly) and Labour MPs such as Jon Cruddas, John Cryer, Kelvin Hopkins, and Ronnie Campbell.
The composition of the two camps does not determine the working class policy: socialists and trade unionists must make our independent stand based on the best assessment of working class interests.
Kenny also echoes Tory anti-migrant talk. The EU is simply “transporting people with lower living standards to new places in order to further lower living standards”. He told the Stalino-nationalist Morning Star that “he’s pleased that so far, the social conflict this can cause has not got out of hand. But he’s in no doubt that that’s thanks to unions, not politicians”.
This is a mealy-mouthed way of saying the problem with the EU is too many migrants and that the only way to protect “British” labour is to put up the border controls. Kenny dissolves internationalism with this stance: workers in Europe, migrants or refugees are irrelevant to his main concern: namely, British workers.
Beneath the veneer is a callous narrowness, a shameful chauvinist sectionalism, that can have no place in the labour movement. His anointment by the British ruling class brings his career in the trade union movement to a fitting conclusion. But no workers should follow his abysmal counsel.