Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, says ‘the ice is beginning to crack’ on public sector pay restrictions © Gareth Fuller/PA
Britain’s trade unions have said the country should stay in the EU’s single market for the long-term after Brexit unless any better options materialise.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the government was hurtling towards a “kamikaze Brexit” and should keep open the option of remaining in the single market.
“My challenge to all political parties is this: When it comes to Brexit, don’t box yourselves in. Don’t rule anything out. Keep all options on the table. And put jobs, rights and livelihoods first,” she will say in a speech on Monday to the TUC’s annual congress in Brighton.
“We have set out our tests for the Brexit deal working people need. Staying in the single market and customs union would deliver it.”
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, the UK’s biggest union and the Labour party’s main donor, said in a speech on Sunday: “Right now…we’d need to be convinced of a better option than continuing our membership of the single market outside the European Union.”
For several weeks the Labour party has been sending out mixed messages on Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU. Its current position is that Britain should seek to participate in the single market and customs union during a lengthy transition period after March 2019.
But Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, insisted on Sunday that the party would not seek permanent membership of the single market.
But a phalanx of scores of Labour MPs, led by former frontbencher Chuka Umunna, want Britain to remain in the single market. Tom Watson, deputy leader, said it was important to remain in the market during the transition, adding: “It might be a permanent outcome of the negotiations.”
Likewise Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, has said that a permanent customs union with the EU was a possibility — although he stopped short of saying Britain could remain in the single market. Mr Corbyn’s spokesperson declined to comment.
The general council of the TUC — which comprises the vast majority of the country’s major trade unions — gathered together last week to thrash out the movement’s new Brexit stance.
The result is a “general council statement” that states any long-term deal should meet certain tests, such as the protection of workers’ rights and continued “tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe to protect jobs.”
“We are willing to consider any proposals that would meet those tests, including negotiating a new single market relationship, or working up from a bespoke trade deal,” the statement says. “At present we should not rule out unrestricted access to the single market through continued membership outside the EU as this meets our tests.”
The statement suggests voters’ concerns about migration could be addressed without putting an end to freedom of movement.
“There are many different ways countries in the EU have interpreted free movement. The approach taken in the UK has allowed bad employers to profit whilst letting public services decline. The UK should look at other EU countries’ models of free movement,” it says.
The careful wording of the text reflects the fact there is a wide range of opinions about Brexit within the trade union movement. While the TUC campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, some unions such as RMT were in favour of Brexit.
One TUC official said trade unions were not “wedded” to the single market but could not yet see any other decent options that would protect workers. ““It’s not necessarily that we think the single market is brilliant,” she said. “[But] at the moment, the option that best meets the tests that we have set is staying in the single market.”
The general council statement was approved by the vast majority of delegates on Sunday night but there were pockets of opposition.
Some pointed out that continued membership of the single market was exactly what corporate Britain wanted. “We should be fighting for socialism, not for collaboration with the bosses,” said Edward Dempsey, speaking on behalf of the RMT.
Several other unions supported the statement overall but said they had some reservations, particularly about freedom of movement.
“The issue of free movement is a touchstone issue now,” said Dave Ward from the CWU union. “ We think it cannot be ignored that free movement without protection for workers can lead to exploitation and undercutting of pay.”