UNISON must fight for a workers’ Brexit’ that will ensure that hard-won human and workers’ rights are not lost when the UK leaves Europe, Brighton delegates agreed this week.
The union’s national delegate conferency also reiterated its desire for parliament to be central to the exit negotiations.
The alternative was that the Tory government’s internal divisions and ideological entrenchment “is in real danger of pushing the country towards a cliff edge”.
The union discussed Brexit on Wednesday, on the eve of a Commons vote that narrowly passed the EU Withdrawal Bill, in a way that continued to cast doubt on Parliament’s influence on the final exit deal.
In Brighton, James Anthony of the NEC introduced the first of three Brexit motions, campaigning for a new EU deal fit for workers, suggesting that its length was an indication “both of the impact exiting the EU will have on our union and the sheer volume of work UNISON has to do to speak up for its members.”
The issues still at stake, he said, included human and workers’ rights, the effect on public services of new trade deals, peace in Northern Ireland, and the need to ensure humane immigration policies and protect EU citizens working in the UK, including the union’s own members,
UNISON was clear that parliament should have the final say on the deal, Mr Anthony said, “and not this indecisive, chaotic, shambolic government that just can’t be trusted with our future”.
Cath McGuinness of the national disabled members’ committee spoke of the continued concern about the impact of the UK’s exit on workers’ rights, including equality rights for disabled members, women, Black and LGBT workers and others.
“Many of the protections we now have were forced on [the UK] by Europe,” she said. “A Tory government unhindered by the EU could lose many of these rights.”
Antonia Bright of SOAS UNISON reasserted the need for full freedom of movement of people between the UK and the EU, to work, study and live with their partners and families.
She warned that the most dangerous aspect of Brexit was a drive towards nationalism and racism, which threatened to separate citizens and migrants.
“Brexit is redefining who ‘belongs’ on a narrow and deeply racist basis.”
Kate Ramsden of the NEC added that UNISON’s 75,000 EU members “have been living in limbo for two years” and that their rights “need to be confirmed unilaterally.”
There are 170,000 EU citizens currently working in the UK’s health and social care, she said.
“We value and need their contributions. There is no need to remove freedom of movement. Its impact would be a disaster.”
Many speakers voiced the view that the recent Windrush scandal highlighted the horrors that can befall workers when so-called “hostile immigration” policies go unchecked.
Others supported Labour’s commitment to “stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing” and Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to ensure that the UK is not bound by pressures to deregulate and subject public services to market competition, when the UK is outside the EU.
Introducing the motion exiting the EU and devolution, Elaine Duffy of Scotland said that Westminster could use Brexit as an excuse for a “power grab” on the devolved nations.
The motion committed UNISON to campaign for an agreement that respects the devolution settlement and reflects the particular challenges facing different parts of the UK.
Linda Hobson of Northern region introduced a motion that considered Brexit’s economic impact and warns that the government is in “real danger of pushing the country towards a cliff edge.”
For example, a recent report estimated that the north-east would lose 16% of regional economic growth if a deal is not reached.
This is a region already with high levels of employment and where 160,000 jobs are directly linked to membership of the single market.
Ms Hobson said that the UK faced becoming “an isolated island of low taxation, no reregulation and low wages.”
And she added: “Nobody voted for Brexit to be poorer and to work longer hours in unsafe conditions.”
Among a raft of actions, delegates agreed that UNISON must continue to campaign for workers’ rights and quality public services to be a fundamental part of a future UK-EU agreement.
The union must also engage the public in how exiting the EU may affect:
• employment, health and safety standards;
• public services and professional standards;
• trade deals, environmental regulations and public procurement;
• freedom of movement and right to remain.
The union will also continue to fight racism, discrimination and to promote equalities and human rights.