This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment web site
There is a European solution to this made-in-Europe problem
2 February 2009
In his diaries for 1968, Tony Benn records the ugly scenes as workers marched past the Commons demanding that Labour adopt the anti-foreigner and ultra-nationalist rhetoric unleashed by Enoch Powell.
The simmering nationalist tensions stoked up by the Daily Mail's campaign against Polish workers or the vulgar anti-European xenophobia of William Hague and cohorts among Tory and Ukip MPs has now come to life, as construction workers demonstrate against a handful of Italian workers on the cold Humber coastline.
Sadly it has been Labour MPs who have given voice to the nationalist-protectionist rhetoric unleashed by the dispute. There are 2 million Britons living and working in EU countries, and if they faced the kind of abuse the Italian workers have received there would be a national outcry in Britain, and rightly so.
If the new rule is that British employees in Spain, France, Germany or wherever have to be fired to make way for nationals, then it is British families who will suffer most. Half the patients on GP lists are looked after by doctors who did not train in Britain. A few years ago it was "Pakis" taking jobs. More recently, Poles. Now it is Italians.
When the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet generation of British building workers went to work in Germany in the 1980s, German trade unions protested they were undercutting German union agreements.
With the British genius for turning everything into a bit of a laugh, we made a TV comedy series out of a serious problem. Perhaps there is some Italian scriptwriter currently working on an outline about a British labour market of some 30 million people that found itself unleashing headlines about just 300 Italians.
Unite negotiated the wages of the Italian workers, and insisted on a tea break – or perhaps it should be a cappuccino break – in the best tradition of trade union bargaining.
But for those who want to segment workers into competing national, ethnic or racial blocks, the TV scenes of workers holding up placards insisting that British workers should get British jobs is a gift for rightwing nationalists.
Some questions need to be asked. Why did no British company win the contract to expand the Total refinery? One Labour MP wrote in the Guardian that Total was a US oil company. It is French and largely state-owned. This is a made-in-Europe problem and we need a European solution, not a Daily Mail response of hate against non-Brits.
And there is a solution on the horizon. Both the Labour party and the trade unions should now begin to take the European parliament election in June extremely seriously, as our MEPs and MEP candidates have come up with the answer to the oil refinery dispute.
The manifesto of the Party of European Socialists, endorsed by Labour, contains clear pledges to deal with the problems thrown up both by the angry construction workers and other issues arising from the tensions of the right of workers to work anywhere in the EU and the right of unions to expect that national and local agreements will be honoured.
The Labour-PES manifesto says that there should be "a social progress clause in every piece of European legislation". Labour MEP candidates will also fight for:
A European pact on wages, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and setting out the need for decent minimum wages in all EU member states, agreed either by law or through collective bargaining and applying both to citizens and migrant workers.
The manifesto insists that: "Social rights include the right to a fair level playing field for workers." And Labour MEPs – if elected – also commit themselves:
To prevent the exploitation of workers and strengthen their rights to collective bargaining. Recent European court judgments have created uncertainty about workers' rights and collective agreements. Together with the social partners we will examine the impact of the Viking, Laval and other judgments to ensure that rights are not undermined. A review of the EU Posting of Workers Directive is essential.
This is language that working people and their unions in Britain should support. So instead of following the Daily Mail/Tory/Ukip line that Britain needs less Europe, we should be saying out loud that a vote for Labour in June can help deliver policies that will defend worker's interests.
Now it is over the Unite and other unions; Let them put their weight behind a campaign to deliver core Labour votes for our European parliament candidates in June. If they do not and Labour ministers and MPs continue to regard the EU as something best not mentioned in decent political company then do not be surprised if the nationalist-protectionist rhetoric gets worse while worker rights across Europe, irrespective of the passport each worker holds, get weaker and weaker.
The PES manifesto is available here.