Charter of Rights makes Yes vote important for trade unions

Thu, May 22, 2008, 01:00

OPINION:Lisbon offers some major advances for workers' rights and should be supported, writes  PETER McLOONE.

YESTERDAY'S DECISION by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to call for a Yes vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum didn't happen because we think the treaty is a panacea for workers' rights and decent public services. Rather, it came from a belief that, on balance, the treaty gives trade unions and other social progressives more and better tools to defend working people and the public services they rely on.

I can understand why people are sceptical about proposals from the European Commission, particularly when they're delivered in the "Eurospeak" that most of us find confusing and unnecessary.

Many trade unionists are disenchanted with the current commission, which is probably the most neo-liberal ever. But, objectively, this is a good reason to support a treaty that gives more power to the European Parliament, which has generally been an ally in our efforts to temper the commission's neo-liberal leanings.

One recent example of this is the parliament's active role in blocking the commission's worst excesses on the recently adopted services directive, giving voice to the concerns of trade unions, poverty advocates and consumer groups across the continent. Those who claim to want progressive European social policies should ask themselves some hard questions before blocking a treaty that helps Europe's only directly elected chamber to deliver them.

But, from a trade union standpoint, the strongest argument for supporting the treaty is that it would give legal force to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights for the first time.

The charter includes workers' rights to have unions negotiate on their behalf and to take collective action, including strike action. These are rights that Irish unions are fighting hard to achieve against a backdrop of Government resistance and the Supreme Court's extremely narrow interpretation of workers' representational rights in last year's Ryanair ruling.

It's true that the right to collective action in Article 28 of the treaty would apply as a fundamental right only when EU law was being implemented. But this is a big advance on the current situation, not least because so much Irish law governing employment, trade, competition and public procurement is rooted in Europe. If these rights are endorsed by the Irish people in a referendum, it's hard to see how the Supreme Court could totally disregard them in other contexts.

In any case it would be fundamentally illogical to oppose something that's important to us, albeit in imperfect form, while we are simultaneously looking for the same thing to be introduced in domestic law. Taking a broader perspective, the charter is a prize that trade unions across Europe have pursued for many, many years.

The weakest argument I've heard from trade unionists opposed to the treaty is that we should vote against because of recent decisions in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This argument invokes three recent cases - all of them quite complex - in which the ECJ ruled against unions on some or all aspects of cases about collective action and the enforcement of collective agreements.

The obvious response to this argument is that rejecting the Lisbon Treaty would not change the legal force of these rulings, even if it meant losing the Charter of Fundamental Rights. In other words, we would gain nothing and give up a lot.

The European Congress of Trade Unions (ETUC) represents over 60 million workers in over 80 unions across 36 countries. Some trade unionists have wrongly claimed that it's against the treaty because of the recent ECJ cases. In fact, ETUC general secretary John Monks, in a letter to Irish MEP Kathy Sinnott, has said: "We want the Lisbon Treaty adopted quickly. . . This would have helped with the recent cases."

There's also a question of consistency. In the teeth of dogged opposition from Irish officialdom, my union recently won a very important case in the ECJ, which clarified that European laws entitle fixed-term workers to equal treatment on pay, pensions and working conditions. Bad as they are, do three ECJ rulings really outweigh this and scores of other improvements - like equal pay for women, legal entitlements to paid leave, and workplace health and safety rights - which have been delivered by European institutions? The Charter of Fundamental Rights is so valuable to trade unions that last July's Ictu conference agreed that congress should support the treaty only if it gave it legal force. I was president of Ictu at the time and, in response to reports that our Government was seeking an opt-out, I sought and received a commitment to the charter from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

This commitment was reiterated with even more force by the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, at Impact's delegate conference last week. I have no doubt that this was one of the reasons that delegates burst into spontaneous applause when I announced that Impact's representatives on the Ictu executive would support a Yes vote.

But the applause was also a reflection that most trade union representatives don't take an ideological position on Europe. They are pragmatists who look towards Europe as a civilised force that has the capacity to tame the worst excesses of globalisation.

We have to let our heads rule our hearts in this referendum. Tempting as it might be to show our disapproval of the direction the commission is taking, we need the legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Those who don't give weight to this argument should ask themselves why the British government opted out of the charter, and why the Irish Government sought to do the same until warned off by Ictu.

The charter matters. It matters a lot.

Peter McLoone is general secretary of Impact trade union and a member of Ictu's executive committee