British union leader warns on EU referendum

Ahead of Dublin conference, GMB leader warns of action if workers’ rights affected

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny: said the union’s current position on an EU referendum ‘probably would be just in favour of staying in’. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny: said the union’s current position on an EU referendum ‘probably would be just in favour of staying in’. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images


One of Britain’s biggest unions has warned it will push for a No vote in the European Union membership referendum if workers’ rights are affected by the deal secured by British prime minister David Cameron.

The warning has come from GMB general secretary Paul Kenny, who will open the union’s annual conference on Sunday night when delegates gather in Dublin for the first time in more than a century.

Everyone, he said, had understood “the dream” of the EU, where it would raise the living standards of those in the poorer member states, but British workers have seen pay curbed for a decade because of the influx of EU migrants.

Currently, the GMB’s position on an EU referendum “probably would be just in favour of staying in”, but that would change if Cameron returned with “stuff that allows him to water down workers’ existing rights”.

The Confederation of British Industry and other business groups want changes to the EU working-time directive, health-and-safety rules and more, the influential trade union leader told The Irish Times.

“[If that succeeds] then I think we will say: ‘Let’s take our chances, because what is in it for us? Where is the heart of the visions that we signed up for?’,” he said. “Like everybody else, we are just getting sick and tired.”

Business leaders “will come out in hordes” to argue for a Yes vote, he said.

“But why should we stay? What happens if somebody changes the rules so dramatically that we are expected to say: ‘Yes, please, sir, can you beat me again’?

“I don’t think the level of discontent there will be should be underestimated,” he said of the notion that Mr Cameron would seek to win powers to relax EU employment protections in order to satisfy Conservative right-wingers because he could not stop the free movement of workers.

Mr Kenny said he would “be really quite upset” if the GMB ended up urging a No vote because it had become disillusioned: “I hope we don’t get there, because if we do we will have a very difficult choice.

“Trust me. If we are faced with that choice – that Europe has nothing for us as workers – then I will be saying No,” said Kenny, who warned that trade unionists could end up on the side of four million Ukip voters and others “who want out for all sorts of ideological reasons”.

Questioning the stand taken on the EU referendum to date by Labour’s leadership candidates, Mr Kenny said: “I am amazed that Labour people are saying that they will be supporting staying in when they haven’t seen one dot on a page yet. What is that? A blank cheque?”

Criticising employers’ conduct, he said some have realised that they can recruit labour in one part of the EU and bring it to the UK and “pay it for a lot less”. “By any stretch of the imagination that was not the dream,” he added.

However, Mr Kenny, the son of Irish emigrants, insisted repeatedly that he is not criticising migrants who come to work in Britain: “Blame the exploiters, not the exploited. I’m old enough to remember the ‘No Irish’ signs.

“Because of my accent I never got that treatment, but I know my dad did and my uncles did and my brothers did. So it is a pretty sore subject,” he said.

He rejected Conservative charges that migrants are abusing UK welfare.

“Stop benefits? I’ll take you on any trains coming into London at six o’clock in the morning. Those trains are packed. They are not going into town to claim benefits. These are working people.

“I could show you hundreds of people waiting for a day’s casual work. The last time I saw that was at Cricklewood Broadway with Irish lined up being picked up by the subbies,” he said.

Highly sceptical that Mr Cameron could deny tax credits to foreign workers, Mr Kenny said: “I can’t see how he will get it. You can’t have two people working side by side getting different pay. It doesn’t seem obvious or fair.”

Mr Cameron cannot win changes to free-movement rules “[But] there must be a disincentive for people to come, or he must change [those] rules. Otherwise they will continue to come. Why wouldn’t they?”