Will workers have greater rights if treaty is ratified?


LISBON: THE E-MAIL DUELS:In another of our e-mail duels over the Lisbon Treaty, SHAY CODY, deputy general secretary of Impact, the largest public sector trade union which is supporting the Yes campaign, crosses swords with JIMMY KELLY, Irish regional organiser of Unite, which supports a No vote, over workers’ rights

Shay Cody:As we face into the stark realities of deep economic recession, it is vital that Ireland retains its position as a respected and fully committed member of the European Union. Our economic fate will not be helped by adopting a position of remoteness from a union that has been good for the economy and Irish workers since we joined in 1973.

No one would argue, least of all me, that Lisbon is a solution for all the problems facing working people or their unions. We can both agree that trade unions will have to continue to campaign for a “social Europe”, which insists that the protection of workers, citizens, communities and the environment are as important as markets and cross-border trade.

The most progressive workplace legislation we have has been made possible by the social Europe approach, and provides strong evidence of the long tradition of solidarity within the EU.

While it doesn’t solve all our problems, most unions in Ireland and Europe believe Lisbon ratification would immediately give supporters of a social Europe an opportunity to help win improved rights for workers, consumers and citizens. If the treaty is ratified, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights would be established as primary EU law for the first time.

The first and immediate benefit of achieving full legal status for the charter is that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would have to place as much weight on the charter as it does on other EU laws and treaties.

I find it extraordinary, Jimmy, that you have taken a negative position on Lisbon given that it puts the Charter of Fundamental Rights at the centre of the European legislative process, which in turn will give workers the opportunity to vindicate their rights in the ECJ. Both the UK government and your own union (Unite) in the UK, have recognised the potential of the charter for workers. To avoid improved legal rights for its workforce, the UK government deliberately opted out of the charter when it ratified the treaty last year. Your trade union colleagues decried that decision, which renders your own position all the more puzzling.

If workers were to take your advice and reject the treaty, the charter will have no legal status in Europe and Irish and European workers will be subject to the current status quo, under which collective bargaining rights are less secure. That is why the majority of unions in Ireland and Europe want Lisbon and the charter passed in the referendum.

Jimmy Kelly:We should ensure that Ireland is a fully committed member of the European Union. I have no argument on that. The good news is that whatever the result of the referendum we will continue to be a fully committed member – just as the French and the Dutch remained fully committed and respected even after they killed off the EU Treaty.

It is a shame however, that commitment to a social Europe and respect for social partners is sorely lacking from this Government. They must be very pleased you are backing them on this. I’m disappointed you cannot see the hypocrisy in the Government calling on workers to vote yes to Lisbon and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, while at the same time point blank refusing to enact that same charter into our own national law.

Under Article 28, workers are entitled to free collective bargaining as a “fundamental” right in accordance with “national laws and practice”. In Ireland, those laws and practice deny Irish workers this right.

During the last campaign, a number of trade unions called on the Government to commit to legislating for the rights contained in the charter. The Government refused, saying this was a matter for social partnership negotiation. Though when farmers’ organisations demanded a veto on the WTO talks in exchange for their support, Fianna Fáil fell over themselves to placate them.

Shay, you and I sat together through the last negotiation. The Government point blank refused to legislate for collective bargaining. They allowed Ibec to veto it. How does that sit with their respect for the Charter of Fundamental rights?

We need to take a stand on behalf of all of our members and indeed for all working people across Europe. You and I and all trade unionists can stand together and demand that unless the Government commits itself to legislate for the rights contained in the charter, we will together call for a No vote. After all, we would only be demanding that the charter be actually implemented.

What would happen if we did that together, Shay? Even at this stage, the Government would have to take heed. Their bluff and bluster on rights would be exposed and they would have to accede to our demand.

This is the strength of social solidarity.

That is how workers throughout Europe won the rights they enjoy today; by standing together, and it would gain for Irish workers something that we haven’t been able to obtain after 20 years of social partnership.

SC:We cannot assume that rejection of Lisbon will mean “business as usual”. That is a view that underestimates the degree to which we will have pushed ourselves further away from a union that provides the best opportunities we have to get out of recession while at the same time gaining potential benefits from the inclusion of the charter. In summary, rejecting Lisbon achieves nothing.

The two largest unions in the State, Siptu and Impact, which between them represent the interests of more than 280,000 workers, are backing ratification of this treaty because it is the right thing to do. It has nothing to do with backing the Government. To suggest that we are misrepresents our union’s support for ratification. All of the problems you have identified in your correspondence concern the Government of this State. It is clear that you are unhappy with this Government, many people are, but by focusing on that you have not identified what it is about the Lisbon Treaty that is objectionable to you.

By supporting a Yes vote for Lisbon, our aim is to bring the State closer to the social European model. As you point out, the Government may indeed lack the commitment to a social Europe. With the charter placed at the centre of the European legislative framework, ratification brings the State (and our Government) closer to a social Europe. The Government’s commitment, or lack thereof, to social partnership is not being assessed in this referendum. Neither is the Government’s performance; the next general election, whenever it might be, is a more appropriate forum for passing judgment on those issues.

A whole array of very progressive interests have lined up to support Lisbon. Are you suggesting that we vote against them too? In supporting Lisbon, we have to ask ourselves, will the treaty diminish the rights of workers or worsen their circumstances? No, it will not. Does it have the potential to enhance their rights and improve the current situation? Yes, it does.

We are stronger, as a movement representing workers, walking into the European Court of Justice with the charter in our hands than if we were to go in without it. Lisbon has the potential to nudge this State closer to a social Europe. Rejecting it pushes us further away from where we need to be.

JK:As trade unionists it is essential that this Government – or a new one – actually takes the charter seriously to the point they will commit to implementing it. You say to put that argument back to another day. That has been done for 20 years and still no action.

All the talk about the benefits of the charter completely breaks down on the crucial issue of collective bargaining. Whether we have the “charter in our hands” or not will make no difference to this central issue.

You are concerned that failure to pass the Lisbon Treaty will deny the protection of the charter on other issues. Don’t be. The European Court of Justice already takes the charter into consideration when adjudicating on workers’ rights issues. In the Laval case, they stated clearly: “The right to take collective action must be recognised as a fundamental right which forms an integral part of the general principles of community law, the observance of which the court ensures . . . as is reaffirmed by Article 28 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, it is to be protected in accordance with community law and national law and practices”. It takes the charter into account, but it still rules in favour of business rather than labour. Without political will stronger than is contained in the Lisbon Treaty, the court will continue to follow this path, to the detriment of workers’rights.

The rights contained in the charter are already treated as fundamental rights by the European Court.

Returning to the central issue – what is the benefit of a fundamental right if it has no force here? Why should the charter’s remit stop at our borders? What is at stake in this referendum is the very integrity of those fundamental rights – an integrity compromised by the actions of the Government. This is both a European and a domestic issue.

I’m disappointed, Shay, you did not address my suggestion. I’ll repeat it again: all trade unionists should stand together and demand that the charter be implemented, namely Article 28. I believe it would put such enormous pressure on the Government they would have to concede. We can knock about any number of scenarios. But this is a concrete course with a concrete goal I’m proposing to you. Isn’t that a course worth considering – to ensure we get the actual benefits of the charter and not just words written in invisible ink?

SC:Jimmy, since we commenced this exchange of views, it is becoming clear that the Irish political system is beginning to address the logical consequences for Ireland if the treaty is passed and the Charter of Fundamental Rights acquires legal status.

Labour, and more recently Fine Gael, have committed to introducing domestic Irish legislation to give effect to the charter commitment to collective bargaining rights.

This is a significant development which both of us have welcomed. Fine Gael has expressly stated that their new position derives from the implications of the charter becoming law. Only one thing can stop the Charter becoming law. That would be if, in the unlikely event of Irish voters rejecting Lisbon, the current situation was maintained, perhaps indefinitely.

We both know that this would be unsatisfactory and would represent a significant setback for Irish workers rights. The correct strategy is to support the Lisbon vote, copper-fasten the commitment of the opposition partners to legislate for collective bargaining rights, and put it up to Government to match that commitment.

If the Government says no, we can deal with the matter at the time of the next general election. In the meantime, let’s secure the current advances and support Lisbon.

JK:It’s disappointing that you have not addressed the one point I put to you, the one that would give us the best chance of seeing the fundamental rights of Irish workers implemented alongside the passage of the Lisbon Treaty. Instead, you propose that we pass the treaty and wait for some unspecified period in the future when something might happen if certain things play out this way or that.

We’ve been waiting ever since 1951 when the State signed the ILO Convention guaranteeing collective bargaining rights. We’ve been waiting since social partnership began in the late 1980s and successive governments promised to address the issue. In the last referendum, we were told to wait by the Taoiseach until the next social partnership negotiations. Don’t you see a pattern here, Shay? A pattern of denial whereby at each turn working men and women continue to go without this basic labour right. And you want to continue this pattern?

A better course is for Irish workers to adopt the same course as European workers over the previous decades, and stand up for their rights. Do you imagine Shay, that all those labour rights enjoyed throughout the continent were just handed down by the political and corporate elites out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they were won through the hard work of the workers themselves. Let’s do that here. Let’s stand up and demand the charter, demand the rights other European workers have. It won’t be easy, but it beats waiting around hoping that at some time in the future the higher-ups will deign to grant us what we have a right to.

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