Lisbon Essay (26): A ‘No’ vote would show solidarity with the Charter and a social Europe

Jimmy Kelly of the Unite Union is one of the most respected figures of the No platform. His position is relatively straightforward. In Ireland workers protections lag hugely behind that of much of Europe. In particular he argues that the Charter for Fundamental Rights is being sold as a fait accomplai, when in fact there is no obligation for national governments to comply with its imperatives: “In effect, the Government is asking us to support the ‘form’ of fundamental rights but will refuse to implement the ‘substance’ of those rights.” His problem is less to do with LIsbon and more to do with the fact that the Irish Government refuses to co-opt the Charter into national law…

The Government wants us to vote for the Lisbon Treaty. One of their main selling points is that the Treaty contains the Charter for Fundamental Rights. Vote yes and the Charter is yours. There’s only one problem with this argument – it’s not true. Indeed, the Government has gone out of its way – in both this and the last referendum campaign – to make clear that it will not implement key provisions of the Charter into national law; namely, the right to collective bargaining.

Article 28 states: ‘Workers and employers, or their respective organisations, have, in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels . . .’

However, in Irish national law (and industrial practice), while the right to join a trade union is constitutionally protected, the right to bargain collectively is not. We are one of the few, in only, EU countries not to have such a right.

In effect, the Government is asking us to support the ‘form’ of fundamental rights but will refuse to implement the ‘substance’ of those rights.

During the last referendum, a number of trade unions demanded that, in return for their support, the Government would have to commit to implementing the Charter into law. Fianna Fail refused, stating this was a matter for ‘social partnership’ negotiation’. Of course, when the subject came up at the talks, the Government washed their hands of the matter, claiming IBEC wouldn’t support it. It can’t be much of a fundamental right if employers can veto it.

The issue of collective bargaining rights is not, as some have claimed, a sectional issue. In the first instance, it is about according all workers throughout Europe the same rights and ensuring that the Charter has equal force. Second, it is about ensuring that workers have the same bargaining rights as employers. While workers can be denied the right to professional representation during negotiation, employers are entitled to it.

It goes beyond industrial issues, however. The economic benefits of implementing the Charter into national law are considerable. Trade union membership, where it is accompanied by the right to bargain collectively, provides a wage premium for workers. Simply put, you’re more likely to earn more if you’re in a union then if you’re not (studies in Europe and the US show this premium can range anywhere between 5 and 15 percent). In addition, during a downturn, collective bargaining can protect wages and conditions.

This premium would, of course, help maintain tax revenue (wage increases are more beneficial to the Exchequer than retained profits) and shore up domestic demand. The irony is that, while some claim the right to collective bargaining would degrade ‘enterprise efficiency’, the fact is that, through the premium and increased wages, more enterprises would stay in business as consumer spending wouldn’t fall by as much as they are doing now.

In addition, collective bargaining is key to improving our productivity. The National Centre for Partnership and Performance has shown that companies where workers have the right to bargain collectively are more productive – by a wide margin – than companies that don’t. This shouldn’t be surprising. Collective bargaining is the minimum in treating employees with respect. In such an environment, productivity will be higher than in one where workers are denied such respect.

So Fianna Fail is about more than sabotaging the Charter of Fundamental Rights. They are about treating workers as second class citizens in the industrial sphere (what kind of ‘partnership’ do we have when one partner refuses to recognise the other?), exacerbating the fiscal crisis and making our economy more uncompetitive.

That’s what at stake in this referendum. Even at this late stage, it is open to the Government to reverse its position and commit itself to implementing the Charter into national law. However, until they do, the correct course is to vote ‘No’. A ‘No’ vote would show solidarity with the Charter and a social Europe.

The next step, of course, would be to bring about a change of Government, a change that will ensure the Charter is taken seriously.

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