Union in EU threat over PM's plan to curtail worker rights

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Some trade unions could push for Britain to quit the EU if member states allow David Cameron to water down worker rights as part of his renegotiation, the GMB union has warned in letters to every European leader.

The GMB, which has more than 631,000 members and is one of Labour’s biggest donors, wrote to all 27 EU member states to say that any successful attempt by the British prime minister to undermine UK workers’ rights could lead many organisations traditionally in favour of membership to advocate a no vote.

Cameron has not revealed exactly what reforms he wants before holding an in/out EU referendum on Britain’s membership, but he has had discussions with 20 leaders so far about the broad areas on which he would like changes.

Later this week, the PM will use the opportunity of June’s European council meeting to push for talks to move to technical discussions at official level – a move described by his spokeswoman as an “important step”.

Downing Street has said the prime minister would like to see a reduction in red tape without saying whether any changes to employment rights are being sought.

Without any concrete publicly available details, there is speculation that the prime minister could push for an exemption for the UK from the working time directive and the agency workers directives, which are two key pieces of legislation protecting employee rights.

In advance of Cameron’s crucial meeting, Paul Kenny, the general secretaryof the GMB, warns in the letter: “British workers are already less well protected than many of their counterparts across the EU, and we urge EU governments and institutions not to allow further erosion of this situation.

“Any undermining of these rights would not only be detrimental to British workers but would create unfair competition for other EU member states based on a race to the bottom, which I am sure you will agree is not the way to go.

“I write to you today, because I, and many of my colleagues in the British trade union movement, want negotiators to understand that if the EU Commission and member state governments allow Mr Cameron and his government in the course of the reform negotiations to undermine employment and social rights and their application to British workers, then there is a serious risk that many organisations traditionally in favour of the EU will campaign for a no vote.

“This is neither bluff nor threat, but rather a statement of fact. I am sure you will appreciate how difficult it would be for me to encourage my members to vote for a worsening of their rights and protections which we have fought so hard over so many years to achieve.”

The GMB’s warning suggests the position of some Labour backers on the EU referendum is more complicated than wholehearted endorsement of Britain’s membership.

The Eurosceptic wing of Labour is currently a minority faction whose best known MPs are Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer and Kelvin Hopkins. They have formed a Eurosceptic Labour for Britain group and are also part of a cross-party steering group on the possibility of an out campaign along with three Tory MPs and Ukip’s only MP.

Stringer told the Guardian that there were around 20 to 35 Labour MPs among those who may consider joining the Labour for Britain group, despite the traditional leadership’s strong position in favour of EU membership.

“There are some people who have not had their name associated with the group who are definitely outters; there are some people who were pro-referendum who are thinking about it; there are a number of people who if the negotiation is very poor will become outters and there are some people who are think the party’s position is poor but would like to remain in.

“There is a lot of talking, we are still discussing things … I think there is increasing debate and discussion about the issue since Tony Blair succeeded John Smith and it became a non-issue.”

He said the group was trying to “stimulate a debate that has remained dormant in Labour since Maastricht” and criticised the current lack of discussion about the issue.

“It has become an article of faith that the EU is a good thing and lot of Labour MPs have never been through the argument and debate. We are trying to talk to Labour MPs, Labour party members and supporters to put the other side of that debate,” he said.

Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, has been signed up to lead the party’s “yes” campaign to stay in the EU, which is expected to be backed unanimously by the party’s frontbench, whoever is elected leader.

In common with the GMB, Johnson has also warned Cameron not to try to interfere with existing social and employment rights, including the working time directive, as part of his renegotiation.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 23rd June 2015 20.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010