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Trade unionists have been told for years by eurofederalists that the EU would deliver workers' rights and full employment. However, a number of recent events have clarified the nature of the EU and shattered these illusions forever.

In December 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled in the Viking and Vaxholm cases that taking strike action was not, after all, a fundamental right under EU rules. Also in December, EU leaders in Lisbon also officially adopted the curious word 'flexicurity' as a concept.

Combined, these events represent the greatest threat to trade unionism, democracy and social progress since World War Two.

For example, 'flexicurity' makes the false promise that if workers embrace "flexibility" then job "security" will follow, surely a contradiction in terms. The architects of this new word 'flexicurity' reside in the European commission and corporate lobbyists like the European Round Table of industrialists and the concept is designed to fatally undermine collective bargaining.

'Flexicurity' demands the abolition of "overtly protective terms and conditions" in contracts which supposedly "deter employers from hiring during economic upturns". In plain language, this would mean an end to collective workers' rights. The paper also claims that "stringent employment protection tends to reduce the dynamism of the labour market" - and presumably without unions there would be a permanent economic boom..

Unite General Secretary Derek Simpson told The Times (22/1/07) that the concept "hides behind the language of equality to propose measures to force exploitation and insecurity on to every worker in Europe".

The biggest trade union in Cyprus, PEO, recently declared that 'flexicurity' represents "a very dangerous attempt to completely smash existing labour laws and gains" increasing the trend towards "casual uninsured jobs". "The changes being sought are aimed in reality at easing labour protection rules, the abolition of full and steady employment as well as the marginalisation of collective agreements," it said.

Flexicurity also suggests that contractor obligations to monitor employment legislation among sub-contractor: "may serve to restrain subcontracting by foreign firms and present an obstacle to the free provision of services in the internal market". That brings us to the recent ECJ judgments. It is no accident that both the Viking and Vaxholm cases attack trade union collective bargaining rights in Scandinavian countries, where they are enshrined in law and the constitutions. This is the social model which is most at odds with the EU where the 'smooth operation of the market', as the EU constitution puts it, overrides any other rights or considerations.

In both cases Swedish and Finnish unions sought to prevent companies paying foreign labour up to 60 per cent lower wages. The ruling claimed that while there is a "fundamental" right to take collective industrial action, Industrial action represents a restriction on the right of freedom of establishment where it makes the exercise of that right "less attractive". But industrial action is, by its very nature, an obstacle to the activities of a company and free movement. However, the ECJ has now declared in both cases that EU rules on the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour gives private firms protection against collective action by trade unions. In other words an employers' right to "freedom of establishment" trumps the right to strike.

Richard Arthur of Thompsons said that the ECJ rulings were 'absurd' and 'ludicrious' and ran roughshod over universally recognised trade union rights. It was worse, in fact, than the anti-union laws in the UK. "Tory anti-union legislation only restricted the right to strike by introducing stringent procedures in order to carry out industrial action. "However, the European Court of Justice has now given itself the opportunity to scrutinize the legitimacy and the proportionality of any given dispute and the effect on the employer," he said.

An article in Tribune recently declared that trade unionists were 'surprised' by the rulings. However, many years ago the ECJ stated in another case that: "it is well established in the case law of the Court that restrictions may be imposed on the exercise of fundamental rights, in particular in the context of a common organisation of the market". So the human right of withdrawing your labour must not interfere with the 'common organisation of the market'.

Taff Vale
Such rulings are reminiscent of the infamous judgment in 1901 in favour of the Taff Vale Railway against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for having the audacity to take strike action. The 'crime' then was known as being "in restraint of trade". Today, it is called 'freedom of establishment'. Under the renamed EU Constitution, currently being scrutinized in parliament, the ECJ - an EU institution - would gain huge new powers over member states.

The constitution also gives the EU a permanent neo-liberal orientation and gives Brussels the power to privatise - the main reason for the No votes in both France and the Netherlands. It also persuaded TUC delegates to vote against the Constitution at the TUC in 2005 and renew its call for a referendum in 2007. For instance, Article III-147 of the old Constitution gives the EU powers to enforce privatisation in any area of economic activity: "A European framework law shall establish the measures in order to achieve the liberalisation of a specific service". That provision remains in the renamed Constitution.

That is why flexicurity, EU court judgments and EU rules on 'free movement' - all enshrined in the renamed EU constitution - represent the most fundamental attacks on working people for a generation.

We are at a crossroads. If there is a European Social Model it is enshrined in flexicurity, ECJ rulings and mass privatisation and it should be rejected like the renamed constitution itself.


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