Trade Union and Employment Forum

How the TUC learned to love the European Union and how the affair turned out

History & Policy Trade Union Forum

This was the theme of presentations by Lord Lea of Crondall (formerly Assistant General Secretary of the TUC 1978-99). John Edmonds (formerly General Secretary of the GMB and member of the TUC General Council 1986-2003), who chaired the session, supplemented this account with comments based on his own experience of the events.

David Lea

David Lea (DL) began by highlighting the European context of the late 1980s. Since 1987, moves were afoot to complete and open up the European Single Market by 1992.

He said that the Single European Act, the source Treaty for much of the EU's later integration, was signed by Lady Thatcher as British Prime Minister in 1987. She had been prevailed on to sign by her senior ministerial colleagues (the British EU Commissioner, Lord Cockfield, who ironically she had appointed to keep it in check, and her Foreign Secretary and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Geoffrey Howe), against all her own 'Eurosceptic' instincts. Lord Lea recalled the effect of the Delors speech on the wider British scene, in particular how furious it made Lady Thatcher. Her famous Eurosceptic Bruges Speech on 20th September 1988, was a response to it. She declared, "We have not embarked on the business of throwing back the frontiers of the state at home, only to see a European super-state getting ready to exercise a new dominance from Brussels."

He concluded that that Eurosceptic Bruges speech may be seen as the start of the process which led to Lady Thatcher's demise in 1990, by alienating figures like Howe (who would later savage her credibility with his devastating Commons attack on her) and the other pro-Europeans in the Cabinet. It certainly made European policy an all-consuming concern for many Conservatives throughout the remainder of her term and that of her successor, John Major.

DL pointed out that by extending the scope of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council of Ministers, the Single European Act laid the basis for a number of radical social and employment measures by the EU Commission under the determined presidency of French Commissioner from 1988-92, Jacques Delors. He said that in 1988, the TUC's approach to the Economic Union was still based on a resolution of its 1981 Congress. This reflected the hostile stance of many of its major affiliated unions (especially, the T&GWU under Jack Jones) and Labour Party under Michael Foot, seeking withdrawal from the European Economic Community (EEC, as it was then known). The 1975 Referendum had resulted in a decisive endorsement of the British decision to join in 1973, but without much enthusiasm for further integration. Despite this policy, the more pragmatic TUC leadership had participated in EEC advisory bodies from 1976, as the previous 'empty chair' policy was deemed untenable. The coal and steel unions had since the 1970s always refused to join in a boycott of the European Coal and Steel Committee (ECSC) and other unions began to play an active part in similar ones. The TUC also played a constructive role within the European Trades Union Congress (ETUC).

Background historical note

By 1988, things had moved on considerably, particularly after the slump in union influence since the emergence of the extreme right-wing Thatcher government in 1979. The major recession of the early 1980s, which destroyed much of Britain's 'smokestack' manufacturing and heavy industry, had been exacerbated by purist market 'monetarist' policies and unemployment rose to over 3million. The privatisation of the major utilities (coal, gas, electricity and water) had also led to much unionised job-shedding. Union membership had contracted from its 1970s peak of over 13 million to 7-8 million and collective bargaining was on the retreat across British industry. The process of 'reforming' (i.e., abolishing or severely restricting), traditional union activities and practices with three separate pieces of legislation (1980-84), was pressed home with the far more legalistic Employment Act 1988. This was after the defeat of the union 'shock troop' miners and printers' in bitter and protracted disputes. In this polarised situation, the TUC were being marginalised by a government who had abandoned the last vestiges of the consensual 'corporatist' tradition of all post-war administrations ('no more beer and sandwiches at Downing Street'). It was in this context that the unions' and TUC, sharp pro-European turning of 1988 must be understood. It was also a sign of their recognition that unions and their members now needed a European 'social dimension' to face the profound industrial changes occurring.

DL recalled the significance of Jacques Delors' speech at the ETUC Conference at Stockholm in May 1988. As Head of the TUC Economic Department and Assistant General Secretary, he had worked with the French Commissioner on EEC committees since the 1970s, when he had been a senior French official and so knew him well. Delors, as President of the EU Commission (1985-95), now promised that he would immediately bring before the European Council, proposals for an added 'social dimension' to the European Single Market legislation then being introduced. This would include rights to information, consultation and negotiation, as well as to permanent training. The British TUC delegation, led by Ron Todd, T&GWU General Secretary and Chair of the TUC International Committee, were impressed and recommended that Delors be invited to the TUC at Bournemouth that September. Todd was crucial to convince, as the 'T&G' had always been the leader of the sceptics on involvement with EEC ('the bosses Club'). Lord Lea worked closely with him and secured the droll response that "Well, no harm in letting the dog see the rabbit, I suppose!" (the 'dog' being the unions back home). A very popular union movement figure, Todd as T&G leader persuaded many other 'sceptical' unions to embrace the new pro-EU policy.

Delors' address to the TUC, as President of the European Commission, that autumn, finally sealed the deal. His theme was that the trade unions across Europe should regard the completion of the Single European Market in 1992 as an opportunity to give it a social dimension, rather than as a threat to members' jobs and conditions, as they had traditionally viewed the "capitalists' club". He sought to bring the still highly respected British trade union movement on board to strengthen his own social democratic efforts to incorporate an enhanced social dimension in that legislation. He assured the delegates that by preserving the European model of society, which had always included an emphasis on 'close co-operation and solidarity as well as competition', they would be able regulate the new single European market. He urged them to support him as an architect of social policies which would tackle the difficulties which the single market might give rise. He promised to initiate a wider 'social dialogue at the European level'.

Delors especially praised the TUC Report, 1992: Maximising the Benefits - Minimising the Costs, which was before that Congress, fleshing out what they meant by this social dimension. This included the establishment of a platform of guaranteed social rights such as every worker's right to be covered by a collective agreement; improvements in the labour market such as the status of temporary workers; the right of workers to life-long education in a changing society. These were the benefits the British unions could expect to see addressed.

It is a mark of the sea-change which was occurring in union thinking in Britain, at least at leadership levels, that they now believed that their members' interests might more effectively be advanced in Brussels than in London. Ron Todd's famous quip, 'the only card game in town is in a town called Brussels', probably summed up most delegates' attitudes. David Williams of the GMB, echoed this pragmatism, saying the single European market 'will happen despite the reservations, the misgivings and policies of many unions represented in this hall'. The more enthusiastic pro-Europe union movers of the resolutions, like Roy Grantham (influential General Secretary of a small white-collar union, APEX) and Bill Jordan of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (who later became President of the international union body, the ICFTU), were completely sold. But left-wing leaders, such as Tony Dubbins of the NGA, Jack Henry of UCATT, Joe Marino of the Bakers and Doug Hoyle of MSF, also signed up to this 'card game' without expressing any reservations. Delors' speech received a standing ovation (assisted, according to John Edmonds who was there, by some careful choreography!). The Congress carried both supportive resolutions, nem con.

DL noted that similar developments were taking place in the Labour Party, as well. In May 1988, its National Executive Committee discussed a draft policy statement on the basis of their fundamental Policy Review report, Social Justice and Economic Efficiency. After some sharp differences (Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone remaining totally hostile to any EEC/EU involvement - they still wanted withdrawal), the new policy position was agreed by a divided NEC. This included a statement of acceptance of EEC membership as a fact. However, with the support of the affiliated unions, which had just endorsed the new TUC pro-social Europe policy, the subsequent Labour Annual Conference easily carried a similar change of policy statement also. The 1989 Labour Conference endorsed the second Policy Review report Meet the Challenge, Make the Change, which went further in endorsing the single market. The TUC had briefed the trade union representatives on these party review bodies.

Historical note

Labour's third electoral defeat in 1987, proved another watershed. Since 1983, a new left of centre but pragmatic leader, Neil Kinnock, had restored its political stability, but still failed to win back sufficient of its traditional supporters, the 'C2s' (skilled working class, including many union members). That defeat convinced them of the need to fundamentally review and make major changes to their policies. Europe was one of the issues where their negative commitment to withdraw from the EEC was seen as a liability with voters. Also, the traditional commitments of 'Old Labour' that future Labour Governments would automatically repeal the hostile Conservative employment legislative framework and restore their traditional collective legal immunities for unions - were not now forthcoming. Though often the ballast which enabled Labour leaders to maintain stability, the union 'block vote' had come to be seen as a liability to Labour's now image-conscious policy advisers. Instead, through the policy review process, their emphasis shifted to offering a programme of 'positive' individual legal employment rights as well as very limited collective rights on such things as union recognition, information and consultation rights, health and safety and so on. This chimed with the social dimension of the single European market proposals. Most union leaders were now in the mood to stomach the most fundamental changes to traditional ('Old Labour') policies, including to the bedrock 'Clause IV' of policy, if it would help remove this most anti-union Conservative Party from government.

DL said that the significance of TUC HQ involvement in a bi-partite 'European Social Dialogue' process between the ETUC and European public and private sector employers (UNICE/CEEP), also contributed to this process. Although the agreement of employers and unions (called 'Collective bargaining at the European level') on progressive social dimension resolutions, declarations and joint opinions in this process did not have binding legal force, a new mechanism was being established which could lead to a legal Directive. For example, in 1991, what were now called, the 'Social Partners', reached an agreement with significant implications for industrial relations across the EU. This called for their mandatory consultation on EU Commission social affairs proposals. It went further, creating an option for unions and employers at European level to reach 'Framework Agreements' on social /employment issues which would be treated as the basis for Council Directives. DL described how he and the TUC General Secretary, Norman Willis, - at that time President of the ETUC- successfully lobbied many of the other 11 European leaders - Mitterand (France), Kohl (Germany), Andreotti (Italy), Gonzalez (Spain), Lubbers (Holland) and Haughey (Ireland) - to give legal force to this arrangement, despite the British government's lone objection.

This became the 'Social Protocol' to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (later known as the 'Social Chapter'). This enacting mechanism, its associated 'Charter of Fundamental Rights of Workers' and 'Social Partners' Agreement', were instrumental in producing a number of EU Directives during the 1990s, which significantly altered the British employment and industrial relations legal framework. A 2006 booklet, Your Rights at Work - which Lord Lea jointly authored with Stephen Hughes MEP - was circulated at the H&PTUF meeting. In a series of case studies involving different British unions - GMB in Sheffield City Council Social Services (Equal Pay Directive); CWU East Midlands branch (Equal Treatment Directive); PCS Commercial Sector(Acquired Rights Directive - TUPE rights); NUT Welsh teachers -ECJ judgement upholding pregnancy/maternity claim against discrimination); Prospect branch of the Science Research Council on protection for employees on fixed-term contracts; USDAW bar worker, Swansea on four weeks paid holiday pay from Working Time Directive; BALPA pilot on maximum (48 hours); UNITE/GPM print workers' use of Collective Redundancies Directive to require employers to inform and consult workforce representatives before triggering any; T&GWU's use of transnational Information and Consultation regulations to require GM Vauxhall car makers at Ellesmere Port on a European-wide agreement to avoid closures; UCATT used the Posting of Workers Directive to require construction employers to guarantee immigrant workers in the UK equality in their main terms and conditions in the member state they were posted in; Community safety representative at steel works Corus, Teeside used the Health & Safety Directive to enforce minimum standards.

DL explained that although John Major's Conservative Governments (1990-97), secured an opt-out from the Social Chapter for Britain in 1992, Delors' objective of making it a legally binding part of the Treaty for the other members was achieved. This gave the TUC a major focus of campaigning over the next eight years, until the new Labour Government, committed to signing up to the Social Chapter, came to office in 1997. Some months later, despite some misgivings in Downing Street, they did so. DL went on to describe how that and subsequent (1997-2010) Labour governments were far from enthusiastic about developing the social dimension of EU legislation. In fact, they proved quite resistant to most new Directives on employment issues. He thought this was because of their very different 'New Labour' economic philosophy, embracing as they did the concept of a 'flexible labour market' as Britain's best chance of attracting inward investment.

Symptomatic of this philosophy also was Downing Street's very close relations with employer bodies such as Confederation of British Industry, (who remained hostile to most Brussels-inspired employment initiatives). In government and despite signing up, DL felt that they continued to 'hedge' Labour's commitment in signing up to the Social Chapter and to water down, if not sabotage the required transposition of a number of those Directives eg., on consultation rights on collective redundancies and transfers of businesses. He said that they had to be required to implement them more correctly by ECJ rulings. DL detected the hand of Peter (Lord) Mandelson, in some of this, (despite his period as a European Commissioner). He felt that Blair and Mandelson's underlying attitude towards the trade unions was unsympathetic. Mandelson (who had been a staffer at the TUC in the 1970s), had openly criticised the 'lack of democracy in the trade union movement', and of 'trying to run the country in the 1960s and '70s'. Lord Lea felt that these criticisms betrayed a rather shallow understanding of that period, and defended their record:

as part of the national interest we in the TUC were trying to run an incomes policy which was jointly agreed by the TUC and CBI in large measure. The usual charge was that we had too much democracy not too little - and, of course, decisions had to be endorsed by the [TUC] General Council and the annual Congress.

As he perceived it, this Blair/Mandelson bias of being 'more or less in hock to the CBI on a daily basis' was a serious mistake, as the CBI

has for the most part stood outside the mainstream of European employers' bodies, having little regard for the wider interest in effect saying that Britain's interest was contrary to everyone else's.


John Edmonds

John Edmonds (JE), commenting, developed Lord Lea's account and particularly highlighted the speed of the TUC's shift. In August 1988, the TUC was against EC membership and calling for withdrawal, but by October, both the TUC and the Labour Party were in favour of membership. He saw this as a veritable 'coup', and the TUC shift effectively determined Labour's, as the trade unions had the best part of 90% of votes at the Labour Party Conference.

He stressed the more positive aim of this shift: reaping the benefits of the Social Dimension - new legal rights for working people. He thought this represented a major shift for unions - collective bargaining had, hitherto, been the main focus - and a whole series of new opportunities opened up, as detailed in DL's booklet. From then on, JE continued, unions did not simply fight in Britain for every change. Social partnership changed the question: would the UK implement the legal changes achieved in Brussels? He saw other consequences, such as widening choice over union membership - which caused a clash over the closed shop and Blair's use of this to ditch policy support for the 'closed shop'.

In his view, New Labour's relationship to the Social Chapter was also far from unambiguous. In 1997, when Labour won, the question from a union perspective was how quickly Britain would sign up. This issue had also been the subject of very detailed and very careful discussions with the CBI over its implications for UK industrial relations - and assurances had been given. He stressed the importance of the Labour's 1997 Business Manifesto, though it had been little noticed at the time. Robin Cook, however, was not part of the deal and he instructed Foreign Office Minister, Douglas Henderson MP, to sign immediately. Soon after, Britain signed. The reaction from the CBI - which Colin Marshall and Adair Turner (on the basis of a report from John Cridland, now CBI boss), communicated to Blair - was furious, having been told it would be soft-pedalled. Their principal worry was the Information and Consultation Directive - they worried about trade unions reasserting themselves. However, Blair reassured them that the Social Chapter was 'only a set of principles', and that he had no intention of allowing the return of union power.

JE confirmed DL's view that having signed, New Labour was far from enthusiastic about new European employment regulations on the basis of the Social Protocol. The British government employed a number of key techniques to blunt the impact of Directives:

  • 'the Blockage' - trying to stop 'unpleasant' Directives, (such as the Information and Consultation draft), from becoming law, in alliance with other hostile EU Member States (e.g., Ireland);
  • 'Foot-dragging' on implementation - doing it slowly and minimally. For instance, the UK attempted to implement new parental leave rights in such a way that only children born after the date of implementation would qualify. Cherie Booth QC (aka Blair), provided clear legal advice against this - at which point, the government backed down! Similarly, when holiday rights rose from three weeks to four, the UK subsumed annual and public holidays into the entitlement. This subsequently changed because of the 'Warwick Agreement' with the unions;
  • The inclusion of 'Opt out' clauses - the Working Time Directive gave member states the ability to 'opt out' in part, and the UK allowed all individuals to do so.

Tony Blair tended to regard all improvements to employment rights as a 'favour to the unions' - and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, admired the US' productivity record, free of EU-type employment restrictions.

Finally, JE regretted that the hoped for deepening of the Social Chapter into wider social partnership did not really happen.


Robert Taylor said that as Labour correspondent of the Financial Times at the time, he broke the story of Delors' impending visit from Stockholm. The events of 1988 were a close reflection of the process by which unions', and Labour's, view changed. Although Delors' speech had been brilliant, he thought the Conference response was a pragmatic decision, because of Thatcher and because of the Social Dimension, not through any sudden conversion to Europe. He questioned the representativeness of the pro-Europe shift in trade union and Labour opinion.

He also thought that Delors' promises turned out to be a mirage, and pointed to the New Labour project as well as the CBI's hostility, as responsible. He too recalled the closeness of New Labour's relations with the CBI, citing Geoff Norris as Number 10's 'point man' for the CBI. They 'had a hotline to Downing Street' and the Blair team's absorption in 'triangulation' policy delivery (the attempt to deliver modest commitments to the unions without upsetting employers), made the CBI a more important reference point for Downing Street, than the TUC. He felt that John Monks, TUC General Secretary, had been 'pushed from pillar to post' during the Blair New Labour project, until he decided to give up and depart for other (ETUC) pastures. RT felt that the EU route had since become less appealing, and that there was a crisis of representativeness in trade unionism, evidenced by the fact that a majority of the C2s (mostly trade unionists) had voted for Thatcher in 1979 and subsequent elections throughout the 1980s.

Paul Ryan asked whether there was any link between the ending of the Manpower Services Commission by the government at that time (which excluded the TUC from influence on training issues) and Lady Thatcher's ire over their invitation to Delors? DL couldn't say but highlighted the very different Brussels context in respect of tripartism - cf. Thatcher's hostility to the NEDC, where the TUC and CBI met every month.

Denis Gregory (who had worked with Kinnock in the 'Get Britain Out' campaign) asked why Kinnock shifted his position. DL thought this reflected his general adherence to the European social democratic model. JE said that Kinnock once told the unions very directly that three particular things made Labour unelectable: unilateral nuclear disarmament, EC withdrawal and trade union domination of the Labour Party Conference.

Lord Lea asked the group of trade union students from Ruskin College present, whether they thought that this focus on the EU Social Dimension was 'elitism gone mad'? It certainly was a very different approach to that of traditional union collective bargaining, even at a national level - industrial agreements such as Bevin built up the T&GWU around. By the same token, trade union recognition through legal regulation (a major 'Social Chapter' requirement), but introduced in the UK by the very legalistic Employment Relations Act 1999, was a weak mechanism. It could only be realised through the trigger of a majority ballot in situations where employees were subject to hostile managements and complex procedures favouring their undue influence at every step. He suggested that an EU model of union recognition, based on collective bargaining of agreements on an industry-wide basis, would be more effective.

The Social Chapter also raises issues of who gets the credit, too. An achievement delivered in Brussels is an achievement not delivered in Coventry, visibly, by unions or by working people within the UK. Does this frustrate debate on working conditions and reform? And do the achievements come from Brussels or from the process of social partnership?

Paul Maulin (an AEEU/UNITE works convenor in Coventry and member of a European Works Council), said that they had found EU legislation such as the Working Time Directive useful, in some ways better than what could be achieved through collective bargaining locally. Initially, they were dubious about European Works Councils, but now they were working better in his company as they had made full use of the Information and Consultation Directive. He pointed to the Warwick Agreement between Labour and the unions and its importance to unions - but also highlighted a sense that Europe was seen as the best option for them because no-one was listening back home. JE felt that unions had found it difficult to access 'nerdish' Framework Agreements, particularly with 'New Labour' governments so unenthusiastic about facilitating them. Hence it became so difficult to explain their benefits even to reps. DL added that if the task of concluding Framework Agreements across all EU Member States (27 now) was quite a challenge, enforcement was even more so. In Britain, enforcement was certainly not a priority for the 'Department of Business'.

Ron Leech (AMICUS/UNITE, Chair of his Cardiff University branch), picked up on the point that Tony Blair had to spell out the implications of the Social Chapter for the unions - and specifically the implications for the closed shop. Surely, he asked, trade unions didn't want to return to the closed shop? JE responded that, yes, many did and a number still do. Tony Blair was, though, acting very much in a lawyerly fashion by cherry-picking that particular union membership clause to argue that unions could not have both the Social Chapter and the 'closed shop'.

Terri Miller (a GPM/UNITE Regional and National Sector Printing Industry Committee member), replying to DL's question about whether the whole 'Social Chapter' debate was elitist, said that the problem of elitism was far wider. Much union/Labour debate struck members on the ground as elitist and did not address their feelings. In 1979, in particular, Labour and the unions were not delivering for their members.

DL, in response, said the discussion highlighted the difficulty as to where union membership is going. Unions need to think about how to make membership relevant - and this fed into a much wider question: what is the new social democratic project? He believed that the TUC and Labour Party had to give leadership on these issues as he felt workers on the shop floor were unlikely to come forward with ideas about industrial democracy or about changing capitalism. JE also commented that Labour itself lost touch with a large number of people.

Alan Tomala (a UNITE regional education officer in Bristol and former T&GWU Honda factory Convenor) asked whether we pay enough attention to Labour history in union education. He highlighted, from his own experience, that young members (18-21) felt that union officials often "aren't talking our language". He drew attention to the importance of education programmes.

John Lloyd (a former EEPTU/AMICUS Director of Research) recalled a recent Honda union recognition deal in which he and Alan had been involved. He raised the concern that there was no longer a focus or communication between lay representatives and efforts at European level. He felt that we needed to do more to look at the role and membership of the European Works Council and instanced the case of Aerospace which had a vigorous Europe-wide one.

Denis Gregory highlighted the importance of education and suggested that the British trade union movement may have missed the opportunity since 1945 to develop a broader-based social consciousness amongst members. He felt they had narrowed their focus in the 1950s/'60s, when at their strongest, and that they had been too self-satisfied about having 'the best trade unions and shop stewards' in the world. In his long time dealing with all the major ones, he had noticed an oligarchic tendency.

Jim Moher thanked the speakers for putting on record such an important piece of history, so well. It reminded us of the ambition of the key players - Delors and the TUC. There were clearly many practical gains for workers in Britain from the Social Chapter/EU Directives - even though the process was slowed and to an extent stymied by subsequent New Labour governments, too nervous about previous union/government relationships, perhaps because informed by a different outlook. Whilst it did not succeed in restoring unions in Britain to the status of Social Partners, it has undoubtedly left us with a larger European canvass to return to that task at a future opportunity. He wondered however, about the efficacy of any top-down system of collective bargaining? The Social Contract agreements of the 1970s shared the same difficulty - failing to get across the gains delivered from 'on high' to ordinary members or workers. As a result, there was very little sense of ownership of very good agreements concluded, or appreciation of legislation. Some mechanism would have to be found to involve and enthuse, if such legislative gains were to be consolidated.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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