Toggle high contrast

General Council Report 2019

TUC Congress 2019
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Brexit banner

2.1 Introduction 

Brexit has dominated the political and industrial landscape over the last year. Throughout a volatile political situation, the General Council’s work has been guided by the 2018 General Council statement on Brexit and composite 2.
The General Council statement adopted by Congress 2018 built on the position agreed the previous year, with three tests against which we would measure any Brexit deal:

  • maintaining workers’ existing rights and establishing a level playing field so that workers’ rights in Britain do not fall behind those of other European workers
  • preserving tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade in goods and services with the rest of Europe to protect jobs
  • ensuring that trade and livelihoods in Gibraltar and Ireland are protected, and defending the Good Friday Agreement.

The statement set out the TUC’s willingness to consider any proposals that met these tests, including through continued membership of the single market outside the EU (for example via EEA membership). The statement also made clear that any Brexit deal must secure the confidence and support of the country, whether through a meaningful vote in parliament, an early general election or a popular vote.

The government brought the deal to parliament in January 2019. MPs rejected the deal and inflicted the largest parliamentary defeat in modern history on the government.

During the year these tests have guided and supported our work and enabled us to keep a clear focus on our core concerns, despite the fast pace of political developments.

2.2 The political and parliamentary context

The government published the withdrawal agreement in November 2018. The TUC quickly warned that the deal did not protect jobs and rights, failing the Brexit tests agreed by Congress in 2017 and 2018. We also made clear that trade unions could not support a deal that contained no legal guarantees about the future relationship and amounted to a blindfold Brexit. The government brought the deal to parliament in January 2019. MPs rejected the deal and inflicted the largest parliamentary defeat in modern history on the government. MPs voted against the deal again in early March and a third attempt to pass the deal later that month also failed.

In January, the general secretary and deputy general secretary met then prime minister Theresa May and set out why trade unions could not support the deal. The PM also met the leaders of Unite, UNISON and the GMB, who echoed the TUC’s position. We cautioned the PM that it would be possible to make progress only if she were willing to significantly shift the government’s position. The CBI then joined us in writing to the PM warning that the country faced a national emergency. Its letter called on the PM to abandon her red lines, rule out a no-deal Brexit, and prioritise finding a deal that put jobs and rights first.

In addition to regular meetings with the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, the general secretary also met with the chancellor of the exchequer and the secretary of state for exiting the EU. The TUC was also in regular contact with leading shadow ministers and other opposition parties, as well as MPs leading cross-party attempts to oppose the government’s plans. The TUC also led a group of trade unions to meet officials from across government – including the Cabinet Office and BEIS – where we reiterated the union movement’s opposition to the government’s deal. The TUC briefed MPs extensively on the risk posed by the deal to working people, and campaigned for MPs to vote against it.

With the clock ticking down to the Brexit deadline of 29 March, parliament held indicative votes on options to break the deadlock. Our analysis, in line with our tests, concluded that in the limited time remaining, the best way to deliver a Brexit deal that trade unions could support looked to be sticking by single market and customs union rules. But no option was able to command a parliamentary majority.

By March, with the prime minister’s deal failing to pass through the Commons, parliament unable to agree on an alternative and government in chaos, we reiterated the General Council’s 2018 call for people to have their say, either via a general election or a popular vote. Reflecting the analysis that a no-deal Brexit would be devastating for working communities, we also called for an extension of Article 50 and supported parliamentary efforts to prevent a no-deal.

Throughout the year unions in the TUC’s Public Services Liaison Group highlighted the pressures that would be faced by government budgets in the event of a post-Brexit economic downturn. We showed that a falling number of EU nationals willing or able to work in the UK was exacerbating the recruitment and retention crisis across schools, the NHS, social care and other areas. We also highlighted the intense pressure being placed on civil servants tasked with implementing Brexit, the lack of adequate preparations for Brexit across the government (particularly in the event of a no-deal exit) and that unions representing the public service workforce had not been included in any serious discussions about departmental plans. The TUC, with public service unions, raised these issues directly with the Cabinet Office and departmental leads through a specially convened meeting of the Public Services Forum in April. It was agreed that more needed to be done to establish effective dialogue with unions at the departmental level and specific contacts have been established in order to facilitate this process.

During the year, the general secretary also met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, along with colleagues from the ETUC and ICTU. The TUC, ETUC and ICTU wrote to Commission president Juncker, Council president Tusk and all heads of government across the EU before the 29 March deadline. In the letter we condemned the UK government for putting party interests before country and for failing to meaningfully engage with other political parties or unions in Britain and Northern Ireland. We warned of the disastrous consequences of a no-deal exit for jobs, rights and peace.

2.3 Defending rights 

In line with composite 2 and the General Council statement, the TUC campaigned to highlight the risks of the government’s proposed Brexit deal to workers’ rights. We argued that under this deal rights would fall behind those in the rest of the EU, and that access to justice would be limited. The TUC’s warnings on rights were widely quoted during debates in parliament. The TUC also gave evidence to the Committee on Exiting the European Union on the lack of level playing field guarantees.

In March, the government announced that it was willing to make a series of changes to domestic legislation on workers’ rights. This included proposing a process that would require government to monitor and report to parliament on changes to rights implemented by the EU. But these limited domestic proposals fell far short of our demand for a binding guarantee in the withdrawal agreement that rights here in the UK would keep pace with those of working people across Europe. We were concerned the proposed process could easily be revoked by a future government and that, even if it were maintained, it would represent a significant reduction in protections, including a lack of recourse for UK workers to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
During this time the government also pushed through several statutory instruments on workers’ rights that would come into effect in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We raised concerns in parliamentary briefing and with BEIS officials that these regulations were unclear and would make it harder for the UK to keep pace with future developments in rights. The statutory instruments included provisions that would reduce some of the rights that UK workers currently benefit from, such as removing the ability to participate in European Works Councils.

2.4 Protecting jobs

While the UK remains in the EU and has not yet experienced the full potential economic impact of Brexit, the uncertainty generated over the nature of the deal has had an impact. In 2018 UK business investment fell by 0.4 per cent, and growth has effectively flatlined since the third quarter of 2016. Alongside other factors, the fall in investment has had a particularly marked impact in the automotive industry, with companies pulling back investment plans and announcing closures, including at Honda in Swindon and Ford in Bridgend. 

In line with composite 2, the TUC campaigned for the government to commit to tariff- and barrier-free trade with the EU after Brexit. The TUC lobbied for changes to the Trade Bill, seeking guarantees that the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU post-Brexit and that any future trade deals protect labour standards and public services. We also called for guarantees that trade unions would be involved in trade negotiations. The TUC gave evidence to the International Trade Committee on these points, and its December report endorsed our recommendation that trade unions should be involved in trade negotiations on equal terms with employers. In line with resolution 77, the TUC also campaigned to safeguard food and environmental standards.

The TUC also campaigned for stronger protections against trade dumping, working as a member of the Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance (MTRA). MTRA condemned the government’s March announcement of a plan to dramatically reduce tariffs on many manufacturing sectors in the event of Brexit proceeding without a deal being reached.

In May, the TUC again gave evidence to the International Trade Committee to highlight the dangers of a hard Brexit ‘global Britain’ trade agenda. During President Trump’s state visit to the UK in June, the TUC highlighted the dangers of a trade deal on Trump’s terms to workers and the NHS.

TUC Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak was appointed to the government’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group. Members of the group issued a statement calling for trade policy to respect labour standards, protect public services and involve social partners. 

The TUC continued joint work on trade with trade unions in countries the government has prioritised for post-Brexit trade deals, including Australia, Canada, Japan and the USA. 

Frances O’Grady met president of Ireland Michael D. Higgins at the Áras an Uachtaráin in April © Tony Maxwell/
Frances O’Grady met president of Ireland Michael D. Higgins at the Áras an Uachtaráin in April © Tony Maxwell/

2.5 Safeguarding peace and the Good Friday Agreement

The General Council has consistently called for an approach that can safeguard peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, in a context of rising tensions and the cavalier attitude of some senior politicians.

We have worked closely with our friends in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) throughout the year. ICTU published a statement in November saying that there is no such thing as ”a good Brexit for working people” in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland.

The general secretary met president of Ireland Michael D. Higgins in April and attended the Council of the Isles in May.
The TUC moved a statement on Brexit at the ETUC congress in May, adopted unanimously, noting that if labour rights in the UK did not keep pace with those in the EU after Brexit, it would damage workers in the UK and trigger a race to the bottom with devastating consequences for workers’ rights and their livelihoods across Europe and especially in Ireland.

The statement pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement contains a commitment not to undermine the economic and social fabric of Northern Ireland and that regression on workers’ rights would breach that commitment.

The TUC has campaigned to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit © Jack Taylor/Getty Images
The TUC has campaigned to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit © Jack Taylor/Getty Images

2.6 Building a social Europe

The 2018 General Council statement on Brexit committed the TUC to work through the ETUC to push for reforms so that the EU single market better serves working people’s needs.

In that spirit, the TUC has supported ETUC campaigns for higher wages and lobbied members of the European parliament for the adoption of worker-friendly EU directives including the directive on work/life balance, which introduces a right to 10 days’ paid paternity leave (paid at least at the level of statutory sick pay), a right to four months’ parental leave (two of which are non-transferrable) and a right for all workers – not just employees – to request flexible working.

Thanks to trade union lobbying, the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive was adopted in spring 2019. This introduces a right to information on terms and conditions of work from day one, and introduces new employment rights for precarious workers, including a ban on exclusivity clauses, reasonable notice of work schedules, compensation for last-minute cancellation of on-call work, and a right to free mandatory training. These rights cover all workers, including those on zero-hours contracts, in casual work, domestic work, voucher-based work (that is, work that is paid but part of a government subsidised programme) or platform work.

2.7 Building solidarity

In line with composite 2, the TUC campaigned to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK. The TUC lobbied against the Immigration and Social Security bill that would end EU citizens’ right to free movement and social security entitlements after Brexit and enable the introduction of a time-limited visa scheme for EU citizens. The TUC appeared before the bill committee in February and argued that the bill would be damaging for all workers as it would make it easier for bad employers to use EU workers to undercut others.

In May, the TUC released the report Building Solidarity, Stopping Undercutting, which detailed concerns with the bill and called for sector-wide collective agreements, stronger workers’ rights and dramatically increased investment in public services and skills. The shadow immigration team drew on TUC evidence during the committee stage to support its opposition to the bill.

The TUC has also worked with civil society campaign groups and met with Home Office officials to raise concerns about the ‘settled status’ scheme for EU citizens, highlighting that the scheme leaves EU citizens in informal employment and low-income workers particularly vulnerable to losing their legal status in the country. 

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now