The Irish referendum on the European Union Lisbon Treaty will take place on June 12. The Dublin government, media and all the major political parties, with the exception of Sinn Fein, are calling for a "Yes" vote for "jobs, the economy and Ireland's future in Europe".
The Lisbon Treaty is virtually identical to the proposed EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, containing 96% of its articles. The treaty, if ratified, would consolidate and centralise the power of unelected EU institutions, further the militarisation of Europe in the framework of the NATO alliance and open the way for the accelerated privatisation of Europe's public services.
The process of the drafting and ratification of the renamed constitution demonstrates its thoroughly undemocratic nature. The 500 million citizens of the EU have been excluded from having input into the content of the constitution, as well as being denied their right to approve or reject it through referenda.
Treaty's fate in Irish hands
The southern Irish state is constitutionally bound to hold a referendum on the treaty — so those Irish people living in the 26 counties making up the Republic of Ireland are now in the ridiculous situation of having their vote count for all the people of Europe.
The treaty must be endorsed unanimously by all member states in order to come into effect in 2009. The EU's other 26 member states plan to ratify the treaty by votes in their respective national parliaments.
On May 21, the executive council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents more than 600,000 workers, voted to support the campaign for a "Yes" vote, claiming that the treaty will be a step forward for workers' rights as the "Charter of Fundamental Rights" seemingly enshrines the right to strike.
However, some of the individual unions affiliated to the ICTU are calling for a "No" vote, including Unite, one of the ICTU's largest affiliates. The Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union is recommending its 45,000 members vote no, and the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union — representing more than 200,000 workers — has yet to make a decision.
It is unclear which way the vote will go, as a recent poll found only 6% of respondents indicated they understood what the referendum was about, with 30% "vaguely aware" of its contents. Around 35% say will vote "Yes", 18% "No" with 47% undecided.
The claim that the treaty provides new protection for workers' rights is false. While article 28 states that workers may "take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action", it immediately qualifies this "fundamental right" by explaining that "the limits for the exercise of collective action, including strike action, come under national laws and practices".
The British Trade Unionists Against the EU Constitution pamphlet, The Big EU Con Trick, quotes a British foreign office spokesperson as saying explicitly: "The Charter doesn't create any new rights. We spent a very long time looking at this, in particular the disputed article. It does not create the right to strike."
Lisbon pits the "fundamental right" of workers to take collective action against the apparently more fundamental right of capital to unrestricted movement, unbound by national industrial laws and agreements.
Race to the bottom
Conflicts between employers and workers will be ruled on by a strengthened European Court of Justice. The European Trade Union Confederation has described several recent ECJ rulings as an "open invitation to social dumping", launching a race to the bottom for workers' wages, conditions and rights.
Some of the recent ECJ rulings on disputes include the case of the German company Objekt und Bauregie, which employed a Polish subcontractor to employ Polish building workers posted to Germany, on less than half the minimum wage agreed by German trade unions and employer associations.
On April 3, the ECJ ruled that O&B should not be bound by the local law that states public building contractors must abide by the existing collective agreements. The court found that while member states may impose minimum pay on foreign companies posting workers in their state, the Lower Saxony law restricted the "freedom to provide services".
In essence, this ruling outlaws a minimum wage and base conditions being included in public tender contracts.
In 2004, Latvian firm Laval posted Latvian construction workers to Sweden and refused to acknowledge the existing collective agreement with the Swedish Building Workers' Union. Laval claimed that it was not obliged to pay the rates collectively agreed on in the building sector.
The union took collective action and Laval claimed to the ECJ that it was being discriminated against on the grounds of nationality, with the Swedish union infringing upon its right to provide services. The court found that while "service providers" from another EU state are obliged to abide by the host agreement, collective action must be "proportional".
This means that the ECJ believes workers have the right to take industrial action only when the minimum wage or conditions of the host country, or the minimum working conditions set out in the EU's Posting of Workers Directive, are being breached by the employer.
In order to cut costs, the Finnish shipping company, Viking Line, attempted to re-flag its ships as Estonian and operate out of Estonia. When two Finnish maritime unions organised a blockade of Viking Line, it took its case to the ECJ.
Again, the claim was that the company's right to freedom of movement was being restricted by the industrial action of the workers. And again, in December, the court ruled that the unions had restricted Viking Line's right of establishment.
'Rights' of capital
Three things are clear from these cases and from the text of the Lisbon Treaty. Firstly, the universal right to take collective industrial action is not guaranteed as it is subject to member states' national laws.
Secondly, the right to take collective action to prevent the exploitation of posted workers by foreign service-providers is subject to the company's right to freedom of movement and establishment under the EU Services Directive — a right that the ECJ has consistently upheld as being superior to workers' rights.
Thirdly, the collective action of workers and unions taken against foreign service-providers is only deemed legitimate if it is in defence of the most basic minimum conditions agreed on by EU bodies or set in law by the host country. What happens if workers want to take collective action in order to improve their conditions?
These ECJ rulings, combined with the provisions for privatisation and the removal of "distortions" from the market contained in Lisbon, are a recipe for the "equalisation" downwards of the conditions for working people of Europe — while the corporations that played a key role in drafting the treaty increase their profit-making capacity.
The result will be the growing severe exploitation of eastern European workers, increased job displacement, de-unionisation and falling conditions in the West — with public services fought for and won through generations of struggle being put up for sale across the continent. It's in the interests of all the working people of Europe for the "No" vote to win in the Irish referendum.