From the TUC

Tolpuddle in Tuscany: talking Brexit & Grexit

04 Jul 2015, By

Last night I was sat in a tent for a couple of hours on top of a hill in Tuscany, alongside the current and future Presidents of the European Trade Union Confederation (Ignacio Toxo from Spain’s CCOO and Rudy de Leeuw of the Belgian FGTB respectively) and the leader of Italy’s largest trade union movement the CGIL, Susanna Camusso. It was hardly a middle class summer holiday: we were discussing the future of workers’ rights in Europe – including the UK’s EU Referendum – in front of 200 Italian trade unionists, broadcast on a local radio station.

This was ‘CGIL Incontri‘, the 19th annual summer festival for Italian trade unionists held in the ruins of a medieval castle at Serravalle Pistoiese, 30km from Florence. Rather than commemorating a great trade union victory of the past, as the TUC’s annual Tolpuddle Festival will do in a fortnight’s time (I’ll be talking about the EU Referendum there, too!), CGIL Incontro grew out of a debate between then CGIL leader Sergio Cofferati and the influential head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli in 1996. Now, in the spirit of the Feste de l’Unita that used to be a feature of every Italian town through the summer, the CGIL event now spans 12 days of debate, music, films and other activities, including, of course, communal three course Italian suppers! This year the CGIL’s National Executive will meet at a lakeside hotel at the bottom of the hill for a two day discussion on Europe.

We started, of course, with Greece, where the attack on workers’ rights and living standards has been sharpest, and where even now the institutions of the European Union and the IMF are attacking democracy in the country of its birth. Belgian, British, Italian and Spanish trade unionists were able to agree on the need for solidarity with the people and workers of Greece. We can’t let nationality come between the workers or unions of Europe, especially when the attacks on Greeks are being repeated, albeit with less ferocity or impact, all over the EU.

After discussing Greece’s austerity referendum this Sunday, I was asked specifically to talk about Britain’s forthcoming referendum about EU membership. I sought the continued support of Italian unions (in Italian here) pin opposing David Cameron’s attack on British workers’ and European migrants’ rights, not just out of basic solidarity but because if our rights are undermined, theirs will be next. What looked like nationalism from abroad was actually an international attack on working people, I said: “nationalism in the service of capital!”

We also discussed the forthcoming European Parliament vote on Investor-State Dispute Settlement in the EU-US trade deal TTIP, and agreed to call on our MEPs to oppose it outright; and the need for European trade unions to up our game against austerity, for sustainable growth, decent jobs, and above all, better wages. I mentioned that the British Labour Party had been accused of not being ‘aspirational’ enough at the election, and got a round of applause for saying that the ETUC’s slogan ‘Europe needs a pay rise’ was one of the most aspirational demands we could make: we should never apologise for demanding better living standards for our members.

By then, the nearby pizza oven had started wafting dinner’s aromas towards the crowd, and I could tell we were due to finish. I suspect Tolpuddle won’t be quite as hot, or quite so Tuscan, but there will be the same great debates, atmosphere and solidarity. See you there?