Lessons from the June 23, 2016, Brexit Vote in Britain for U.S. Workers

U.S. Labor Movement Must Lead the Fight to Stop the Corporate ‘Free Trade’ Agenda

(Editorial published in the July-August 2016 Issue of The Organizer Newspaper)

Shortly after the referendum in Britain, in which the majority of the voters chose to leave the European Union, Bernie Sanders wrote an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, titled, “Democrats Need to Wake Up.”

In it Sanders noted that, “Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalized economy that is failing them and their children.”

Sanders asked if “this rejection of the current form of the global economy could happen in the United States,” and his answer was blunt: “You bet it could.”

Sanders went on to explain the devastating effects of “free trade” in the United States: Nearly 60,000 factories closed over the past 15 years, more than 4.8 million well-paid manufacturing jobs disappeared, and lower real wages for men and women workers than in 1973, after adjusting for inflation.

Sanders’ Prescriptions Are Off Base

Sanders’ description of the effects of “free trade” is accurate, but his proposals for what to do about it could not be more off base.

Instead of putting his analysis at the service of independent working class politics — which is where it belongs – Sanders’ op-ed article is addressed to the Democratic Party as a plea to reform itself.

But Hillary Clinton, one of the main architects of corporate “free trade” in her days as Secretary of State, and the Democratic Party are not about to “wake up.” The Democratic Party is owned, controlled, and run by the Wall Street tycoons and corporate big shots who stand to amass great fortunes with the TPP. The Democrats are the ones who brought us NAFTA, CAFTA, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.-Colombia TPA, the U.S.-Peru TPA, and more.

As the recent statement by the Labor Fightback Network on the “Fight Against the TPP” put it:

“Already, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has rejected including opposition to TPP — the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement — in the Democratic Party platform (just as it has rejected including Single-payer healthcare and other vital questions facing working people). Clinton’s nomination of Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential running mate is another signal that the Democratic Party is unabashedly on the side of ‘free trade.’ Kaine voted to ‘fast track’ TPP (not to mention his support for ‘right-to-work’ laws in his home state of Virginia and his call for restricting abortion rights even further).”

Trump’s Pandering on “Free Trade”

For his part, Donald Trump has understood, in his own way, the meaning of the Brexit vote in Britain. He knows that opposition to “free trade” runs very deep among working people at home and abroad.

As labor journalist and author Jack Rasmus wrote in a recent article titled, “Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent”:

“Trump has identified and played to this discontent. That Trump is popular and leading in polls in states with a high concentration of white, middle-age and up, male, non-college educated working-class voters is not surprising, given his aggressive criticism of U.S. trade policies and their devastating effects.

“Trump has embraced the trade issue in no uncertain terms, and his attack on U.S. trade policies have resonated deeply with this working-class segment — i.e., a voting bloc in key swing states and a group who cares little what Trump says on other non-economic issues, however outrageous, whether on race, ethnic, gender, foreign policy, or other subjects. (jackrasmus.com)

But when push comes to shove, Trump has no concrete proposals for defeating the “free trade” agenda. One day he says he is for “tearing” up the NAFTA treaty, but the next he says that he is really a “free trader,” just someone who wants to negotiate better deals than his Democratic opponents.

Rasmus concluded his article as follows, after examining Trump’s positions on trade in some detail:

“One can only conclude that Trump is not really serious about attacking free trade.

“He is pandering to those with a legitimate and serious real concern who have been deeply harmed by U.S. trade policies. Trump is in that great U.S. presidential candidate tradition, promising voters what they want to hear and then, if elected, doing whatever the economic elites want them to do. U.S. presidential candidates, of either wing — Republican and Democrat — of the Corporate Party of America, are habitual liars and cannot be trusted.”

This is true here in the United States, just as it is true the world over. Right-wing populists often claim to oppose global capitalism and its agenda — but they are simply pandering to get votes. The simple truth is that no wing of the capitalist class — Trump, Marine Le Pen (National Front in France), Hillary Clinton or François Hollande (“socialist” president of France) — is willing or able to put an end to the global reach of international finance capital and defend workers’ rights and democracy.

This is why it is such a travesty that the leadership of the labor movement in Britain, France and the United States, to name but a few countries, continues to subordinate labor’s independent agenda to the bosses and their political parties — and to subvert the workers’ struggle for peace, jobs and justice.

Only the Working Class Can Stop Capitalism’s Destructive “Free Trade” Agenda

In Britain, the leadership of the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress caved into the pressures by the corporations and the politicians in their service to support the vote in favor of remaining in the EU. This stance opened the door to right-wing, racist demagogues like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party to claim that they are the champions of the working class — when nothing could be further from the truth.

A minority wing of the British labor movement upheld the honor of the Labour Party and TUC by campaigning on an independent, working class and internationalist platform for a Leave vote from the EU. They enjoined their campaign to the European-wide campaign to Leave the EU initiated by trade unionists and activists in France [see accompanying story]. And their campaign made a significant contribution to the ultimate success of the Leave vote in Britain.

Such an independent, working class orientation — based on the trade union movement and its community allies — is needed in the United States to stop the corporate “free trade” steamroller and roll back NAFTA and the other heinous trade agreements. The top officials in the U.S. trade union movement must break their ties of subordination to the Democratic Party and lead the fightback to stop the corporate juggernaut.

Pleading with the Democratic Party to change its stripes is an exercise in futility. The Democratic Party is not — and nor has it ever been — a party representing the working class. It has always faithfully served its corporate paymasters.

So What Is to Be Done?

The lesson of the Brexit vote for the United States is that the U.S. labor movement must champion the fight to stop TPP in its tracks – in alliance with labor’s community partners. And it must take the first steps in building a party of its own: a Labor Party based on the trade unions and the communities of the oppressed.

The latest statement by the Labor Fightback Network on TPP points the way forward in this regard. It reads, in part:

“Top labor officials, who are tied at the hip to the Democratic Party, will tell us that this is neither possible nor desirable, that our Number 1 priority today must be to Stop Trump in November and get Hillary Clinton elected. But isn’t Clinton the very personification of the global ‘free trade” agenda?

Shouldn’t labor rise to the occasion in the face of such an imminent threat to all working people — and to democracy itself? And couldn’t the Labor for Bernie organizers and members champion this struggle in the labor movement?

“Having said this, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in massive united-front actions to stop the TPP is only the first step.

“It will take more than united mass actions to put a halt to the corporate juggernaut. As former (and now-departed) OCAW leader Tony Mazzocchi was fond of saying, ‘The bosses have two parties, workers need one of our own.’

“With the choice of Trump vs. Hillary Clinton in November, never has Mazzocchi’s saying rung so true: Working people today need a mass workers’ party, a Labor Party based on the unions and on the communities of the oppressed. …

“It is high time for labor to challenge the monopoly that Big Business exercises in the electoral arena. … Labor could be a magnetic force in helping to unite tens of millions in support of a program that reflects the needs of workers, communities of color, youth, environmentalists, and other progressive forces.

“For the above reasons, the Labor Fightback Network urges the formation of independent labor-community coalitions in cities and states around the country based on a program collectively decided. Such coalitions, functioning democratically, could serve as building blocks for a national party, which is indispensable, and in the meanwhile run its own candidates to challenge the status quo. The alternative is despair, dissolution, and irrelevance.”

Yes. The time is now for labor to take steps in this direction. — The Editors

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cover page EU Supplement in Jpeg

The Meaning of the June 23, 2016, Vote in Britain to Leave the European Union


On June 23, 2016, the British working class voted to leave the European Union (EU), dealing a blow to inter­national finance capital and to all the governments in their service. Only a few weeks before the vote, U.S. President Barack Oba­ma had been in London to help then-Conservative Prime Min­ister David Cam­­er­on shore up the Remain in the EU vote. As the Financial Times was compelled to acknowledge in an editorial addressed primarily to the world’s financial elites, the “June 23 Brexit vote was the clearest class vote that Britain has witnessed in decades.” (June 24)

Sixty-three percent of the British working class, including 40 percent of the members of the British Labour Party, voted to Leave — against the directives of the leadership of the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress (TUC), which sided with the bosses and U.S. imperialism and called for Britain to remain in the EU.

In this sense, the Brexit vote represented a significant defeat for the top officials of the British labor movement and their policies of subordination to the EU and to ruling-class politics as such. It was also a defeat for the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which had placed huge pressure on the British workers and their unions to remain in the EU on the grounds that the EU offered better labor rights and jobs than the ones that exist in Britain — a bitter lie.

A statement issued after the vote by the Labour Leave campaign put it this way: “The Leave vote was won largely thanks to the large number of Labour Party voters. Labour voters, who belong to the working class, have been increasingly dissatisfied with the party’s position on the EU, and this is especially the case in northern England.”

Alex Gordon, one of the leaders of the Lexit (Left Exit) campaign, explained:

“All the institutions of the British establishment supported the Remain vote in favor of maintaining the EU. … For the Labour Party, it could have been an opportunity for a great campaign if only it had taken the lead of the revolt of the working class. The ONLY thing that the left can now do is to gather around the result and take up forcefully the fight against the Tories. Stop austerity now! General elections immediately! The ‘Fortress Europe’ Must Go! Equality for Immigrant Workers!”

Was the Leave Vote a “Racist” Vote?

Political and media pundits — the overwhelming majority of them apologists for the EU — have tried to hide the profoundly progressive and working-class character of the Leave vote. They explain that what motivated this Leave vote was not the workers’ rejection of the employers’ austerity policies, but rather the fact that workers fell prey to the “xenophobia” promoted by some of the Leave campaign organizers in and around the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

The reason the right-wing demagogues in Britain were able to frame some of the debate with their reactionary, anti-immigrant rhetoric was because of the failure of the British Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to champion the fight to Leave the EU. In fact, the leaders of these working class organizations capitulated to the corporate globalizers and called on voters to Remain in the EU — itself a pro-war, racist, and reactionary ruling-class institution.

The Labour Party and the TUC could have framed the Leave vote with an internationalist, working-class content by linking up with the movements calling for a break with the EU in France, Greece and across Europe. Much more than just a “free trade” agreement, the European Union is an imperialist-imposed institutional framework set up to drive down wages, working conditions, democratic and labor rights (including overturning the independence of the trade unions), and democracy itself, all across Europe. It needs to be fought against — with more Brexit, Frexit, or Grexit votes — in all countries of Europe.

A European-wide campaign against the EU, in fact, was initiated by the Independent Democratic Workers Party of France (POID), with the active involvement of significant union and political leaders and activists from 28 countries. It would have been natural for the British labor movement as a whole to join up with this campaign. [See report in this issue on the European-wide Rally Against the EU held in Paris on May 28.]

But the top officials of the Labour Party and TUC refused to do so, leaving a vacuum that was filled, in part, by the likes of Nigel Farage and his far-right UKIP.

Economist George Lakely in an article titled, “The Bright Side of Brexit,” noted:

“The mainstream U.S. narrative about the British decision to leave the European Union is based on the significantly flawed assumption that objecting to the European Union is being a nasty nationalist.

“These mainstream commentators either don’t know or conveniently forget that it was many of the same people in the areas that overwhelmingly voted Leave that repudiated Tony Blair’s centrism by choosing Jeremy Corbyn, a true man of the left, to lead the UK’s Labour Party. Who can fail to notice that so much of the working class, which has fared the worst in this downward trend, rejected the advice of its Labour Party leadership and voted to get out? …

“Of course when the British voted against the European Union, some of them were motivated by racism and ethnocentrism. Mixtures of motivations are standard in politics. But to reduce a whole electoral demographic to a disliked part is that tired stereotyping we already get enough of when people do racist rants and indulge in Islamophobia.”

The vote to Leave, moreover, was manipulated by the UKIP and its fellow-travelers in a most demagogic manner: Former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage toured Britain in buses emblazoned with the slogan: “Cameron wants to send the E.U. 350 million [Pounds] a week, Let’s fund our NHS [National Health Service] instead.”

This slogan should have been raised by the Labour Party and the TUC in the framework of a Leave campaign.

Underscoring the fundamentally class character of the Leave vote should not lead us to ignore the inroads made by the UKIP and other racist forces. The vacuum created by the abject capitulation to imperialism by the top leaders of the Labour Party and TUC, including Jeremy Corbyn (who in the past had campaigned against the European Union, see story on page 5 in this issue), left many unemployed workers in the deindustrialized regions across Britain vulnerable to the rants of the demagogues and racists of all stripes.

This is why the call by Alex Gordon, the main leader of Lexit (Left Exit), against the anti-immigrant bill signed by the EU and the Cameron government in February 2016 — and for a sustained campaign to demand “Equality for All Immigrant Workers!” — is so important today.

Such a campaign, we should add, must also include the call to Open All Borders in Europe to those fleeing the wars and economic devastation imposed by the EU and imperialism across Europe and beyond. [See side-bar article titled, “The European Union Is In Favor of Migrant Workers?; Who Are They Kidding!”]

As Dominiqué Ferré noted in his article, “June 23: A Class Vote”: “As has often happened in the past, by abandoning a stance of class independence, the leaders of the Labour Party and TUC have set the stage for the blackest reaction.” (Tribune des Travailleurs No. 45, June 29)

A Brexit Campaign That Made a Big Difference

Writing in Nation of Change (July 1) under the title, “Brexit, In Context,” Derek Royden hailed “the internationalist wing” of the British labor movement and British left “that heard the cries of Greece and Ireland and warned that they might be the next victims of the unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels, who have sowed misery throughout southern Europe. These activists have come to see the EU as a distant, undemocratic entity enforcing a neo-classical economic model that refuses to calculate the actual toll of increasing austerity at the expense of regular people within the 28-member union.”

Royden’s reaction is not exaggerated. Though a minority in the Labour Party and the TUC, the campaign waged by Lexit (Left Exit), Labour Leave (which campaigned inside the Labour Party) and Trade Unionists Against the European Union (TUAEU) played a significant role in promoting the Brexit vote — a role that has been all but ignored by the mainstream media, which, again, is not surprising.

Three national unions in Britain participated in the Leave vote: the bakers (BFAWU), the locomotive drivers (ASLEF), and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT). They organized mass rallies and marches to promote a working-class platform for a Leave vote.

On June 6, important members of the British Parliament and leaders of the TUC sent out an Open Letter to the media to refute the claims made by the top officials in the Labour Party and TUC, according to which the European Union was responsible for introducing improved labor and social rights in British. After debunking these claims one by one, they concluded: “If the EU is so favorable to workers, how is it that the entire Tory government, including Cameron, Osborne and a whole series of banks on a world scale, are campaigning madly for Britain to remain in the EU?”

On June 2, the International Energy and Mineworkers Organisation (IEMO) issued a press release that stated:

“Arthur Scargill, president of the International Energy and Mineworkers Organisation (IEMO), said today that the current unrest in France is due to workers’ rights being taken away following pressure from the European Union. The determination to take away workers’ rights — none of which were given to them by the EU but won before the EU even existed — demonstrates that there is no protection for workers’ rights in countries which are members of the European Union.

“Arthur Scargill expressed support and solidarity with all French workers and said, ‘Their struggle demonstrates that the only way to protect workers’ rights in the UK is for Britain to leave the EU. I call on all people to vote to come out of the European Union in the Referendum on 23 June.’”

A joint appeal issued by the railway workers’ union (RMT), locomotive drivers (ASLEF), and bakers (BFAWU) calling to vote “Leave” stated, in part:

“We support the vote to leave the EU in the next referendum because we are convinced that the EU is in favor of Capital and against the interests of workers.

“To even suggest that the EU has allowed workers to gain rights is a fiction. The near totality of laws that have protected workers in Britain were adopted in the country. They were won thanks to the campaigns and struggles waged by trade unions and the labor movement in this country.”

Pointing the Way Forward: Internationalist Rally in London

On June 13, a rally organized by Lexit (Left Exit) under the banner of “London Says #Lexit; The Left Case Against the EU,” brought together more than 300 activists in Camden Center, in the heart of London. All came to support the “Leave” campaign in the June 23 referendum.

Activists came from the RMT, ASLEF, firefighters (FBU), and the Labour Leave campaign. The event was chaired by Alex Gordon, former president of the RMT and secretary of the Lexit campaign. But this was also an internationalist meeting, as two of the featured speakers were a Polish immigrant worker and a French activist in the railways trade union movement.

Mick Lynch, deputy general secretary of the RMT, opened the meeting, stating:

“Our union has always opposed the EU. We are ashamed of the position of the leaders of the official left. We must not forget that it was Conservative Prime Minister Heath that made us join the EU. And it was Thatcher who worked on the implementation of the Single European Treaty.”

Caroline Tacchella brought to London the greetings from 85 French railroad unionists engaged in the fight against the El Khomri Law, which is aimed at dismantling the French Labor Code at the behest of the European Union. “This law is neither amendable nor negotiable,” she explained. “If the French government does not announce its withdrawal, then the issue of waging a continuous strike until the withdrawal of the Law will be posed. This is what is being debated in the French labor movement. We support fully the vote to Leave. We are for the free union of workers and people throughout Europe!”

Tariq Ali, a writer and filmmaker, replied to the lies and conscious misinformation: “It is strange to see how the pro-European Union media are suddenly silent on what is happening in France or on events that took place in Germany at the U.S. bases against the strikes by the drones.”

Jacek Szymanski, a Polish immigrant worker, received a loud ovation when he told the gathering: “The Polish economy is based on low wages, a very high unemployment rate, and millions of precarious work contracts. It’s been 12 years since Poland joined the EU, and the assessment is that 3 million Poles have left their country, thrown out of their homeland by despair. … The opportunity is there to deal a huge blow to the European Union; I beg you to seize it!”

Alex Gordon concluded the rally with the following remarks:

“There are two main reasons why we must vote Leave: First, it is an internationalist vote, because the EU is an international institution of Capital; it is imperialist institution that relies on NATO and practices a colonial policy in its bilateral agreements.

“The second reason is that a Leave vote is the best way to get rid of this Conservative government. The Cameron government is in crisis; the Leave vote is the best way to bring a final blow to him and to his anti-worker policies.”

What Next?

A declaration of the Trade Unionists Against the European Union (TUAEU) following the June 23 vote pointed to the tasks ahead:

“Having voted to leave the EU, we can devote ourselves now to the essential task of rebuilding our industry, nationalizing our railways, our postal services, our public services and our energy companies; we can reinvest in our public services and in those who work there.”

A communiqué of the ASLEF locomotive drivers’ union stated:

“The result of the referendum reflects the inability of successive governments to meet the aspirations of the people, whether in relation to housing or job security … ASLEF will continue to defend workers’ rights here and abroad; this includes our public services, especially our health services. International solidarity between British workers and those in other countries existed long before the EU and must continue after.”

Sarah Friday, a member of the Labour Party branch in King’s Cross, was equally clear:

“It was important that the working class Labour Party voters know that there was a Labour campaign to vote ‘Leave.’ And it will be even more important in the immediate future if we do not want the right wing of the party to carry the day. …

“What we need now is parliamentary elections. We must fight side by side with the workers who voted ‘Leave’ so that they vote along these same class lines inside the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn must call a general election and lead the Labour campaign on a line to break with the European Union and for a Labour government.”

An editorial published in issue no. 45 of Tribune des Travailleurs (June 29) summarized the necessary next steps as follows:

“Two workers out of three, a large majority of British workers, almost half of the Labour Party supporters, voted to break with the European Union, ignoring the instructions of their leaders. They are entitled to expect that their organizations will take up the fight in support of the contents of their vote, and break the sacred union with Capital and the Conservative Party.

“The question, now, is no longer the Brexit vote, but its content. The break with the European Union is a first step. The task is to create the conditions to break with any and all austerity measures and all privatization-destruction guidelines dictated by the EU and implemented by successive governments, in Britain as in all countries.”

The question, indeed, is very concrete: What government can carry forth with implementing the mandate of the majority of the British people for a break with the European Union, for the defense of trade union rights, for the defense of jobs, wages and working conditions, for the renationalization of all privatized public services and enterprises?

Surely not a Conservative government. And surely not a government headed by Leave advocate and former mayor of London Boris Johnson, who was slated to become prime minister following the vote but refused the post, as he knew that the Brexit vote was too much of a “hot potato” and that as prime minster he would not be able to give a positive response to the deep working-class aspirations that the voters had expressed with their Leave vote. (Nigel Farage, similarly, resigned as leader of the UKIP, also unwilling to heed the content of the Brexit vote.)

No. Only a Labour government can heed the will of the people — that is, a Labour Party government that rejects all the policies repudiated by the British voters, which means a government that breaks with the European Union and meets the demands of the working class! — ALAN BENJAMIN

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EU Slovenia refugees

The EU Is in Favor of Migrant Workers? Who Are They Kidding?


JUNE 29, 2016 — The only racist acts that interest the corporate media are those that provide fodder for their propaganda campaign.

To claim what? Their first objective is to try to mask the class character of the vote on June 23. The second is to pass off the European Union as a “protector” of immigrant workers!

At the very moment when this media campaign is being promoted in relation to the UK, in Greece, the European Union is warehousing in the most atrocious conditions the refugees fleeing the wars that Messrs. Cameron, Hollande and Obama are organizing in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. …

Then there is Turkey, which is expelling the refugees as part of a shameful agreement between the European Commission and the Erdogan government! As we have stated and reiterated in this weekly newspaper, Tribune des Travailleurs [Workers Tribune], and as was stated by the British labor activists at the meeting on June 13 in London in support of the “Leave” vote: “Open the Borders!” – “No to Fortress Europe!”

The racist actions mentioned in the media are said to be targeting Polish migrant workers. The facilitators of this odious campaign have short memories. In February 2016, Cameron and the European Commission issued a discriminatory law against migrant workers from countries of the European Union. These workers are henceforth deprived for four years of all their social rights as workers! With the stroke of a pen, more than one million workers from Eastern Europe, in particular, became “second class workers”! And they have the gall to present the European Union as a “protector” of migrant workers!

The truth must be told: The xenophobes such as Nigel Farage of the right-wing UKIP are simply the natural children of the European Union and its discriminatory, anti-immigrant measures. To which we should add another point: Why did one million Polish workers leave their country and their families to come to work in Britain in the first place?

Is this not the direct result of the policies of privatization-destruction of Polish industry under the aegis of the European Union? In 2009, the European Commission directly and consciously bankrupted the Polish shipyards in the Baltic Sea; they were accused of having received aid from the Polish state, which is strictly forbidden by the sacrosanct “competition” clauses of the European Treaty! Tens of thousands of workers were laid off. …

This experience is being lived daily by workers — whether immigrant or not — from all over Europe. They will not let themselves be fooled by this shameful propaganda campaign.

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P5- 1997 Rally in London with Corbyn copy

Jeremy Corbyn Yesterday and Today

On February 1, 1997, an International Rally Against Maastricht and the Single Currency” was held in London at the initiative of the International Liaison Committee for a Workers’ International (ILC).

Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour Party Member of Parliament, addressed the rally as follows:

“This is an international rally in opposition to Maastricht [the founding treaty of the European Union – Tr. note]. It’s an internationalist fight. … If the European Union is such a success, why these millions of unemployed? … Why the destruction of production and of the environment as such?

“We can only advance toward a new society by uniting our efforts beyond borders. The choice is simple: It is between, on the one hand, the Europe of peoples, and, on the other, the Europe of a group of rapacious bankers, who claim that we have the right to neither Social Security nor full employment. Of these two Europes, I know which is the one that we here want.”

Nineteen years have passed. Jeremy Corbyn, who is now the leader of the Labour Party, has changed his tune; he is now “in favor of Britain remaining in the European Union because the European project has brought jobs, investment and protection to workers.”







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