"expert writers" on the Irish Trade Unions have no experience of the trade
union culture in Ireland. Many of these trendy lefties have never attended a
branch meeting, or participated in any trade union activity. Indeed some of
these people live and work in Ireland and do not see the need to organise in
their own non-union workplace.
According to the
European Union half the working population in Ireland are trade unionists.
Union density overall in Ireland was around 50% for a number of years in the
1970s and early 1980s, but by 1987 it had fallen to 43.5%. There has once again
been a growth in membership since then, and current union density is estimated
to lie at around 50%.
French, Italian trendy lefties rather than criticise the Irish Unions should
look at their own back yard; at the very least become involved in the trade
union movement. Contrary to belief amongst the Continental trendy left, Irish
trade unions have both a democratic content and mechanism.
acknowledge the Irish Trade Union movement as the organised working class. As
such, it is our only access to organise workers. It is not our aim to control
and manipulate but rather to give a lead with ideas and action within our
specific unions. Republican Socialists need to mobilise trade unionists on the
ground to re-engage with their trade unions by participation within the
democracy of trade unions at all levels.
However, it must be
admitted that it was through this democracy that trade union bureaucracy set
in. The struggle to transform the unions inevitably comes up against this
conservative bureaucracy, whose jobs depend on maintaining their role as
middlemen in the struggles and negotiations between workers and bosses. The top
three officials in SIPTU receive nearly £80,000 a year.
In 1987 the
propaganda machine of the Free State government and the bosses worked overtime
to sell the Social Contract. Trade union leaders too were keen to sell their
members the idea of social partnership; management and unions would get
together to cooperate over improving the state of the Irish economy in order to
share out the subsequent wealth generated. The Programme for National Recovery
committed these ‘social partners ‘ to "seek to regenerate the
economy and improve the social equity of our society through their combined
As long as workers
worked harder the size of the national cake would grow and consequently the
workers share would grow to.
Today the government
and the bosses yell bellicose attacks at workers fighting to defend themselves
that there must be no conflict, no challenge to the social partnership, which
has produced this redistribution of wealth to the rich, or the whole boom will
Is it the case that
the boom was created and is sustained by the social contract, which holds
workers wages in check while the bosses rake in super profits? The social
contract has been the cover behind which foreign capitalists have sought to
boost their profits by rising productivity, that is changing working conditions
to make us all work harder and longer.
As ICTU put it,
partnership means moving from "the clenched fist of confrontation to
the open hand of cooperation." They are tied to the idea of social
partnership, more accurately class collaboration. They act like referees
in the fight between workers and bosses rather than leaders. Yet they are not
the ones suffering short-term contracts or total quality management.
can change. One Republican Socialist openly opposed this bureaucracy [and]
moreover, using the same democratic mechanism was elected with more than 50%
more votes under his hat than the bureaucrat.
of the unions is about a fight to change the leaders and in many cases the
structures and rules whereby all trade union officials are elected, recallable.
Moreover, to achieve this requires the organisation of the rank and file of the
unions against the bureaucracy. Remember every vote in the trade unions is by
postal ballot. It is worth noting that in some cases for a trade unionist to be
elected on to the Executive, it takes 5 times as many votes as a local
authority councillor. Trade unions might be "schools for socialism", but
trade union consciousness is not spontaneously socialist.
Some have asked the
question why trade unions exist. Workers are aware what the Unions do. They
know that they defend wages and conditions, and provide legal aid both inside
and outside the place of work. These things are important. However, why was it
important to fight for them?
The answer to this
question is to be found in the foundations of trade unionism and more
importantly socialism also. Workers had to fight for these things because the
employers and governments were not prepared to give them until they were forced
to. That is true and the force which they used was based upon their power to
stop work, in other words in their power to strike. For that reason, Trade
Unionists have always aimed at 100% organization, and have regarded the
non-unionist as a danger and the strikebreaker as a "blackleg".
Why have the workers
had to rely upon their power to withhold labour? "For the reason that
workers have no other power than their labour power." In a capitalist
society, the working class is in a distinctive position. In comparative terms,
workers have no property. It is dependent upon the class, which exploits it.
The capitalist, owns the factories, mills, mines, railways, transport. That is
why the removal of labour by the workers can be so powerful a weapon when used
on a large scale.
When Trade Unionists
fight the employers on wages questions and the conditions of labour they are
really fighting against consequences of the capitalist system. The existence of
the private ownership of the means of production means also the private
ownership of the things produced and their sale as commodities in competition
with one with another.
Labour also is a
commodity and those who sell their labour power, the members of the working
class, manual and brain-worker alike, also compete (…)
Trade unions are the
basic organisation of the Irish working-class. However; they are much more than
that. They are the kernel of the future Irish society within the old.
Of course, since the
workers’ organisations exist in a capitalist Ireland they are subjected to
alien class pressures. This includes both the Irish Ruling class and US
imperialism. These pressures weigh heavily on the upper stratum and this often
leads to degeneration. We are not dealing with an ideal norm, but with the mass
organisations, as they really exist in class society. The distortions that
occur, especially in periods when the working class is not on the move, can
produce a feeling that the unions cannot be changed. This serious mistake is
contradicted by the historical experience of the movement. Repeatedly the
workers have moved to transform their organisations into organs and schools of
solidarity, struggle and socialism.
The history of the
Irish unions is not a straight line. On the contrary, it unfolds in an uneven
fashion with various contradictory shifts in one direction or another. It is
constantly characterised by the struggle between two traditions and two
tendencies. A revolutionary one, reflecting the unconscious will of the working
class to change society, and a subservient one, reflecting the pressures of the
ruling class on the upper stratum, that then attempts to block the movement to
change society and lead it instead like a lamb into safe channels.
In normal periods,
the consciousness of the workers is affected by the dead weight of tradition
and routine. In such times, most people are prepared to accept the leadership
of the Professionals, Bourgeois and reformist politicians, Members of the Dail,
Parliament, councillors and trade union leaders.
The Venezuelan CTV
(the old national trade union federation) sold its soul to the old two-party
capitalist system and governments it produced. For 40 years, the Venezuelan
trade union movement lived through its worst period, because workers were
puppets in the games played by the old parties (Copei and AD) and the bosses’
organizations. Venezuelan still remember how AD (Democratic Action) decided the
fate of workers, bought and sold contracts and worked with the government to
control the unions and the CTV. We should remember that the bosses’ strike of
2002-3was led by the CTV and Fedecamaras (the bosses’ organization) working
hand in hand. The Irish trade unions were doing just the same when they signed
the social contract.
However, there are
periods of crises and upheavals, when the working class is shaken out of the
old apathy and begins to take action, demanding solutions, asking questions.
Being close to the class, the unions reflect this changed mood very early on.
Moreover, what happens in the unions today will be expressed perhaps as
problems in the Irish Republican Socialist Party tomorrow?
The pioneers of
Irish Labour, Connolly and Larkin were inspired by a vision. They believed that
the trade union movement and Republican Socialism would become a powerful
weapon of social emancipation. This revolutionary aspiration was, and in many
cases remains, enshrined in trade union rules and constitutions.
experience of collective struggle, the working class gradually raises itself to
an understanding of the need to change society. It develops a sense of its own
power and ability. One can see this in every strike. Marxists base themselves
on this fact and strive to develop this tendency and bring it to the fullest
The role of Marxists
in the trade unions is to make conscious the unconscious will of the working
class to change society. The working class has within its ranks a tremendous
strength and resilience. Even when it suffers a terrible and crushing defeat,
it recovers and again reasserts itself. It is like the Greek god Antaeus of
ancient mythology, who when thrown to the ground, drew strength from his mother
lay in its path, the objective conditions of life force it to continually
struggle against the system of capitalist exploitation. Those who argue that
the class struggle is out of date are obviously out of touch with the reality
of Ireland in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Trade unions must
be organised to recognize that all the efforts of the working class must be
directed to the goal of the conquest of political power. Their fight in the
industrial field must be linked with the fight to obtain a Socialist Government
which, backed by the might of the working class, would transfer the ownership
of the means of production and distribution from private hands to social
published in The Plough, E-mail
newsletter of the Irish
Republican Socialist Party, Vol. 4- No 25, Monday, 19th November 2007, website http://www.theplough.netfirms.com/]