2015: resistance, struggles, and developments

Capital’s strategic offensive to open up new areas of profit, weaken the collective and reform education continued during the past year. However, there has been some increased resistance from workers on a number of fronts and pay increases won by union members, as well as a strengthening of the water movement in opposition to privatisation, double taxation, and Irish Water.

The following is a brief overview of some of the important moments of the year.

Water movement continues to grow

Without doubt the most important development for workers this year has been the leading role played by trade unions in the national water movement, providing finance, a national profile, and media attention.

While the success of the movement was and remains in each and every community around the country, the support of the large unions for the movement added something missing from previous resistance campaigns.

It has also helped to link workers’ work-place struggles with community campaigns and, if it can be built on, may just provide the necessary platform for rebuilding the union movement and workers’ confidence in struggle.

Housing and homeless action

2015 saw the steady growth of a housing fight back. Fragmented pockets of resistance from single mothers organising in working class communities, to anti-eviction groups, anti-capitalists, republicans, radical social workers, homeless activists and community activists formally joined forces in May as the housing crisis intensified. The Irish Housing Network was born.

Occupations of councils and departments were followed by the opening of the Bolt Hostel. The Bolt Hostel was a DCC homeless accommodation vacant since 2011. In the middle of an intense housing and homeless crisis, buildings like this lie vacant. After 2 months, a High Court ejection ended the occupation, exposing the true hand of the State.

The Network continued to grow, building a national network of housing and homeless groups and promoting deeper organising in communities and workplaces. Successes followed, a NAMA auction was stopped in Wexford in November and a 12 day occupation of emergency accommodation ended in a stalemate with DCC and property investors in December. Going into 2016, housing will be centre stage and capitals privatisation agenda gathers momentum. It is clear that the State will only seek ‘solutions’ that work for private enterprise and capital and where homeless people themselves organise the State will resist them.

Decency for Dunne’s

The Dunne’s campaign, led by Mandate, took a brave step in 2015 in the form of a one-day work stoppage on 2 April that saw six thousand workers in 109 branches withdraw their labour for a day. The action—probably the biggest private-sector strike for some time—also drew massive support and solidarity from other unions and from communities around Dunne’s branches. Pickets were vibrant and workers confident.

The management responded by victimising and intimidating members of the union; but so far members have stood strong with their union and have secured a pay increase of 3 per cent and some improvements to their terms and conditions. The one-day action was followed by a 5,000-strong protest outside Dunne’s head office in Dublin on 6 June; and just before Christmas some 1,300 Dunne’s workers participated in a survey that revealed their complaints on flexible-hour contracts and insecurity of earnings.

Justice for Clery’s workers

On 12 June, Clery’s landmark department store in Dublin was shut abruptly by the owners, Natrium, locking out staff and customers alike and leaving 130 workers without jobs. SIPTU, with its members, launched protests, and 30,000 people signed a petition that called on the management to meet the workers. A motion was also passed by Dublin City Council calling Clery’s an iconic and essential part of the Dublin retail experience.

Protests have continued as recently as 8 December, but still the owners refuse to meet the workers. These “entrepreneurs”—Deirdre Foley, John Skelly, and Ronan Daly—are the type celebrated by the Government and the media, although this is how they treat workers and the public. This campaign will continue into the new year as justice is sought for the Clery’s workers.

The struggle to hold Aer Lingus

May saw a renewed, and ultimately successful, attempt by the Government to sell its 25 per cent shareholding in Aer Lingus to IAG. This has long been an aim of Governments, although they hoped to do so in a way that avoided Ryanair being the purchaser.

SIPTU led a campaign seeking protection and commitments for jobs and routes, important for rural communities. This was successful in securing a legally enshrined registered employment agreement that will commit the company to not pursuing an agenda of outsourcing and compulsory redundancies. However, the campaign was not broad enough, nor political enough, with insufficient mass support to oppose the sale outright.

And so in August, Aer Lingus shareholders voted to accept the sale agreement; and for the first time in history the airline is without state involvement or part-ownership.

There are lessons in this, that while a strong union can achieve protection for workers in the short term, there is no doubt that the failure to prevent privatisation leaves workers in Aer Lingus far more vulnerable now than before, and where capital wishes it will in time find a way around any protections secured. The lack of a mass political campaign for public ownership was critical in the failure to oppose the sale, and the divide between unionised workers and the mass of non-members is critical in this failure.

Privatisation of Dublin Bus routes and Irish Rail disputes

1,500 workers committed themselves to a campaign of industrial action in midsummer in opposition to the privatisation of 10 per cent of Dublin bus routes and to secure protection for workers. Much like the Aer Lingus campaign by SIPTU, ultimately short-term assurance was secured that workers would not have to work the 10 per cent of routes for private operators; but it did not prevent the privatisation of routes, and so this protection will come under attack again—not to mention the fact that privatisation will lead to much waste, inefficiencies, and increased costs, just as with refuse collection. The remaining 90 per cent of routes will, potentially, be up for tender to private operators from 2019.

Without a broader political and social programme and the ability to mobilise the broader membership and class, campaigns against privatisation are unlikely to succeed, and so the best that the unions are achieving is short-term protection for the workers involved.

Following on-and-off discussions and a day of industrial action in November, members in Irish Rail accepted an outcome from the Labour Court on productivity initiatives and payments. In all these discussions the union members have given priority to citizens’ health and safety as well as to their own demands within the context of a relentless cost-cutting drive by the management. It is likely that there will be further action in 2016, as drivers in particular are well organised and clear in their opposition to cost-saving at their expense and the expense of safety.

Teachers and regressive reform

Over the last two years the teachers’ unions have opposed the Government’s proposed reform of the Junior Certificate, which would see new teacher-led methods of assessment. The unions have opposed these reforms, as they will potentially harm teaching and educational standards and follow some of the worst international practice.

At first all the teachers’ unions opposed the process, and there were two days of industrial action and a general non-cooperation boycott. Unfortunately, however, in September the TUI voted to accept the process, having secured what it described as its key objectives—the reinstatement of a fully externally assessed state-certified Junior Cert examination and professional time to be provided for teachers—while the ASTI members voted against it. This means that TUI members (approximately 9,000) will begin co-operation, where the position of ASTI members (approximately 18,000) is slightly less known.

The ASTI ballot was clearly not popular with the union’s leadership, who were forced to acknowledge that the vote was a vote of no confidence in the Government and that their members did not trust the Government’s commitments or its intentions in education reform—a wise position for members to take!

Pay for workers, public and private

May 2015 saw a pay restoration deal for the public sector agreed between unions and Government that will involve a phased return of about €2,000 over two years for most public servants, with priority for the lower paid. However, many members are still unhappy at concessions made over the three public-sector austerity agreements and the continuing privatisation of public-sector services.

In the private sector, pay increases were achieved during the year in manufacturing, retail, finance, and technology. The increases ranges from 2 to 4 per cent, and the ICTU Private Sector Committee has made a demand for increases of 5 per cent for the private sector in 2016.

It is at about this time of year that, if you are in a unionised company, negotiations will probably be starting. The biggest challenge for workers is to secure general increases for all and to resist or negate the worst aspects of performance-related pay and performance management structures, which unfairly discriminate against certain workers and divide workers to the benefit of the management, leading ultimately to pay stagnation, which is the general aim of capital.

New IR Institutions: a watching brief

The reform programme of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, National Employment Rights Association, Equality Tribunal, Labour Relations Commission and Labour Court progressed significantly in 2015. The reforms have now entered their final phases, which will see a two-tier structure in the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court, primarily as a court of appeal.

Concerns still remain. The Government tried to introduce a fee for taking a case, which the unions successfully opposed. But this attempt to monetise the process of rights vindication, which exists in Britain, will no doubt re-emerge in years to come. There are also serious concerns about the powers granted to the WRC to rule out cases before they even have a hearing, which is arguably unconstitutional. But by and large the unions have welcomed the reforms as making processes, structures and timelines easier for workers to follow and access.

New IR legislation yet to be tested

In addition to these changes to industrial relations and workers’ rights structures, new legislation was introduced that some unions—opportunistically and incorrectly—welcomed as collective bargaining legislation. It absolutely is not collective bargaining legislation. However, it may represent opportunities for workers without union recognition to organise and potentially improve their terms and conditions of employment, which is a positive development. But, as with previous attempts to legislate, it is stated Government policy that it must be in line with Ireland’s commitment to foreign direct investment, and so it will not deliver collective bargaining for workers. Time will tell what benefits, if any, are derived from this.

The Trade Union Left Forum reiterates its commitment to workers winning through collective power and action. Regardless of legislation—although it can be helpful or a hindrance—workers only win through organising and taking action, and this remains the surest way to improve your working life.