Does the trade union movement need a new political strategy?

tulf new politicsBelow is the the final contribution to our recent debate on a new politics for the trade union movement by Dave Gibney. A follow up meeting will be held in September to further the discussion on what should be in a class based political programme for the trade union movement. If you have thoughts on this please post on our FB page

The very first question asked by an Irish Independent journalist at the founding press conference of Right2Water in August 2014 was: “why are trade unions getting involved in politics, shouldn’t you just be focusing on workplace issues?”

To trade union activists the question may seem stupid, but it does illustrate how far from a political force trade unions have become. That question would never be asked of IBEC. The answer to the question is quite simple really: Mandate Trade Union members have won €36 million in pay increases over the last four years, but then the government comes along and with the stroke of a pen takes €27m from their pockets through water charges. To protect workers’ incomes, Unions have to be active on the political and industrial field.

In addressing the question posed by the Trade Union Left Forum, Does the trade union movement need a new political strategy? One must ask whether the trade union movement actually has a political strategy, and whether that strategy is working.

Let’s look at Irish society right now to help establish that answer:

  • Ireland has the second highest prevalence of low pay in the entire OECD – only lagging behind the USA.
  • Ireland has the second highest prevelence of involuntary part-time workers (low hours and zero hour contracts) in the EU15 – behind Spain – with more than 100,000 workers seeking more hours at work but being denied them.
  • 2,121 children are homeless across the State with more than 70 families losing their homes every single month.
  • Irish class sizes are the second highest in the EU with 25 pupils per teacher compared to an average in the EU of 20.
  • 10 percent of people living in Ireland experience food poverty.
  • Ireland has the highest level of fuel poverty in the EU.
  • Ireland has the highest excess winter mortality rates in the EU with the most recent number seeing 2,800 deaths mostly among poorer communities.
  • 12% of those at work are living in poverty.
  • 36% of Irish children experience multiple deprivation.

We can look beyond statistics at some of the most fundamental trade union principles to further this point:

  1. Ireland still does not have collective bargaining rights.
  2. There is no trade union education on the school curriculum despite 95% of students moving on to become workers rather than entrepreneurs and almost all teachers in the State being members of a union.
  3. Trade Union density in Ireland is edging towards its lowest point in 100 years.

So if there is a trade union political strategy, it doesn’t seem to be working.

The problem is not that trade unions don’t have a vision; it’s that they have no way of having their vision implemented. Unions are politically weak, relatively speaking. The mainstream political parties do not fear the trade union movement as they should. If they did, why do we have among the weakest workplace rights in the EU, and why can’t we have our policies implemented?

Just look at pre-Budget submissions for an example. Since the economic crisis began in 2008, Unions have been more-or-less right. We argued for wealth taxes; more investment; no cuts; and all adjustments to be made at the top end of the income ladder. ICTU said austerity would cost jobs, increase poverty levels, destroy communities, increase emigration, etc, etc. But all pre-Budget submissions were glanced at, and then swiftly thrown in the bin.

Instead the groups that had their policies implemented were the American Chamber of Commerce, IBEC, Irish Bankers’ Federation, and the Small Firms Association.

The media has a role to play in this too. They give much more airtime to business lobby groups than they do to workers’ representatives. When the Low Pay Commission recently recommended a measly 10c increase in the minimum wage, RTE’s online coverage gave space to three business groups for quotations (Chambers Ireland, IBEC and the Small Firms Association), one civil society group (MRCI) and the Fine Gael Minister. Not one trade union was referenced despite Mandate, Unite, SIPTU, ICTU and others all issuing press releases.

In October 2014, the month of the first Right2Water National Demonstration which was hosted by a number of trade unions and was one of the largest protests in Irish history, Pat Kenny had 104 guests on his show. During the whole month, only one guest (less than 1%) came from the Trade Union movement. However, there were 20 journalists, 16 business people or public relations professionals, 12 classified as miscellaneous, 8 politicans, 8 cultural, 7 writers, 6 campaigners, 5 doctors, 2 sportspeople and 1 priest.

So one of the major challenges is getting the trade union message out into the public domain. But what is that message and what is the strategic objective of that message?

100 years ago trade unions had a political strategy. At the Congress Conference  in 1930, reflecting on the political policy of the past, Conference reported:

“The policy to which James Connolly subscribed in 1914, viz: – ‘That in any parliament to be elected in Ireland Labour must be represented as a separate and independent entity, having no connection with any other Party or Parties in the Legislative Chamber’ is as sound now as it was 16 years ago.

“The success of the industrial wing of our movement must, therefore, continue to depend largely on the strength and efficiency of the political wing. On the other hand, the political side cannot ever hope to become an effective force in this country unless it has behind it the driving power of the Trade Unions.

“A few moments’ thought must show any one who has in the interests of the Labour movement at heart that both sides of the Movement are largely inter-dependent and must continue to be so, even though each has now a separate existance…

“…Complaint has, from time to time, been made, with what justification I shall not venture to discuss, that the interests of the industrial side of the movement are liable to be forgotten or overlooked by the National Executive, whose members, it was alleged, devoted most of their attention to the more spectacular field of politics.”

That attraction to the “more spectacular field of politics” is still a major issue now where many within the movement appear to be political party members first and and foremost, and trade unionists second.

25 years after the above was written, the frustrations of a failing trade union political strategy were illustrated in the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks’ (Mandate Trade Unions’ predecessor union) Annual Report (1955).

“When the necessity of pensions, sickness benefits or home purchase becomes a personal issue, we are inclined to wonder why the State, or even our employers, do not provide us with worthwhile amenities. No doubt they have a duty in this respect, but the passage of the years has not marked any significant advancement in their favour. While we are hopefully waiting, it might be a sensible thing for us to exercise a little self help.”

The argument they were making in this article was for trade unions to engage in the concept of worker cooperatives. More importantly, they were talking and debating about a political strategy to vindicate their objectives on behalf of their members, something that appears to have been absent from the trade union movement for quite some time.

Over the past 20 years, due to much demonisation by the mainstream media, the business community, by members of the public, and in some cases, due to the actions/inactions of trade unions themselves, the trade union movement has lost much of its support in working class communities, its traditional home. Instead, trade unions – partly as a result of social partnership – are now seem as professional associations rather than community organisations.

Hypothetically, though, what would Ireland look like if it had been ruled by trade unions for the last 100 years?

Let’s start back in 1920’s. Here is a motion debated and passed by one of Mandate’s predecessor unions:

Minimum Wage

Mr Duffy (Galway) Proposed and Mr. Gillespie (Kilkenny) seconded a motion on the minimum wage:

“That owing to the miserably low wage paid to the bulk of those who work in shops, we feel that the time is long since ripe for the establishment of a minimum wage, and as a first essential towards this, we urge those concerned to become thoroughly organised; at the same time we are of the opinion that the Trades Boards Act should be utilized or amended so that those who work in shops be brought within its scope.”

That motion took 80 years to come to fruition in 2000.

Around the same time the following resolution was moved by Mr. O’Gorman (Cork), seconded by Mr. Byrne (Dublin) and unanimously agreed:

Collective Agreements.

“Being of opinion that many disputes could be avoided, and greater security in employment assured if collective agreements entered into between trade unions and employers were given the force of law, this Congress calls for the introduction of legislation to secure that object.”

That motion has never been adopted by any Irish Government and has led to thousands of trade union disputes as employers continue to cut terms and conditions of employment without agreement.

In the 1950’s we would have achieved 4 weeks annual leave had trade unions been legislators, rather than having to wait until 1997:

“That this Annual Delegate Meeting calls on the incoming National Executive Committee to make representations to the Government to introduce legislation for 4 weeks annual leave for all employees in the public and private sector.”

Finally, in the 1970’s, a motion was debated and amended through a democratic discussion at the IDATU Conference:

“Dental Treatment for Children

That this Annual Delegate Meeting instructs the incoming National Executive Committee to make representations to the Minister for Health to provide dental treatment for children from the time they leave primary school until their 16th birthday.” – Dublin Distributive Branch

The motion was amended by the Irish Manufacturers Agents and Commercial Travellers’ Branch to insert the words “and optical” between ‘dental’ and ‘treatment’.

In an addendum by the Tralee Branch, after the words ‘16th birthday’, the words ‘and also for non-working wives of insured persons’ was added.

So now you have a resolution, following a democratic debate among retail workers from different parts of the country, that gives children and partners of workers free dental and optical treatment.

Many will look to trade unions today and say they were different in the past. However, if you look at recent policies adopted and positions taken by the Irish Congress of Trade Union’s (ICTU) in recent years, if they were in government, Ireland would not be supporting TTIP or CETA. Zero hour contracts and exploitative low hour contracts would be banned. Water charges would be abolished and increased funding would be made to upgrade the water infrastructure from general taxation. Lone parent’s cuts would not have taken place. We would have a higher minimum wage with an introduction of refundable tax credits which would benefit 240,000 of the lowest paid in the country. Generally, Ireland would be a more equal and fairer place to live.

So it isn’t that the Irish Trade Union movement hasn’t identified a programme, it’s that it doesn’t have the capacity to have that programme implemented. Why is that?

Well, there are broadly three ways unions can have their policies implemented through interactions in the political scene:

  1. Affiliation
  2. Unofficial Support
  3. A Policy Based Independent Strategy


There are different models of affiliation around the world. In Ireland, only SIPTU and the TSSA are affiliated to a political party, the Labour Party.

For their affiliation they do not receive automatic seats on the National Executive of the Labour Party, but “affiliated Unions are entitled to send delegates to Party conferences.” The number of delegates varies according to the size of the Union but their allocation is approximately 50% smaller than that of a regular branch. At the last Labour Party conference, there were reportedly between 900-1,000 delegates, of which approximately 11% came from affiliated Trade Unions.

Contrast this with the UK. Over there the affiliated Trade Unions have a guaranteed 12 seats on the National Executive out of 33, and they are by far the largest group. They also elect 50 percent of all delegates to the Labour Party Conference, which is where Labour Party policy is developed making the Trade Unions heavily influential.

Unofficial Support

Some Unions who are not affiliated to any political party send positive communications to members about a party/parties which their leadership or NEC supports. They sometimes do likewise in reverese, where they are critical of particular parties.

A Policy Based Independent Political Strategy

An example of this is the Right2Change Union strategy where policies were developed – like Right2Water, Right2Health, Right2Housing, Right2Education – and political candidates were asked whether they supported those policies. The Unions then asked all political candidates whether they would work together in government to have those policies implemented, if the numbers allowed. They then published the supporters of the Right2Change platform in order to educate members and the public on who supported this egalitarian platform.

Which of these strategies is best should be up for debate within every trade union in the country. However, while that discussion around political representation takes place, trade unions need to build a movement that functions cohesively and addresses the industrial and political challenges that face our members. That movement should have strong research and education functions focusing on political economy as well as tradition trade union courses – something NERI and Trademark both provide. It should build alliances in communities and among civil society groups. It should have a communications strategy that acknowledges and addresses the hostility of elements within the mainstream media. It should also consider the political, economic and industrial leverage it currently has in order to achieve its goals. It should then decide on what type of political representation it wants, if any.

The good news is, there has seldom been a better time than now to have this debate.

Civil War politics appears to be coming to an end with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael at their lowest combined electoral outcome in their history (49% of first preferences, down from a high of 87.4% in 1982), and with shared resources, new media opportunities – including social media, improvements in outreach (email, sms, etc), increased levels of community activism – if courageous action was taken by the trade union leadership, it could affect real change.

We’ve seen something stirring with the Right2Water campaign in Ireland, and with the movements for progressive change behind Corbyn in the UK, Sanders in the USA, in Greece, Portugal and also in Spain. People are crying out for a new politics.

There has never been a more opportune time, the question is, how do we get there – or will we let the momentum slip?

Maybe the next TULF meeting might help to answer that question.