Let’s win our rights as workers

Let’s win our rights as workers together

On March 30th the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Leo Varadkar, announced, as he does like to, the setting up of a High-level Working Group under the auspices of the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) to review collective bargaining and the industrial relations landscape in Ireland. This review body will be chaired by Professor Michael Doherty, of Maynooth University. For those interested Michael delivered an education meeting for the TULF on a critical assessment of ‘social partnership’ during the summer of 2020. A podcast version can be heard here .

What is it the review?

Obviously, this review has been instigated by a right-wing Government and a Minister, in particular,  who is no friend of the working class. The review group will have ICTU involved but will, of course, also have our friends in IBEC. It is clear that Fine Gael will have an agenda to limit and control any developments in the collective organisation of workers. One might suggest, with an EU Directive potentially on the horizon, and also the prevalence of low-pay which impacts consumption and taxation, the Government may be looking to get ahead of developments in order to make only small and limited adjustments. Quite clearly the language of the Minister in launching the review notes the positives of the ‘voluntarist’ system, and so, in some ways predicts a potential outcome already.  The voluntarist system is of course a veto system where employers can, and now more often than not do, just say no and refuse to recognise and collectively bargain with workers unions. Indeed, some employers even go as far as to victimise and penalise workers who merely seek legal entitlements around information and consultation not even trade union recognition.

What do we need to strengthen workers and organised labour?

However, this still represents an opportunity for unions and workers to raise the profile of union recognition and collective bargaining and make demands that will strengthen organised labour in Ireland. And that is what is important in our demands. We need changes to laws and institutions that strengthen the ability of workers to organise collectively and take collective action. We reforms that will help alter the balance of power between labour and capital that will then provide for greater change in the future.

We need to put forward clear demands for the right to organise workers and this means the right to have access to workers in their workplace of work to talk about workplace issues and discuss unionisation. We need legal facilities time for union reps to organise their co-workers. We need, as TULF has championed, changes to strike laws to make strike action easier, quicker, more efficient and change the type of strikes (like solidarity, political, one individuals) that are protected.

The TULF in its Workers Charter has previously called for and we know resurrect this demand:

A Trade Union Bill, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, to provide for union recognition, collective bargaining rights, representation on company boards, right to access for union organisers, strong anti-victimisation penalties, solidarity and secondary picketing, and repeal and replacement of the 1990 ROI act and the UK Trade Union Act 2016 where it impacts workers in Northern Ireland

These are the changes that will fundamentally strengthen the industrial position of our class at the point of production, in the workplace. It is from here that we can then build a stronger class and politically champion a free, united, independent and socialist Ireland.

In a more recent article published by Frank Keoghan, published on the TULF website, he echoed these demands:

Trade union officials must have guaranteed access to workplaces and union representatives should have the time and facilities to carry out their duties. Governments must also act firmly to protect trade unionists from discrimination, dismissal and blacklisting. Employers should be prevented from interfering in trade unions’ internal affairs, offering bribes or incentives to non-unionised staff or intimidating workers to stop them joining a union.

What won’t be sufficient?

A review such as this, also presents dangers which we need to be conscious of learning the lessons from ‘social partnership’ years, which we do NOT want to return to. We need to be wary of any changes or processes which centralise control and negotiations away from workers and the workplace. Sectoral or national bargaining without strong workplace structures and unions will actually damage and weaken the trade union movement further and prevent union renewal and growth. We do not want mere wage-setting mechanisms, arbitration of disputes or greater powers of the Labour Court to decide conditions removed from workers. These have the potential to hollow out trade unions even further. The changes we want need to revitalise trade unions in the workplace and empower workers themselves.

Let’s win these rights as workers

Frank Keoghans article went on to emphasise that as workers we must win these demands, wherever they might ultimately be formalised or legislated for:

These struggles are best carried out at national level with international solidarity through union structures such as the global union IndustriALL or the Global Power Trade Union, when appropriate. But in the end, it is down to workers themselves organised in their unions to achieve these objectives. Neither the EU nor our government will deliver.

And that is why we are now calling on ICTU to open-up a consultation process with activists, with organisers in the private sector, with the TULF and campaign groups of grassroots members to win these rights here in Ireland by workers themselves.

We need to take the opportunity of the review to start a campaign for the right of workers to organise and collectively bargain with their employers. And, if a change to the Constitution is needed to legislate for any of this, well then, bring it on and lets mobilise to win it. Workers want change, want power and a voice at work, and want to unionise so let them and support them.