A future worth fighting for – Workers Charter

 

Dear friends and comrades,

The Trade Union Left Forum is releasing a workers charter, an initiative to organise left trade unionists around a progressive workers rights programme. The charter, A future worth fighting for, emerged from a consultation with activists, supporters and friends throughout 2015 and 2016. Draft TULF Workers Charter

And so on Thursday, October 5th at 6pm, we are hosting a discussion on the draft workers charter in Mandate Trade Union offices. You can check out our FB event https://www.facebook.com/events/1438700992914745 to register. 

Workers deserve a society where our needs come first, before the interests of big business, exploitative employers and the EU/IMF. But this will never be given to us without a fight.

This meeting is a chance for trade union activists to discuss this draft charter and the campaign to communicate this vision to our friends and comrades across the union movement.

Why trade unionists should oppose CETA

The main goal of CETA is to remove regulatory ‘barriers’ which restrict the potential profits to be made by transnational corporations on both sides of the Atlantic. These ‘barriers’ are in reality some of our most prized social standards

CETA also seeks to create new markets by opening up public services and government procurement contracts to competition from transnational corporations, threatening to introduce a further wave of privatisations in key sectors, such as health and education.

Only the rights of corporations are clarified; those of workers are ignored or couched in vague provisions. Not only does CETA not contain a clause saying that respect for human rights is an essential element of the deal, it does not include binding and enforceable measures to ensure ILO core labour standards are respected in its sustainable development chapter. Furthermore, the public procurement provisions do not include explicit obligations to respect labour and environmental standards nor promote the use of social and environmental criteria in public tenders.

CETA will be provisionally applied by the Irish government on September 21st 2017.  This means that all its provisions, except the investor –state dispute mechanism will become effective in Ireland from today.

Below are outlined some of the reasons why all trade unionists should actively oppose this deal.

We’re in uncharted territory with public services

For the first time the EU has negotiated on our behalf, a trade deal with a “negative list” for services. This means that unless EU governments have explicitly excluded specific services, – and ours excluded only a few – all services, including new public services, will be automatically open to competition from foreign- service providers. Jargon-filled mechanisms like “standstill” and “ratchet” clauses lock-in current and further liberalisation, making it very difficult and costly for countries to bring services back into public ownership.

Because public procurement isn’t just about price

Local and national governments use public tenders to fulfil public policy choices. That means companies bidding for public contracts must abide by agreed criteria that may include social, labour or environmental sustainability clauses. CETA’s Procurement Chapter fails to include any watertight clauses that uphold social criteria. Instead contracts can be awarded to the “most beneficial” or “the cheapest offer”.  CETA, along with other deals limits our ability to redefine and enhance the tools we use to achieve important public policy goals.

Public services are exempted from market access, national treatment and performance requirements and the most-favoured-nation provisions of the investment chapter only to the extent that they are ‘carried out neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with one or more economic operators’. This is the phantom public sector carve-out established in the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) agreement.

As there are pockets of private business in most public services, few meet these criteria. Standstill and ratchet clauses freeze current levels of privatisation, making it difficult, and costly, for governments to take privatised services back into public hands.

Because it’s very weak on the environment and worker’s rights;

Crucially, in its sustainable development chapter, CETA does not contain binding and enforceable measures to ensure ILO core labour standards are respected, while the public procurement provisions do not include explicit obligations to respect labour and environmental standards nor promote the use of social and environmental criteria in public tenders. It promotes workers’ access to labour ‘tribunals’ rather than recognising and explicitly accepting EU member states’ workers’ rights.

Unlike the enforceable exclusive rights for investors, CETA includes no binding rules to protect and improve worker’s rights and environmental protection. The Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) criticised this, calling for “the chapters on workers’ rights, environmental protection and sustainable development to be as enforceable as the rest of the agreement” but the final text doesn’t meet these demands. 

Instead it says: ‘Nothing in the Agreement should prevent the Parties from applying their national laws provided that, in doing so, they do not nullify or impair the benefits accruing from the Agreement.’ So, where does this leave SEOs or collective agreements for example?

But perhaps the most important reason we should be very concerned about CETA is that it is a back door for American corporations to challenge standards and regulations in the EU through their subsidiaries in Canada. All an American agriculture, energy or drug giant would have to do is to challenge EU standards through ISDS using their existing subsidiaries in Canada or set one up in order to do so.

Because of Canada’s abysmal record at the International Labour Organisation (ILO):

  • Of the ILO’s 189 Conventions, Canada has only ratified 34.
  • Canada has only ratified eight of the 31 ILO Conventions developed since 1982.
  • Canada has only now ratified all eight ILO fundamental Conventions. It had been one of only 24 countries in the world that had not ratified Convention No. 98 – Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (1949), but it did in early July of this year just prior to CETA debates in some EU national parliaments. However, a country may secede from ILO conventions by giving one years’ notice.
  • Since 1982, unions in Canada have filed more complaints to the ILO’s Freedom of Association Committee than the national labour movements of any other country and there have been 86 ILO complaints filed against Canada, the ILO has ruled on 85 of these cases and found that freedom of association principles had been violated in 78 instances.

Because worker’s rights will be compromised by Regulatory Cooperation in CETA.

There will be continual pressure on regulations and standards, as CETA is also a back door for American corporations – who control around 55% of the Canadian economy – to challenge standards and regulations in the EU through their subsidiaries in Canada. All an American agriculture, energy or drug giant would have to do is to challenge European standards through ICS using their subsidiaries in Canada.

Meanwhile, socially desirable or progressive labour legislation which might affect corporative profits would have to be notified to the governing Regulatory Cooperation Council one year in advance and would likely be identified as a ‘barrier to trade’ by the stakeholders – corporations and EU Commission and we would never hear about it.

As regulations covering everything not listed as exempt, from chemicals through to education and public procurement converge, the only remaining means for increasing competitiveness is through reductions in workers terms and conditions. This is likely to involve union de-recognition, a reduction in voluntarism, attacks on collective agreements and a retreat from our accepted right to organise. Furthermore, a country may secede from ILO conventions by giving one years’ notice.

But irrespective of the ILO perspective, there still remains the overriding concern surrounding ISDS – renamed ICS but like Windscale, which was renamed Sellafield, it remains just as toxic! Not only does this dispute settlement system accord transnational companies the right to sue sovereign states before arbitrary tribunals, if their ‘reasonable expectations’ of profits might be jeopardised by some legislative measure, but it directly threatens workers terms and conditions.

This was illustrated forcibly last year when Egypt was sued under a similar deal for attempting to raise the minimum wage. One can only imagine the list of possible measures; maternity leave, minimum annual holidays, extended unfair dismissals legislation, pension legislation- the list goes on.

Because the ICTU has adopted a progressive position on CETA.

The ICTU has adopted a position of ‘outright opposition’ to this deal and calls for a progressive trade agenda, which means not only the inclusion of a social dimension in all trade agreements but also the full preservation and improvement of the right of governments and authorities to regulate the economy in the public interest as they see fit.

CETA is a trade deal for corporate interests and the ICTU reiterates that workers will never accept any trade agreement that doesn’t promote decent jobs and growth while safeguarding labour, consumer, environmental and health and safety standards. Irrespective of your view of the ICTU, this position should be uncritically supported and promulgated by all trade unionists. The struggle against CETA and other such trade deals such as TTIP and TISA, being negotiated ‘on our behalf’ by the EU is only beginning.

Making sense of a world that impacts us all

Below is a short piece by experienced trade union educator and activist Mel Corry on Trademarks political education for trade union activists and staff. For more info on Trademark check out http://www.trademarkbelfast.com/featured-news/trade-union-education-news 

“The popular element “feels” but does not always know or understand; the intellectual element “knows” but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel.” Antonio Gramsci 

This quote from Gramsci encapsulates why we at Trademark have been developing more political content for Trade Union education over the last number of years.

As long ago as 2012 we looked at the various education products that were available to workplace reps as soon as they were elected. Some unions had very comprehensive programmes ranging from shop stewards, introduction and advanced stages as well as health and safety stages 1&2. They may also have had the odd equality class built in or a course on pensions. Some unions did not provide any training at all but rather directed their reps towards ICTU programmes.

The common theme that emerged was that in general unions were very good at providing adequate training which gave the rep the skills to be able to carry out the function of the workplace rep but neglected any analysis of the system. It did not deal with fundamental political questions that challenge the balance of power between capital and labour or ask why do we need unions? What is the balance of forces in the Industrial relations arena? Who really benefits from my labour? Why should I pay tax? Crucially it did not seek to develop the organic intellectuals that exist among our membership that enable them to understand, feel and engage in struggle.

We set about providing a course that assumed the participants had enough support to develop their skills but would benefit from an examination of the world around them.  Our earliest attempts were crude and disjointed but we knew we had hit on something by the feedback.  We organised weekend schools in our offices with no paid release from work or union expenses and they were always oversubscribed. This fact alone was enough for us to refine the content and delivery and offer it to unions.

We were lucky to work with Mandate and NIPSA, the public sector union in the North, both unions were at the sharp end of defending members’ terms and conditions and still are.  We believe that if reps are to convince workers of the need to take industrial action then the union should ensure they have the ability to answer the complex questions that will be asked from the membership.

As Unite members we were delighted to play a role in developing this model for community activists as part of the Right2Change campaign and the appetite for political education is as strong among  community activists as it is among trade unionists.

Every group of participants has given us reason to update and refine the course content and along with rapidly changing political circumstances the course today is very different from the first one we delivered.

Many commentators have remarked that the changing political landscape could not have been predicted. Many of those who attended our political education courses have been exposed to the possibility that Trump could become the next president of the USA or that Britain would vote to leave the EU or that the British Labour Party would rediscover its social democratic values and shift to the left. They are also dispelled of the myth that there is no alternative.

We don’t see it as our job to point to an alternative but rather give the workers hope that another type of world is possible indeed essential for our continued existence as a species.

It is our task now to argue for politics to run through all our education processes. We should be asking why is healthy and safety important as well as how do I argue for safety.  Reps should be able to argue with the economic information they’ve been given by the employer during collective bargaining scenarios. As Stevie Nolan has remarked when you cut through trade union education it should be like slicing through Blackpool rock, politics runs right through it.

Modesty dictates that I enclose only a couple of the many positive reviews of our training, check out the rest for yourselves.

Mel Corry.

Great training this weekend thank you it was accessible engaging and interesting. It made sense of a world that impacts on all of us and that we should understand and challenge. I’ve already been sharing points from the course with my neighbour the night I got back and will continue to do what I can for social justice.

An outstanding training, essential for any person who cares about our world, our history, past and present and our future. I was engrossed from the minute it began right to the very end. Thought provoking and emotive. Well done for delivering so well such an insightful couple of days. Thank you!

McDonalds workers to strike in Britain

McDonalds opened their first store in Britain in 1974 and for the first time ever workers are set to take industrial action.

Workers at McDonalds, members of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, have been leading the Fast Food Rights campaign in Britain which has been campaigning for secure hour contracts, £10 an hour and trade union representation and rights. Previously as part of the campaign the Labour Party, under Corbyn, refused a McDonalds stall at their annual Party conference.

The campaign has just achieved an initial victory as McDonalds has introduced some guaranteed hour contracts. Following the ballot for industrial action the fast food chain confirmed that all restaurants will have fixed hours contracts in place by the end of this year, in an agreement that campaigners claim would effect 80,000 workers.

Two stores at Cambridge and Crayford have now balloted overwhelmingly for strike action to keep momentum going on the campaign. President of the BFAWU, Ian Hodson, confirmed to TULF the reasons for this action:

This is an historic decision by a small but significant group of workers. This strike is due to a culture of bullying, sexual harassment, reduction of hours and failure to offer guaranteed hours contracts promised since April. The workers are also calling for a wage of £10 an hour and union recognition. The BFAWU is 100% behind the decision taken by our members and congratulates them on their historic stand. Already this campaign has led to McDonalds  finally posting an offer to 119,000 workers of a guaranteed hours contract. This response demonstrates the power workers have when they stand together and shows the power a union can bring to a workplace.

 Trade Union Left Forum supports these workers.

Public Transport or Private Gravy Train

It has been announced that the operation of 10% of Dublin bus routes has been handed over to a private transport company ironically named “Go Ahead” as if to indicate the nod and the wink that usually accompany such deals that our gombeen political class are involved in.

This is nothing less than the start of the privatisation of the public transport system. They can parcel it up whatever way they want but it is privatisation. Public ownership and management of our services is about providing them in a decent reliable safe and environmentally friendly way at the same time as providing good well paid jobs for the workers involved. Put another way in the interest of the citizens who use and provide them ie. Society.

When operations are privatised the only interest of the operator is maximum profit. With the type of contracts that have been given to “Go Ahead” the options are quite limited namely the pay and conditions of employees and safety standards due to the fact that buses and revenues are kept in state ownership for the moment.

This is the method that our political class are using to bring in privatisation by the back door. We will be told what a wonderful job the operator is doing for a fraction of the cost (poverty wages), that competition is good for the consumer and it’s time more franchises were put up for tender since some of the fleet owned by the state is getting old and needs to be renewed why not let the privateers tender for this as well. The propaganda will continue and before we know it the “Go Ahead” will be given for the complete privatisation of the public transport system.

Then the real agenda starts unprofitable routes will be stopped, off peak services will be reduced to a trickle, fares will increase, wages slashed, standards will plummet health safety and the environment will be set to a bare minimum as a private monopoly or duopoly takes over and “goes ahead” with their insatiable appetite for ever more profits. This has been seen time and again when public services are handed over to privateers.

The  role of the trade unions cannot be overlooked as they came to an agreement to allow 10% of the services to go out to tender. This was done as the unions have been caught napping after years of social partnership followed by a decade of austerity which led to the narrative of ‘it’s the best we can do at this time’ being accepted. Some unions have said they will allow this but no more privatisation will be accepted . This is encouraging and needs to be built on following the recent victories of workers in Luas, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann after strike action being taken .

This illustrates how important it is for workers to get involved in their trade unions and be willing to go the extra mile to defend their jobs and the rights of society as a whole ultimately the best way of achieving this is to fight to have the anti trade union laws repealed and tip the balance back in favour of workers. Political understanding and intervention is needed in our union movement by workers and activists themselves.

Public Service Stability Agreement 2018 – 2020

Article by a public sector worker on why they are voting No to the PSSA as it increases the working day, intensifies work with insufficient return for workers and has wider negative implications for all private sector workers

Every so often I think has Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism any relevance today? Then I come across the following from Volume 3 of Capital:

“The level of exploitation of labour, the appropriation of surplus labour and surplus value, can be increased by prolonging the working day and making work more intense”

The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 carries out both these actions. The public service which employs 300,000 workers may not be seen by those in the private sector as being subject to the same laws of capitalist exploitation as the private sector but in fact both are connected. The capitalist class used the financial crisis to attack the pay and conditions of the public sector and try to drive a wedge between workers in the public and private sectors. The attacks on the public sector were a useful diversion to avoid debate on the whole austerity programme and the distribution of wealth in the country. Weak governments in place since 2007 acquiesced in these attacks, reduced pay, lengthened the working day and then introduced the FEMPI legislation. This agreement locks in those worse pay and conditions. It effectively copper-fastens longer working days, career average pensions, later retirement dates and lower wages while claiming to restore pay.

Outsourcing

This is really the only positive part of this agreement and even it is pretty basic. Before any further outsourcing takes place public sector unions will have to be consulted. The original Lansdowne Road provisions remain in place. More importantly outsourcing decisions cannot be based on lower labour costs of the private sector. Private sector employers would like nothing more than to grab public money while offering the minimum wage and zero hour contracts to employees.

Hours

Following the rejection of Croke Park 2 the Haddington Road Agreement was negotiated. Under the terms of that agreement the working day was increased by an average 2.5 hours a week. This was in effect an unpaid prolonging of the working day by 7% or a decrease in pay by the same amount. There have been 15 million unpaid additional hours across the public service. The prolongation of the working day is now effectively embedded. When the reduction in public sector numbers is factored in, the work has become more intense as there are fewer people to do the same work. The deal offers 2 options which make it clear that the additional hours are a pay cut: the option of working the pre-HRA hours with a cut in pay and pension or more insidiously sacrifice a portion of holidays above the statutory minimum. These options will mainly affect those with young children and force them to either take a cut in pay or have less leave.

Pay & Pensions

The whole point of this agreement was to unwind FEMPI and restore pay. It was well highlighted in the media and the Public Services Pay Commission Report what would be on offer. The gross public sector pay bill fell 9% between 2007 and 2016. Average private sector pay was 3% above 2008 levels by 2016 whereas average public sector pay was 8% below for the same period. Effectively this deal will restore gross pay figures for 90% of public servants to where it was in 2009 by 2020. For the other 10% by 2020/2021. By 2020 73% of public servants will have had a gain of 7% over current levels. Roughly 25% will exit the FEMPI pension levy. On the face of it this does not appear to be too bad until you realise that on average the working week is 2.5 hours longer which is about a 7% pay cut so the gain of 7% on the headline figures is not a gain at all. In fact by 2020 not only will there be no gain but as average inflation since 2010 has been 0.5% it is a pay cut on the headline figures. If inflation increases further there is no provision in the agreement to address that issue.

The other major change in unravelling FEMPI occurs around pensions. Under FEMPI there was a Pensions Related Deduction which had absolutely nothing to do with pensions, despite the name. This was a special levy that only applied to public servants. This is now being renamed as an Additional Pension Contribution. Public servants currently pay €1.2 billion made up of €500 million in occupational pension contributions and €720 million in Pension Levy. Post 95 entrants also pay Class A PRSI. Once the Pension Levy is converted to the Additional Pension Contribution public servants will be paying 15% plus towards their occupational pensions without any improvement in pensions. This APC is purely to appease the neo-liberals who oppose defined benefit pension schemes. Post 2011 entrants will be on a career averaging pension scheme which in practice will be comparable to a defined contribution scheme. There is also another stealth provision for those paying Class A PRSI to keep working until you are entitled to the State Retirement Pension.  This will push the retirement age from 65 to 66 and further out in subsequent years. You will be a wage slave for most of your life.

Conclusion

Overall this is a bad deal for the working class. ICTU likes to claim that there is about a 6% dividend in terms of pay and conditions by being a union member. However, this deal does not maintain that. For new entrants to the public sector their pay is on a par with the private sector. The value of the pension scheme has been eroded and is now little different from a defined contribution scheme in the private sector. Instead of setting a benchmark for private sector employers the Government has lowered pay and conditions for its employees to that of the private sector. This deal buys stability for the Government from the most organized section of the working class until the end of 2020. The current Government is highly unstable. The two main parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are like mangy gadhars sniffing around a piece of meat and waiting for the other to make the first mistake. The water protests and the failure to criminalise political protest at the Jobstown Trial rocked the Establishment. The last thing they want is an election at the present time. The unions could have pursued a more radical programme with the threat of industrial action which would have brought down the Government. The Establishment has bought time with this agreement during which it hopes to consolidate its position. There is growing evidence that new entrants to the public sector are not joining trade unions. The main pitch of the unions to new recruits are various discounts on financial products. The unions have become complacent. If union membership declines management will use this as an excuse to attack unions as has happened in the UK. This deal shows that the capitalist class has been successful in undermining and overturning the Report of the Benchmarking body of 2002.

Good luck to Mandate and Dunnes workers

 
TULF wish Mandate and Dunnes workers the very best in the Labour Court next week. Mandate Assistant General Secretary Gerry Light told us today,
 
‘We are going before the Labour Court next week with a very important case for Dunnes workers and for workers generally. The issues we are bringing forward under the recent Industrial Relations (Amendment Act) 2015 are around hours of work and contracts. These workers should be entitled to decent secure hours of work so they can plan and budget their lives. The uncertainty they exist with is simply unfair in a so called modern economy.’
 
There is no doubt that this is a big case for all workers and will test the legislation brought in by the Fine Gael / Labour coalition. All workers should be entitled to decent well paid secure hours of work and there is currently legislative moves afoot to try secure this.

‘Service Providers Agreement’ to secure collective bargaining for workers in services contracts

CWU secures new service providers agreement with eir which will provide new opportunities for organising and winning with workers

Over the last number of decades outsourcing  and the use of third party service providers has become prevalent in the economy with many large companies utilising these practices to save money, increase profit and hand-over control of non-core activities to ‘specialist’ companies. In response to this workers secured protective legislation known as TUPE which secures, at a basic level, terms and conditions of employment and collective bargaining for trade unions.

However, as these business trends have developed employers have found ways of overcoming TUPE by not quite outsourcing but instead allowing non-core workers wind down before contracting in a service provider or by using third parties where excess work exists instead of hiring more permanent staff. This has meant non-union often lower paid, or on worse conditions, workers are increasingly working alongside permanent unionised staff in large employments.

The Communications Workers Union have sought to address this in former semi-state eir through achieving a service providers agreement which secures collective bargaining with service providers and also makes it a part of future tendering processes.

In a novel move, which all Unions should look to emulate, Terry Delany, Deputy General Secretary CWU stated to the Trade Union Left Forum, ‘this agreement is a result of comprehensive negotiations that we had with eir to ensure that contractors and service providers working with eir respect workers’ rights and specifically their right to be collectively represented by a union. The reality of the telecoms market now, as with many other markets, is that third party service providers are a fact of life. Our union wants to make sure that this business model is not simply used as a way to erode hard fought for contract standards. This agreement allows us to organise and build worker power in these new companies and that is the best way for these workers to protect and enhance their terms and conditions.’

The agreement outlines a number of principles that service providers must adhere to including:

  • Good standards in HR practices;
  • Engaging with the CWU and agreeing the use of the WRC and Labour Court to resolve disputes;
  • That this also applies to any sub-contractors of service providers; and
  • And a sharing of relevant information on employee numbers, disciplinary and absence management amongst other items.

This type of agreement doesn’t represent a solution to either declining union density or the problems of outsourcing as an attack on workers conditions but it does provide a framework in which the CWU can seek to organise more workers and challenge the down grading effect that outsourcing and the use of third party providers can have on all workers terms and conditions of employment in the private sector but also the knock on effect on the public sector.

Debt, inequality, and industrial action: The chicken or the egg?

Trade unions remain the most tangible and most effective way to reduce inequality. Unionised work-places tend to have fairer, more transparent and more equitable pay models, which provide pay increases year by year for workers above inflation. They redistribute wealth from the surplus value created by workers that would otherwise go to profits (or dividends and executive pay) to workers’ wages. However, as unions have weakened, and union density throughout the economy has weakened, all workers have suffered. Low pay has become more prevalent, inequality has grown, and contracts have returned to the more “flexible” model of the nineteenth century.

      There is no one reason for the weakening of the trade union movement. Much has been written about the partnership model, the neo-liberal offensive of the last five decades, and more recently offshoring, monopolisation, and the global labour arbitrage. But there are three interrelated factors in Ireland that, while not direct cause-and-effect phenomena, are most certainly related and reinforcing, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. These are household debt, growing inequality, and declining industrial action and union density.

      The following graph, showing income and union membership in Britain, has done the rounds on social media, sparking much comment and debate. But what does something similar for Ireland (south) look like?

Increasing household debt

It is well documented that household debt, most significantly mortgages, has been on the increase in Ireland for some time and most markedly from the mid-1990s on.

The two graphs above demonstrate this, firstly in money lent and secondly in the ratio of debt to disposable income. But both clearly show the increase.

Rising inequality

While the average income of the top 1 per cent has grown fourfold and of the top 10 per cent significantly, the average income has not grown at the same rate but has largely stagnated, while at the same time house prices were rocketing. Obviously, if average incomes stagnated in the 2000s and house prices increased, then household debt will climb, as shown above.

The declining power of unions

Although power can be measured in many ways, union density and industrial action are strong indications of union power in society; and both have been on the wane since the early 1980s.

The graph above shows union density peaking above 60 per cent of the work force about 1980 and then declining each year to just over half that, at between 32 and 34 per cent today.

Using the CSO’s series of measurements of days lost, number of workers involved, and number of firms, going back to 1985, again we can just about see that, on all measurements, industrial action has been declining from the mid-80s to today, with a slight peak in 2009 as a result of action in the public sector, and again we will see a peak in early 2017 when the series are updated.

Which came first?

One might be tempted to ask, Which came first, the chicken or the egg?—but please don’t. It isn’t that simple. But there certainly is a reinforcing relationship between rising household debt and the hold this has over workers, making it much harder to take industrial action and risk losing pay. This then contributes to weakening union power, meaning that a greater share of all wealth created by workers goes to the elite and top earners.

Worker militancy on the rise

A wave of workplace militancy has arisen in recent months which has produced a number of notable victories for trade unionists.

The end of several years of muted opposition from workers to cuts to conditions and pay or doing more work without improvements in earnings – under the cover of ‘increased efficiencies’ – can be traced back to the industrial action by SIPTU members in LUAS in the early 2016.

This protracted and bitter struggle resulted in a substantial pay increase for LUAS drivers, with the victory achieved in the face of unrelenting media attack. The win set a precedent for others workers seeking pay rises in the transport sector. It also showed that even in the era of austerity a determined, well organised workforce could overcome concentrated opposition from employers, the media and a degree of reluctance on the part of union leaders, to win a dispute.

Dublin Bus workers won a similar pay increase after a series of strike actions in September 2016. This move towards a general push for pay improvement has also been evident in the manufacturing sector with many, if not the majority, of major companies granting above the rate of inflation pay increases without workers being forced to take industrial action.

However, since the beginning of the 2017 the struggle on the industrial front in Ireland has moved away from solely a fight for better pay. During February, Mandate members in Tesco successful bridged a generational divide between staff in the super market chain, bringing out newer workers in a strike action aimed at protecting colleagues who had the benefit of superior contracts of employment that date back to the British retailer’s takeover of Super Quinnsworth in 1997.

Ten days of strike action in several Tesco stores provoked massive public support and succeeded in bringing the company, that had seemed intent on pursing a union busting agenda, back to the negotiating table.

This month an impressive show of force, which included a willingness to conduct all out strike action as well as holding well supported public rallies, trade union members in Dublin Fire Brigade would seem to have forced the management of Dublin City Council to back away from its plan to run down the Brigade’s ambulance service. Similar Bus Eireann workers’ willingness to take strike action has halted a management led attack on the concept of a national public bus service.

Meanwhile, power workers at the Edenderry Power Ltd electricity generating plant in County Offaly have also declared a willingness to take strike action to force their employer to respect their right to collectively bargaining through their union.

These victories and unresolved disputes, when coupled with the demand from public sector workers that pay talks scheduled for May result in significant pay rises, seem to point to the beginning of a new, more positive period for trade union activity. A growing concern is also evident among the managerial class that the narrative of the necessity for cuts, privatisation and the general push towards a low pay economy may no longer be acceptable to the general public.   

These factors combined may lead radical trade unionists to hope that we are at the begining of a new, better, period for working class struggle of a type not experienced since the onset of the partnership era in the late 1980s.