Irish trade unionism and the end of Civil War politics?

By Sean Byers, delivered at the TULF meeting a political strategy for the trade union movement.

In December 2015, as the Right2Water campaign continued to confound its opponents with mass demonstrations attracting upwards of 100,000 people, former Taoiseach John Bruton made this revealing statement to the Irish media:

FG and FF have complemented each other through Irish history. In Ireland we have had consensus about major long-term policies largely because we haven’t had a sharp left/right or ideological divide. We have had differences, but they are differences about other things, not economics, and that has served the country very well…

It would not be good for the long term development of the country if we were to go towards the unproductive left/right politics that they have in countries like France and Britain. It has not served those countries well.

Conceding openly what has been apparent for some decades, that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are two cheeks of the same arse, Bruton’s statement can be read as a call for the Civil War parties to close ranks in the face of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary challenges to the established social order.

And close ranks they did. Where the establishment parties could once rely on the unquestioning support of the majority, winning 97 percent of the vote as recently as 1982 and as much as 81.7 percent in 2007, they now struggle to muster 50 percent between them. Having lost the election, Fine Gael made a sweetheart deal with Fianna Fáil that enabled Ireland’s austerity bloc to assume control of government and the opposition, extending its ninety-five year period of unbroken rule. The political establishment has been wounded, therefore, but not fatally so.

There are historical as well as more obvious contemporary reasons why the Irish Labour Party is regarded as part of the establishment. When the ITUC National Executive decided to establish a political arm over one hundred years ago, it stated 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.’ This directive could not be clearer, and yet the reverse has been the case for the greater part of the Party’s existence.

The Easter Rising created a political vacuum, ushering in the War of Independence and its attendant social struggles. The revolutionary period demonstrated most clearly that labour would not wait for the rebirth of Ireland to assert its demands. This was a period which witnessed an escalation in the number and intensity of industrial disputes, hundreds of soviets declared across the island and three general strikes in as many years. Famously in Limerick in 1919, a workers’ committee took over the running of the city in protest against martial law, coordinating everything from food distribution to the printing of money.  In Belfast the same year, shipyard and engineering workers led a general strike for the forty-hour week, assuming control of the city’s power supply, transport and trade. For three weeks, the city had taken on many of the characteristics of a soviet, and the sight of 100,000 people marching on May Day demonstrated that the north-east of the island was not immune to the revolutionary wave sweeping across Europe.

Nor were these forms of agitation limited to urban centres. Cattle drives and land seizures spread across the country, inspired by the desire of small farmers, tenants and workers for land distribution. In turn, the ranks of the trade union movement were swollen with an influx of agricultural labourers.

This rich history of radicalism and the possibilities is denied to lay trade union members and working-class communities by an economic and political elite whose power resides on the myth that there is no such thing as class or class struggle Ireland. Awareness and understanding of this history is essential to the education of our current generation of trade union and community activists, so that it is imprinted in our collective consciousness going forward.

If the 1919 Democratic Programme of the First Dáil was significant in formalising some of labour’s demands and seeing a party with 73 seats adopt the programme of a party with none, there is little doubt that organised labour failed to assert itself politically when Irish workers were most susceptible to radical ideas. Absent Connolly and Larkin’s influence, the Labour Party under the conservative leadership of Tom Johnson and William O’Brien missed the opportunity to encourage the class and political development of its members. This lack of ambition, coupled with the fear and reality of a state clampdown on trade unionists and sectarian conflict in Belfast, occasioned a retreat of the Labour Party to the extent that by 1922 it had given legitimacy to the Treaty settlement by becoming the official opposition.

When the bloody counter-revolution came, Labour lacked the necessary political strength to defend, never mind advance, its interests. Consequently, the counter-revolution gave birth to two reactionary states that underwrote the power of the propertied classes whilst restricting the political space available to the working-class movement. In the partitioned six counties, we saw the creation of a sectarian statelet where political elites continued to safeguard their economic interests by fostering sectarian division among the working class. The twenty-six counties, meanwhile, developed into gombeen theocracy dominated by a Fianna Fáil party that mastered the art of buying the working-class with republican rhetoric and populist concessions. Having failed to carve out a distinct political path, Labour was left with little option but to support this project at the expense of diluting its founding principles, its independent identity.

Of course, the success of the counter-revolution depended largely on the power and influence of the Catholic Church, which had been left untouched by successive national revolutions in Ireland. Parish pump concerns, combined with successive red scares orchestrated by the Church-state nexus and popularised by the conservative press, ensured that this power would go unchecked by Labour throughout the 1930s and into the McCarthyite era. Irish Labour’s refusal to stand with Republican Spain, its strong anti-communist tendencies, and staunch defence of private property, are testament to Emmet Larkin’s claim that ‘it is the most opportunistically conservative Labour party anywhere in the known world’.

By 1948, when British Labour was establishing the NHS and welfare state, and nationalising its key industries, thereby laying the foundations for social democracy, Irish Labour had become firmly part of the establishment; junior partner in a Fine Gael led government that gave the Church unrivalled access to the policymaking instruments of the state. Dr Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme presented Ireland with its own ‘social democratic moment’, in Ronan Burtenshaw’s words. Its death at the hands of a government comprising Labour ministers ensured that Catholic social teaching, with its rejection of universalism and emphasis on family, Church and charity as the basis of social welfare, would continue to provide ‘the ideological basis of Irish capitalism’.

In hindsight, this can be identified as the point of no return for political labour. Lacking a distinct ideological position, a strong Marxist or social democratic tradition to keep it honest, the Irish Labour Party has spent the best part of sixty years propping up right wing governments in exchange for the odd policy concession and the semblance of political power. Eight times Labour has entered into coalition with either of the right-wing parties. At each turn, it has compromised on its founding principles and suffered electorally, rendering itself increasingly unattractive to radicals and large sections of the working class. This has culminated in the party of Larkin and Connolly volunteering to implement a ruthless austerity programme, with devastating consequences for working-class communities and the Party’s chances of survival.

To a lesser extent, industrial labour has also been co-opted into the establishment and, as such, failed to offer a vision for a better society. The culture of ‘partnership’ and professionalisation in the trade union movement can be traced back to Seán Lemass’ project to remake the Irish economy, with a reunified Congress (ICTU) becoming part of the fabric of the state through participation in national wage agreements and tripartite bodies. Indeed, Irish trade union’s co-option into the corporatist state was so successful that by 1964 Lemass could confidently declare that ‘Class war is over’ (h/t Conor McCabe).

Social partnership can therefore be understood as an extension or renewal of previous efforts, as a traditional response to challenges of a different nature and time. Class struggle and labour rights, insofar as they existed in Ireland, once again gave way to a system based on central bargaining by union leaders. In return for wage restraint and strike moderation, unions were to be rewarded with employment growth, low levels of income tax and a role in macro-economic planning and policy formulation. Developed in the wake of the miners’ defeat in Britain, it is possible to view social partnership as a legitimate strategy for staving off the threat of Thatcherism to Ireland.

But it is precisely on these terms that it can be judged to have failed. It is through social partnership that the trade union movement facilitated the neoliberal project, opening the door to delayed Thatcherism and the increasing precariousness of work in Ireland. Empirically, the period of social partnership witnessed a decline in real wages and national income, and a drastic decline in union density, along with the defunding of vital public services. Policy gains and legislative gains, too, failed to materialise, with the Industrial Relations Act (1990) curbing labour’s ability to take industrial action. Finally, it depoliticised a generation of trade unionists and diluted the concept of political education, ultimately leaving the movement poorly positioned to resist the onslaught when it came in 2008. As a result, trade unions are discredited in communities where anti-establishment sentiments have grown to new proportions since the crisis.

It is 100 years since the Easter Rising and the working-class communities of Ireland are again without political representation, certainly in the form of a party linked organically to the trade union movement. It is therefore incumbent upon the progressive trade unions to step into the vacuum that has emerged, to carry the fight to the establishment on the industrial and political fronts, and prevent the huge anger and discontent we have seen on the streets from giving way to apathy and further gains for the counter-revolution underway.

Arguably, the progressive trade union movement is the only force with the resources, collective strength and international networks to bring together a broad front of natural allies – our members, the unemployed, minority ethnic communities and migrant workers, and unpaid carers, to name but a few – with a view to building a progressive social movement that occupies the spaces through which our vision of society can be created, diffused and reproduced. Just as neoliberalism and the narrative of TINA (There Is No Alternative) asserted their dominance over the course of a generation, becoming the new common sense, so we must embrace the task of building an alternative programme and political consciousness over a period of ten, fifteen, even twenty years if necessary. Right2Water, with its numerical strength, broad appeal, fledgling networks, proven ability to mobilise communities in extra-parliamentary struggle, and commitment to the democratisation of knowledge through political education, seems like the obvious starting point for such a process.

 

United Action is Key to Way Forward

By Eoin Ó Murchú

When the Labour Party was established in 1912, it was in order to give political effect to the trade union movement, and it was in that context that James Connolly, Jim Larkin and William O’Brien presented their proposal in Clonmel that year.

It is obvious that that is no longer the party’s view of itself. At the recent Magill summer school, party leader Brendan Howlin argued that “the Labour Party must dare to imagine a better form of capitalism – one that serves the many, and not just the few.”

And the key former adviser to ex-tánaiste Joan Burton, Ed Brophy, has argued that Labour’s future lies in being the voice of social liberalism.

This is in keeping with former Éamon Gilmore adviser, Mark Garrett, who suggested that the party should break any connection with the trade union movement.

That connection was not formally broken, but Labour’s participation in the Fine Gael government of 2011-2016, and the vehemence with which it promoted the austerity agenda, shows that trade union political views were of little if any account.

SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor may argue that things would have been worse under a single-party Fine Gael government, but Labour – and Brendan Howlin as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform – enthusiastically implemented all of Fine Gael’s agenda, and never even looked for a price that would even guarantee employment rights for Irish workers.

Now, of course, as it seeks to claw back the electoral support it has lost, Howlin argues that “our people have endured too long a sacrifice for the last eight years”.  He calls for the Irish economy “ to meet the needs and aspirations of our people” and declares that it is work, and the rights of those in work, which has been our raison d’etre since our foundation”.

It is hard to read this nauseating and dishonest hypocrisy without throwing up, but just in case anyone gets taken in by it, Howlin also adds the boast that “any fair-minded observer will have to admit that we left the country in a better state than we found it”.

That’s a clear message that if Labour had it to do again, it would do the same as before.

Yet massive numbers of workers are seriously angry at what has happened, at the austerity unjustly imposed upon them and the continual subordination of the rights and needs of the majority of our people to the country of the bankers, speculators and business interests.

Trade unionists cannot realistically look to a Labour Party that refuses to acknowledge it was wrong to implement austerity, and that cannot produce even a single voice to denounce this wrong, to advance trade union interests in the future.

A new party could be an answer, but there are other parties of the Left already with a Dáil presence – Sinn Féin, the two Trotskyist parties, perhaps even the Social Democrats, and, of course, the seven or so independents grouped in Independents for Change.

We don’t really need more squabbling between parties claiming to speak for the workers, we need the actual organisations of workers to be brought directly into political activity.

Political committees within trade unions can present their demands of all political parties, and link them with demands coming from community organisations (residents and tenants), and single purpose campaigns.

These could ultimately come together if necessary in a new party, but more productive at this point would be to enable all these forces to combine together.

The template for that, which needs of course, to be expanded, exists already in the Right to Change idea.  But that needs to have greater cohesion, and commitment from its constituent parts, to enable its potential to be reached.

And what politics should determine this work?  Anti-austerity, the defence of workers’ rights and the shifting of the burden of economic crisis onto the better off – these are absolutes.

But we cannot either ignore the elephant in the room: so long as we remain members of the European Union we are bound by its constitutional imperatives which insist on neo-liberal free market rules.

We cannot have state-led economic development – an essential in the fight to give full and proper employment to our people – without refuting these rules.

We must face the fact that the EU cannot be “reformed from within” because any proposals to rewrite the existing treaties would require unanimous consent of all continuing member states.  In other words, it would require the simultaneous victory of progressive forces in every member state. In the light of the uneven development of capitalism, such a wish is totally illusory.

Equally, we cannot ignore the fact that imperialism has partitioned our country, leading as Connolly predicted to a carnival of reaction North and South.

But partition will not be overcome by urging Protestant workers in the North to fight to stay subject to EU neo-liberal rules!

There will be differences of emphasis at least on these issues, so some flexibility in the co-ordination of all elements is essential.

But in the absence of a popular front of the kind argued for here, workers will be left dependent on business parties that will continue to squeeze us.

All the revolutionary rhetoric in the world will not change that, unless we unite together to fight for a common cause.

Contribution to a debate organised by trade union activists in Dublin on July 28, 2016, on the theme: Does the Trade Union Movement Need a New political Arm and What Should it Look Like. Other contributions from the meeting are currently being written up and will be posted here.

A Trade Union Strategy to Win for Working People

Speech at the Mother Jones Festival, Cork by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, on Thursday, 28th July, 2016

Comrades and friends,

This year’s Mother Jones Festival takes place against the background of the continuing trauma of the most serious crisis in global capitalism since the 1930s. It is important to say from the outset that this is a demand side crisis largely attributable to exponentially growing inequality in what we know as the “developed world”.

The phenomenon manifests itself in the world of work or the “labour market” in the form of mass unemployment, increasing precariousness and social insecurity on an unprecedented scale. This is increasingly evident in Ireland, Europe and the West. Precarious work, of course, is not new in the developing world where it has been the order of the day for a long time.

It falls to the trade union movement to step up to the task of reasserting human priorities in the workplace and ultimately in the wider economic and social paradigm. It is important to stress this because in the culture of “business unionism” this tends to be taken for granted or even lost sight of altogether. It is also important to say that trade union organisation is the only way to address the task. More important, it is crucial to assert that the trade union movement in Ireland still has the capacity to meet the challenge and to win for working people. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise of this short paper here this evening.

However, to do so, our movement must transform itself, ideologically, culturally and structurally.

In practical terms, it is a challenge which must be met at an industrial, pedagogical and political level.

In order to approach it, we must disabuse ourselves of a number of deeply held myths and misconceptions. One of these, for example, is that the dramatic growth in the, post- Lockout, Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union between Easter Week 1916 and the end of 1918 was primarily attributable to the resistance offered during the Lockout itself and the subsequent events which occurred throughout the decade of rebellion. The fact of the matter is that what happened had more to do with the Munitions Act. This was because, in 1917, the legislation which had been put in place by the government in the United Kingdom to maintain industrial peace for the duration of the war was extended to Ireland. Agricultural Wages Boards which had been set up across the UK to determine wages and conditions to guarantee the food supply were then put in place in Ireland as well. Virtually immediately, agricultural labourers found that the most effective way to secure improvements was by joining a trade union and they flocked to the ranks of the ITGWU in their thousands. It quickly established itself as the dominant union in the sector, absorbing smaller land and labour unions along the way. Membership, which had fallen to somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 by the time of the Easter Rising, increased to 68,000 by the end of 1918 and 120,000 in 1920. Obviously, the sentiment engendered by the Lockout, the Rising and the War of Independence influenced developments but they were not the primary reason for the growth in union membership. The institutional arrangements put in place for conciliation and arbitration over a whole range of industries also resulted in a very dramatic rise in trade union membership and density across every single region of the UK.

That phenomenon has replicated itself repeatedly in all circumstances in which conditions favourable to the growth of union membership have presented – e.g. during the post war period across Europe, the period following the economically regenerative 1960s and the period following entry into the EEC in Ireland. The purpose of this reference is to debunk the myth that declining union density in the Ireland or indeed throughout the developed world is in some way attributable to some kind of inter-generational or cultural disconnect. It could be argued that such exists but it is consequence rather than the cause of the phenomenon.

The simple fact of the matter is that working people and indeed people generally for that matter will organise in one of two circumstances or better still when a combination of both exist. These are:

When they believe they can win and

When they have no other alternative.

That rule applies throughout the history of industrial societies and in all circumstances irrespective of generational dynamics. It therefore follows that the challenge we must overcome is to instill a belief in people that they can actually win by organising.

Of course, the reality is that the balance has shifted quite dramatically against organised workers and in favour of capital over the past quarter of a century or more. This is attributable to the complex interaction of an array of global factors, each of which merits an entirely separate paper on their own. However, for this evening’s purpose I will simply cite the most significant of them:

 

The fall of the Soviet Union more than a quarter of a century ago. This immediately virtually quadrupled the global supply of labour available for exploitation by capital (from about 750,000 to two billion when China is included).

The extension of the process of globalisation. This imposed the exploitative employment standards of the developing world in the marketplaces of the West.

The decline of manufacturing in the developed economies.

The expansion of household credit and indebtedness in response to the collapse of real incomes.

The ultimate global collapse of 2008.

The decline of social democracy and the shift to the centre right in the political arena.

Lenin wasn’t wrong when he said “the crisis of social democracy is the crisis of capitalism”.

In Europe, in particular, the response which has been employed since 2010 (and earlier in our case) has been one of retrenchment – austerity combined with a “race to the bottom” in the workplace to maximise “competitiveness”. This, as we know, has resulted in the generation of mass unemployment particularly among the young in several European countries which has not been seen since the immediate post war years, accompanied by precariousness and hopelessness which is increasingly evolving into desperation.

We are now entering a new and more dangerous phase in the evolution of the crisis of capitalism and of European and global history. What has happened is that the politics has now caught up with the economics as we always said it inevitably would and it is manifesting itself in a sharp swing in most cases to xenophobic nationalism and the radical right. It is no overstatement to say that we are on the road to catastrophe. This leads through the disorderly collapse of the euro which would inevitably result in levels of deprivation and societal break down beyond anything that can be visualised in our everyday imagination. It would end in a regime of competing nation states and ultimately in regional wars.

I should say at this point that unless the policies of one-sided austerity or even fiscal neutrality as they now call it, combined with the race to the bottom in the world of work, are abandoned immediately the scenario I describe above is not some vague possibility – but is actually inevitable.

I turn then to the question as to “What is to be done?”. After all we are not the EU Commission, the Council of Ministers or the governing board of the ECB. We are not even the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). What can the trade union movement under pressure in a small country in the western periphery of Europe actually do? Well, it remains to be seen – but our obligation is to do everything that we can in our own space.

 

First and most importantly, we must address the ideological question. Our movement is comprised of an array of organisations founded on the basis of different but not incompatible premises. A number of our unions are vocational organisations formed to promote the interests of those employed in a particular profession, vocation, trade or craft. Others are more general in character formed to promote the interests of members but in the context of a wider historical mission towards an egalitarian society. As long as we function on the basis that, irrespective of the prevailing conditions in the economy and more particularly in society, the cause of a particular vocation or trade or craft can be furthered independently, we cannot make real progress. We have to face up to the challenge of influencing the conditions within which we organise and operate as distinct from simply promoting the cause of a particular group in a context which is determined by others.

The other concept that must be debunked is the notion that it is in some way our role to provide an antagonistic voice against management in those businesses and institutions which recognise their employee’s right to organise and be represented by trade unions. This thinking is fundamentally flawed. Our task is to optimise the quality and the security of our members’ employment in these businesses and institutions. It therefore follows that we must be at the forefront of the thrust to enhance productivity and innovation instead of getting in the way of it as we sometimes do. The fact of the matter is that the security and quality of our members’ employment is entirely dependant on the prosperity of the enterprises in which they work. Moreover, the key to good working conditions and indeed standards of living generally is exponentially increasing productivity. I emphasise, because it will undoubtedly be misrepresented, that this is not about increasing the drudgery or onerousness of work. Actually, it is precisely the opposite.

There is another complementary reason for this approach and that is to minimise employer hostility. We have to reverse the current equation in which we can sometimes find ourselves impeding the prospects for an enterprise that engages in collective bargaining instead of actually enhancing them. Meanwhile, we fail to confront those who do not respect their employee’s right to organise or be represented by trade unions. This equation is graphically evident in any analysis of the deployment of trade union resources as between ‘servicing’ members where we are recognised and organising to confront those who do not afford recognition. It is a fundamentally flawed strategy and it is doomed to failure. The reality of it is that, apart from workers, we should be able to demonstrate that employers who recognise trade unions also enjoy an advantage over those who don’t.

The second criterion I mentioned at the outset arises in the pedagogical arena. This is at least two-dimensional.

In the first instance, we have a responsibility to equip workers to assert their own interests by knowing their rights and understanding how to vindicate them. At a collective level, that extends to developing a greater understanding among our members and workers generally of the nature and character of the forces and influences at work in capitalist society. This applies both in terms of the economics of the companies in which people may work and the wider political arena as well.

In parallel with this, we equally have a responsibility as has been the case with the craft unions of the past to facilitate the education, training and development of our members and workers in the enhancement of their skills. This is particularly applicable in the rapidly changing dynamics of the modern labour market where skills and competencies are becoming redundant almost as rapidly as they are appearing.

The third criterion I mentioned at the outset relates to the political arena.  As long ago as the new unionism of the 1880s, our leaders recognised the necessity to compete for political influence and power in order to overcome the limitations of what could be achieved through workplace collective bargaining. This saw the development of political funds and political affiliations to the labour and social democratic parties. Today, in the light of the crisis of social democracy and the increasing diffusion of political representation on the left, there is a need for a more nuanced approach. However, this is not an argument for the depoliticisation of trade unionism. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. However, our political activity should focus on shifting the entire fulcrum of the debate in society in a manner which prioritises human considerations and egalitarian objectives as distinct from promoting one political party. The aim must be to frame the architecture of the political ‘centre ground’.

On the face of it, this seems an awesome challenge. Yet it is still entirely within the capacity of the trade union movement in Ireland as things stand at present but it cannot be undertaken successfully by any single trade union. Thus, we must have the courage and vision to make the changes that will enable us to accomplish it. The roadmap was outlined in the recommendations of the report of the Commission on Trade Union Organisation to the biennial delegate conferences of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, in Killarney in July 2011 and then in Belfast in July 2013 – the centenary of the Lockout.

These envisaged developing a stronger, more united, more coherent movement, organised in a federal rather than a confederal congress. This, while respecting the autonomy of each individual trade union, would facilitate co-ordination of collective bargaining and organising across each of the individual sectors of the economy in both jurisdictions on the island. Such co-ordination would optimise the prospects for the negotiation of the best possible agreements with employers who respect their employees’ right to organise.  Simultaneously, it would enable the deployment of irresistible force in support of workers seeking to organise where unions are not recognised.

This capacity would be reinforced by the development of a fully resourced research capacity, a new workers college, an independent workers controlled media platform and the opening of trade union centres in every major town on the island.

The elements are actually reflected in the ‘One Cork’ project which is underway on a small scale here in this city.

As we stand today, we have the capacity to ensure that workers can organise to win but that will not remain the case indefinitely. The sands of time are ebbing away. It is time to wake up and smell the roses!

Jack

Important outcome from Labour Court

The Labour Court has issued an important outcome for Freshway workers in a case taken by SIPTU under the new legislation.

On the question of evidencing union membership Joe O’Flynn, General Secretary of SIPTU, swore an affidavit in advance of the hearing to the effect that 63 of 170 workers were union members. The Court viewed this, 37%, as ‘not insignificant’ and passing the first barrier.

The Company argued that they collectively bargain with an internal staff consultation committee but the Court found that it wasn’t an excepted body and that the practice was not collective bargaining as defined by 2 existing acts and was merely consultation. This is an important outcome as there are legitimate fears that some internal non-union bodies may be used to nullify this legislation.

The Company submitted its financials in advance and this was given to the Union’s financial advisors who analysed these. Then both the Company and the Union agreed on a joint analysis of the financials and submitted it to the Court.

The Union presented detailed and comprehensive overview of comparator terms and conditions of employment in the relevant sector and the Court accepted that the ‘totality remuneration and conditions of employment’ were less for these workers compared to their equivalents in the sector.

And so, the Court recommended:

  • 70c increase in Sept ‘16, 70c increase June’17 and 72c January ’18;
  • This is a 22.6% increase over 18 months
  • 46%, 6.94% and 6.68%
    • No change to pension provision;
    • Introduction of 10 days sick leave on full pay less social welfare;
    • An extra days annual leave after 5 years’ service; and
    • Grievance and Disciplinary policies consistent with the Code of Practice allowing for individual union representation.

All in all this looks like a very good outcome for the workers affected and for the trade union movement. The bar set on numbers of members is important and the view of this particular internal staff body.

However, unfortunately, the employer (supported by the usual suspects) is likely to appeal this all the way and we would not hold out too much hope of a Courts view of these things given their class bias.

TULF May Day Statement – Solidarity is alive in our class

The Trade Union Left Forum encourages union members and workers to join the Dublin Council of Trade Unions May Day rally. The annual May Day parade will take place on Sunday May 1st, assembling at 2.30 pm at the Garden of Remembrance and from there going to Liberty Hall/Beresford Place.

Working class consciousness and militancy is growing in Ireland. Our class is on the verge of a win on resisting the commodification of water through water charges and the maintenance of public ownership of this important resource and utility. We have got to this point through communities, unions and workers fighting together. This is an example we should develop and use in other struggles like housing and healthcare.

On this day we also have to highlight the union members and their unions fighting in Luas, Tesco and the 999 call centre services. SIPTU, Mandate and CWU members are engaged in difficult but important struggles. Workers expectations are raised, rightly, and so our demands are greater. Unions must support and back their members in these demands and continue to advance the basic working conditions of members.

However, all Unions must learn from the right2water Unions and the example they have set in taking on, and investing significant resources in, a major social issue of the day, water. Trade Unions should not be limited to pay and terms and conditions but must actively fight for a different social-economic and political vision for Ireland. That vision, in the context of environment devastation and the reality of what the EU is (as opposed to what people might want it to be) is the vision of an Irish Socialist Republic independent from the EU and with sovereign power to take decisions contrary to needs of US and corporate capitalist interests here, or it is of no value to our class.

This pending, but coming, win on water gives us strength and hope. We have achieved something significant. Hundreds of thousands of workers achieved it. Not a party, not a union, not a leader. We did, together. And this is what gives meaning to the word solidarity and gives us the strength to achieve more.

WFTU May Day Statement

The World Federation of Trade Unions on the occasion of the International Workers’ Day on 1st May 2016 conveys a militant salute to all men and women of the working class and to the 92 million members of WFTU in 126 countries.

Men and women, younger or older, employed or unemployed, migrants and refugees, the World Federation of Trade Unions wishes you strength, determination and courage in your small-scale or large-scale struggles.

The multinationals, the reactionary governments, neo-fascist and racist forces, the imperialist mechanisms dread this day. Because it is a symbol of internationalism, a symbol of struggle, a symbol of class unity. These are our most powerful tools with which we need to arm ourselves in our struggles for better lives, in our struggles against poverty and wars generated by the capitalist barbarity.

Building strong class-oriented base trade unions that are massive, democratic, militant we strengthen the WFTU.

And by strengthening the WFTU as a rooted class-oriented Organization of the base, internationalist and uniting, we strengthen our trade unions.

In all countries of the world, with all forms of action we demand our contemporary needs, our labor, social and trade union rights.

Our reality of misery, unemployment, poverty and wars in contrast to the technological and scientific progress and the wealth we produce, prove how unrealistic and rotten the capitalist mode of production is.

We rally our forces and build our social alliance with the popular strata against exploitation and capitalist barbarity.

On the occasion of May Day we once more want to send our internationalist solidarity to the peoples of Palestine, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq Afghanistan, Yemen and all peoples who are suffering imperialist attacks and fight for their right to decide for themselves over their present and future.

This year 2016, the 17th World Trade Union Congress will summon the representatives of the class-oriented trade union movement in the heroic land of South Africa. On 5-8 October 2016, thousands of delegates, real militant unionists, from all continents will gather in Durban, analyze the global and regional developments, exchange experience and proposals and resolute on the strategy and action plan of the WFTU for the next five years.

With this Congress we make a vital step forward for the international class-oriented trade union movement. “Forward! For the contemporary needs of the working class against poverty and wars generated by the capitalist barbarism”.

Why are the 999 workers striking?

Call centres have deservedly achieved notorious reputations as places where managers seek to exert total control over workers. This often takes the form of bosses micro-managing the daily activities of workers, imposing unrealistic targets on staff in order to boost productivity and subjecting people to harsh disciplinary measures. Low pay, high staff turnover and no union rights are the norm in this sector.

Although they help to save lives on a daily basis, these are the conditions that Ireland’s 999 emergency call operators have been working under since Conduit/BT began delivering the service. The contract for delivering the ECAS was awarded to BT Ireland in 2009 by the Department of Communications and was valued at €55 million. BT then outsourced the work to Conduit Global.

CWU members working in the 999 service recently took two days of strike action in pursuit of a Living Wage and the right to collective union recognition. They were also demanding that managers treat them with a basic level of dignity and respect.

The #999Respect campaign began in late 2014 when 999 operators, employed by Conduit Global/BT, contacted the CWU to get help unionising their workplace. When the campaign began, 999 operators were paid only €10 per hour and were subjected to a harsh and petty regime of management. Workers were routinely suspended and dragged through traumatic disciplinary investigations for the most trivial of issues, creating a culture of fear.

Such was the level of disrespect with which Conduit/BT treated staff, management felt they could get away with introducing the now infamous ‘toilet policy’, which micromanaged how long 999 operators could spend in the bathroom. Staff were told that they faced disciplinary action if they spent more than 19 minutes in the bathroom during the course of a 12-hour shift. They were also ordered to report to management before and after using the toilet and were limited to seven minutes in the bathroom at any one time.

Given the routine and open contempt displayed by their bosses, it is hardly surprising that in January 84% of CWU members in the 999 service voted in favour of strike action. The members’ decision to strike came after 18 months of the CWU trying to engage with Conduit/BT. Every request by the union to meet and discuss the issues was ignored.

In November 2015, CWU members in the ECAS won a 10% pay rise after putting their bosses under intense pressure as a result of their organising campaign. This gave the workers confidence that they have the power to affect change in the workplace even under the auspices of a viciously anti-union employer. However, although the pay rise was welcomed, the 999 workers were still paid less than the Living Wage and we constantly seeing their workmates marched off the call centre floor and unnecessarily suspended. Their call for dignity and respect at work continued to be ignored.

The first strike was held in Navan on 25th February – the day before the general election. In order to protect this vital public service, members decided to only strike in Navan and allow the other two centres in Dublin and Ballyshannon to operate as normal. As a result of the strike action, an on-call allowance was introduced and workers who were suspended were allowed to return to work. However, despite being making a combined profit of around €50 million last year, bosses in Conduit/BT still refused to pay a Living Wage or recognise the CWU.

A second strike took place on 7th April to keep the pressure on the companies. In the days before the strike, Conduit/BT were invited to talks by the Workplace Relations Commission aimed at averting the strike. In a display of gross arrogance and irresponsibility, they refused to attend and the strike went ahead. CWU General Secretary, Steve Fitzpatrick described this as a display of “open contempt for their staff and the Irish State.” He said: “The double standards from BT/Conduit Global are appalling. On one hand, they are happy to reap the huge financial rewards they receive as a result of delivering a state contract. On the other hand, they refuse to respect the authority of this State when it comes to its industrial relations structures and their responsibility to treat their staff properly.”

On the back of the strike action, 999 workers were invited to meet with a cross party group of TDs to recount their stories. The meeting was arranged by Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín and was attended by politicians from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, AAA-PBP as well as Independents. Following the meeting, Deputy Tóibín said that attendees at the meeting were “shocked at the oppressive nature of the working environment suffered by these workers”.

The CWU is now calling for the government to ensure that any company benefiting from a state contract should be subject to a social clause. This should require them to pay workers at least a Living Wage, honour collective bargaining rights and respect the industrial relations machinery of the state. The mistreatment of workers at the hands of Conduit/BT should not be allowed to happen again.

ICTU President Brian Campfield at the SF Ard Fheis

I wish to thank Sinn Fein for providing the opportunity to address this Ard Fheis on behalf the Irish trade union movement.

It is of course an historic year during which we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the trade unions, generally, if not universally, take great pride in the role played by James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army  in the Rising. I say generally because trades unions are also victims of the divisions in our country and in the interests of working class and trade union unity we have had to adopt a nuanced approach to  1916 and related events.

In respect of Connolly’s role in 1916 he was taking a stand against Empire,  he was taking a stand  against  the slaughter of the First World War and  in doing so he was claiming a stake for a Workers’ Republic in Ireland.His vision of a country where  working men and women would be enjoy the fruits of their own labour  hasn’t yet been realised.

Three years before the Rising in 1913 both Connolly and Larkin were pitted in the bitterest of battles  against the Dublin Employers and William Martin Murphy  and his ilk; the representatives of that class of Irishman who would disown and betray the national cause on a colossal scale.

Yet in this Republic  of  today  the employers, the Capitalist Class, take pride of place and their interests trump that of workers, their families and their communities.The modern day William Martin Murphys  are operating a new form of slavery and serfdom, trying to control workers through zero hours contracts, flexible employment contracts and not so well concealed bullying and intimidation and anti- unions policies. Most of these  companies, to  paraphrase   Brookeborough the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland , would  not have a trade unionist about the place and many of them don’t.

Others tolerate unions because they have no choice and at this point I wish to pay tribute of the workers in  Dunne’s Stores  who have refused to be intimidated by one of our own home grown capitalists and to the TESCO workers who are enduring the might of a multi- national giant with a courage  and spirit not unlike  that of the men and women of 1916.

In 2016, and not only in Ireland, there is a grave inequality of wealth and this is primarily the consequence of a gross imbalance of power. This is exemplified starkly in the power of large corporations to sue governments for policy decisions which interfere with their bottom line, profits; the power of companies to shut up shop, transfer their production and devastate communities and families without any consequences.

And the virtually secret negotiations between the European Commission and Canada and the US on  the Canadian and European and the  Trans -Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will deliver even greater power to corporations through the creation of private secret courts to enable corporations to sue governments. It will also give effect to an extended system of regulatory convergence which will cause immense problems in relations to environmental , food safety and other standards.

In a nut shell CETA and TTIP and the increasing power of corporations equate to the hollowing out of what democracy we have left and our political system and governments will be  further  weakened as the power and influence of the corporations is consolidated. The European Commission and our governments are trading away democracy.We need to build a campaign here in Ireland to oppose these proposed agreements. We need to do it in the interests of democracy and we need to do it in to protect both citizens and workers alike.

Colleagues, in an effort to redress some of these inequalities Congress has developed a 10 point plan for workers. We have communicated this to all political parties in the Republic of Ireland.

We are demanding

  1. Significant improvements to the pay and terms and conditions of employees and the introduction of statutory mechanisms to deliver these objectives
  1. A democratic, accountable high quality education system which is inclusive, affordable and accessible; with a share of public spending of at least 7% of GDP, with proper contracts and tenure for staff and priority for the educationally disadvantaged and those with special educational needs.
  1. A universal single tiered health system, democratically accountable, responsive to the needs of citizens and with a spend of a minimum of 10%of GDP.
  1. An unprecedented programme of investment in affordable and social housing targeted at resolving the housing crisis by 2019, the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Democratic Programme.
  1. The abolition of the current system of water charges and a referendum to enshrine public ownership and control of our water sector.

In addition we have laid out our demands in relation to Youth, Childcare, and the proper resourcing of our important community sector which employs thousands of workers  delivering vital services.

We also demand a new approach to pensions, no increase in pension age and a positive resolution to the problem created by the increase in the pension age to 66, leaving many workers between the devil and the deep blue sea after they are retired at age 65.

We also need to address the systematic removal of trade union representatives from decision making  processes in this state. We need to reinstate  the  Workers’ Voice to counter that of powerful pro- business interests.

In respect of Northern Ireland let me say that we value devolved government because it has enabled us to avoid or mitigate some of the worst of the Westminster Tory policies. We will continue to campaign against all austerity measures irrespective from where they emanate and we will continue to expose the plans to reduce corporation tax as unacceptable. We will continue to fight privatisation of any public services or functions.

Delegates, guests, the Irish trade union movement will work with all parties that are committed to improving the position of working people, we will criticise and campaign against any injustices and we will work towards the fulfilment of Connolly’s aim to establish a Workers Republic in this country, where it is the people who  exercise the power not  the corporations, not the  home grown capitalists and not institutions such as the European Commission.

I will conclude with the words of Jemmy Hope, perhaps the most radical of the United Irishmen. The import of these  words is as true today as they were when he wrote them.

“It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty, till measures were adopted that went to the root of the evil, and were specially directed to the natural right of the people, the deriving  a subsistence rom the soil on which their labour was expended.”

In the modern context, these words will find a resonance with all those workers who are struggling today for a decent wage, for  fair terms and conditions of employment and for their future employment security.

I wish you success for the remainder of this Ard Fheis  and look forward to working with you and all other progressive forces in Irish society, North and South,  to advance the interests of the Irish Working Class.

Go Raibh Maith Agat

What is workers’ education? – Stevie Nolan

Our answer to the question “What is the purpose of workers’ education?” is of course dependent on the broader question of “What is the purpose of trade unions?” Are unions a collective defence of interests aimed at advancing the terms and conditions of members (and only members), or are they a means of challenging capitalism and providing a political vehicle for advancing towards socialism? Is it reform or revolution?

In Ireland the answer has always been fairly clear. We have never seen ourselves as being in a struggle against capital; we rarely even use the language of “capital” and “labour,” and when we do it’s largely symbolic and used with a less-than-convincing clenched fist and a poor rendition of “The International.”

The reformist approach, understood as varieties of social democracy, is in retreat, if not entirely dead. Over the last forty years we have seen the emergence of a new phase in capitalist development that has included a dominant role for finance capital, the defeat of organised labour, deregulation, low taxes, massive and continuous privatisation, and the end of the welfare compromise.

Whether we know it as neo-liberalism, the great risk shift, or the end of history, what we see is the full-spectrum domination of free-market theory. But it’s not enough to have a market economy: what we’re seeing emerge is a free-market society. This is the kind of society where we teach entrepreneurialism to five-year-olds and where universities no longer engage in critical debate and democratic discourse but instead install derivatives trading-rooms in departments of “economic management.”

Read the full paper here http://www.tuleftforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Workers-Education-Stevie-Nolan.pdf

Why have the Luas workers rejected the deal?

Let’s hear from the workers themselves as to why they rejected the deal.

Watch this short 2 minute video.

Thanks to Trade Union TV for this.