Solidarity – More Than Just Support

What is solidarity? The dictionary definition online said “mutual support within a group”. Not very dramatic, rousing, or uplifting I agree. But it is still one of the most important, yet sadly underused, tools of the trade union movement.

A prime example of the need for solidarity is what was happening in Ireland coming up to the Christmas period, regarding the media portrayal of the ESB workers and their then-threatened strike action. They were being labelled as “selfish”, “greedy”, “holding the country to ransom”, just because they were standing up and fighting for their rights to reclaim the pension deficit sprung upon them. They had been forced into the position of strike action by a board of management who refuse to engage at any meaningful level. But more worryingly than the media portrayal, was the effect this portrayal has had on the public. Pages like “NO to the ESB strike” sprung up on social media outlets like Facebook. A page which grew in the space of a week to 2,353 supporters and is still on Facebook for all to see. A page which, in one post, called for the picket line to be broken and for people to take back the company “from the unions”. As if that wasn’t enough, one had to just look at the comments section of any online articles regarding the ESB workers stance. They were, in general, resoundingly negative towards the workers struggle.

Why is this? Where is the solidarity amongst the working class, the struggling people, which Ireland was long famous for at home and abroad? Have we become that begrudging a nation that, rather than fight together for better, we instead wish the worst on those that have. This is something the trade union movement has to recognise as a huge fault of our own.
The trade union movement across the country has roughly 800,000 members, and is the largest civil organisation on the island. Yet at any major protest or march, the numbers present are a fraction of this. As was said at the ICTU Youth Conference held in November, the trade unions are looked upon by its members as a service. Something you pay for just in case you someday need it. Therefore, most people have no interest in being active within the trade union movement.

People are also becoming disillusioned with the trade union movement and their individual unions. The current Government are not just continuing, but actively building upon the torturous austerity program that the Irish people are suffering through. Cuts to Social Welfare payments, the aggressive rollout of a compulsory JobBridge program for unemployed, water charges and the ongoing Irish Water fiasco, household taxes, the promise of job creation but the reality of forced emigration.

Workers have watched this happen and, in many cases, do not think the trade union movement have done enough to voice the opposition of its members towards these cuts. They may not be job specific, but they still affect workers and members. Couple this with public perception that the trade union movement donates to, or are conjoined with political parties, and you can imagine why people are becoming disenfranchised with trade unions, and deciding not to join. In my opinion, a clear and public statement of disaffiliation from all political parties by trade unions, would not only break this stigma, but would be extremely beneficial to the unions and create a membership boost.

Imagine a trade union movement that not only looks after the people it represents, but is active politically, fighting against austerity measures forced upon the country by successive Governments. What we need is a union completely disaffiliated from any political party, a movement which can activate against a particular cut or measure at a moment’s notice, which would pull any political parties worth anything to the worker along in its momentum, a union which does not allow, forget or forgive attacks against the workers and the workplace, a union movement not afraid to take a stand on and support the important social issues affecting the country and world, from the pro-choice debate and legalisation of gay marriage at home, to the continued atrocities in Palestine and the anti-homosexual agenda surrounding the Winter Olympics in Russia. This is something which would not only breed solidarity and activism amongst the trade union movement, but would also appeal to non-unionised workers, and encourage them to join, but most importantly get involved in the issues that they are most passionate about.

But there is not just the need for national solidarity. Global solidarity is equally important. In September of last year, a group of trade union activists stood on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, outside a McDonalds on O’Connell Street in Dublin. They were there as part of a solidarity picket with Sean Bailey, a young McDonalds worker and Unite Union delegate in New Zealand, who had recently been fired from his job. The reasons for his dismissal; exposing serial law breaking by the company over not providing meal breaks for many staff working more than a four-hour shift as mandated under the current law. This picket was important on two levels. Not only was it offering much welcomed support to Sean and his struggle, but it was highlighting to McDonalds that the workers, regardless of where they are from, will not take any form of erosion of workers’ rights lying down. It showed that an attack against one worker, even one over 11,000 miles away, is an attack against all workers.

This is the meaning of true solidarity, and it is not just with Sean. It is with all workers worldwide, as they fight for better terms and conditions against their respective employees. It is with the Wal-Mart workers in America as they fight for trade union recognition. It is with the McDonalds workers worldwide as they fight for a living wage. It is with the workers in Colombia who are beaten or murdered for being active in their trade union. It’s with the four workers of Connolly Shoes in Dun Laoghaire who are still, after 3 years, awaiting their court ordered compensation for unlawful dismissal. It is with bank workers who receive abuse for mismanagement they were not part of.

Solidarity is much more than the dictionary definition. Solidarity is the greatest tool trade unions have in their struggle for the working class. It is, as the American labor leader Harry Bridges said, “The most important word in the language of the working class”.