It’s time for a radically new Congress

Ireland: the greatest small country in the world to do business in. Unfortunately, it’s not the greatest small country in the world to live or work in. Ultimately that’s the success of the business class (the actual capitalist class of owners and speculators, the big farmer class and the layer of ‘management’ that run capitalism here for their masters) and the failure of the trade union and workers’ movement.

Low corporation tax, low income tax for high earners, tax avoidance schemes that are ultimately compensated for by workers, indirect taxes that go to bondholders, low investment in public infrastructure, public health, public education and public transport services are testament to that fact. So is the fact that we have the second highest prevalence of low pay in the entire OECD.

Arguably the greatest failure, however, is that after more than 100 years of fighting for it, we still don’t have real and effective collective bargaining legislation. We’re four years into this particular Fine Gael and Labour Party government and we’ve seen numerous, timely and opportunistic press releases about what may be included in the new collective bargaining legislation, but still no Heads of Bill have been published. When it is finally published, it will almost certainly not be real collective bargaining (and this view is formed by what we have seen to date from the Department) but a menu for employers to avoid dealing with trade unions directly.

The Irish government can guarantee the entire banking system and liquidate nationalized banks overnight, heaping tens of billions of debt onto the shoulders of children who haven’t even been born yet, but in 70 years we can’t fall into line with the rest of the civilized world and give workers in Ireland the basic right to trade union recognition and collective bargaining.  There can be no greater indictment of our failure as a movement than this.

With the imminent retirement of David Beggs as General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions this year, and with the appointment of a new general secretary in the coming weeks, isn’t it time a discussion began about what the role of Congress is and what we want from the new leader of the Irish trade union movement?

A good starting point would be to recognize two things:

  • Within the political establishment, the Irish trade union movement currently has very little power.
  • The Labour Party is the tail wagging the dog of the trade union movement and is preventing any cohesive and sustained fight against austerity, and the debt imposed on the people, that is ripping working class communities apart.

Arguably Congress’s warnings about the impact of government policies on our economy and on our society since the crash in 2008 have been right. With consistent ICTU pre-Budget and post-Budget predictions about austerity resulting in unemployment, emigration, poverty etc, successive governments ignore Congress at will. Every year the trade union movement argues for a stimulus package, utilizing taxes in a more efficient manner, investment in public services, and is ignored again and again by ‘there is no alternative’ politicians.

Reasons for this are varied but most important is the fact that the ‘movement’ cannot (or in some cases, will not) mobilise their hundreds of thousands of members to take action. This is recognized by the established political parties. They know after 23 years of social partnership, trade unions are more accustomed to sitting in board rooms than in community centres, and asking nicely for scraps from the table rather than demanding the food, the scraps and the table itself.

Yet instead of attempting to get back into communities to win the hearts and minds of workers and the unemployed, and build our muscle in the workplace and in society, we continue to put forward sophisticated and comprehensive economic arguments (whether you agree with them or not) that will again be ignored come Budget day. We all know the Einstein cliché about the definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The leaders of our movement have a responsibility to be honest with themselves and with us. They need to ask what it is the movement has actually achieved over the past 30 years or so of so-called partnership and agree with workers a clear alternative strategy other than a return of partnership and the continued decline of the movement.

Almost all of the workplace rights we enjoy today – lunch breaks, annual leave, maternity leave, parental leave, force majeure leave, et al. – come as a result of wins by trade unions across Europe which are then normalized through EU Directives, and also through the very real experience of gains achieved in the Soviet Union and socialist countries which forced concessions to workers here.

Yes, the movement has managed to prevent some of the worst excesses of austerity (restoration of the minimum wage, JLC’s), but that’s not progress, that’s just a slower retreat.

Economic and social analysis is vitally important. However, equally, if not more important, is the ability to formulate tactics and strategies to have those policies implemented. If the movement cannot mobilise its members to take action or vote in a coordinated manner in which they recommend, then the economic analysis is redundant.

The Right2Water campaign has shown in some ways how powerful this can be. After only two major protests – planned, funded and coordinated by only five trade unions – we saw the biggest U-turn in government policy in decades. The unions did the economic analysis, attended local community meetings where they spoke on the issue, but most importantly they allowed communities to take control of the issue while they facilitated them. Interestingly, none of the unions concerned are affiliated to the Labour Party and have been criticized by members of the Party very publicly for their stance.

What the trade union movement needs to do now is recognise its major flaws, including its inability to activate its members. It has to reinvigorate itself within working class communities and genuinely start to question its political strategy – including affiliations to political parties.

The new general secretary of Congress has the ability to harness the enormous potential that the trade union movement has to offer. They can help to deliver a radically new Congress and a more progressive society. However, it will not happen if we continue to cultivate the failed policies and relationships of the past.

We need a movement that has a strong economic and social analysis, has a strategy to achieve its goals on behalf of its members and is not afraid to use strong tactics to achieve those goals, no matter who is in government.

The movement must politicize its members, educate them, facilitate them and get back into the communities where their ultimate power lies.

That’s what the role of Congress is. That’s what we need from a new leader of our movement.