Unlocking the potential of trade unions for working people

Overcoming common misunderstandings about trade unions

There are some common misunderstandings about unions that fall wide of the mark and lead to a lot of confusion; and some of this comes from within the movement itself and is given life by some unions’ language and actions. For example, a union is an insurance policy for workers when something goes wrong at work; it’s a professional representative body; it’s an interest group . . . These are all common answers to the question “What are trade unions?” but none are right.

Trade unions are the collective and pooled effort and resources of working people coming together to improve the quality and standard of their lives. Unions are working people coming together in their own organisation, which they democratically control and run in their own interests. By coming together in an organisation, workers combine to give themselves extraordinary power. Their combined effort and their ability to withdraw labour (strike or industrial action) or merely act in unison (voting in a particular way, or a solidarity campaign) challenge the unequal relationship between labour and capital (workers and bosses) where the legal and political system inherently favours employers and those with deep pockets.

The rise of unions

Unions in Ireland go back as far as the 1700s, when skilled workers, such as butchers, printers, and bricklayers, came together to form their own organisations to win better pay and hours. They were at first illegal, and many of these early union activists faced prison or forced emigration for standing together for a better life. Over time, legislation was won, demonstrating that when workers are collectively organised they hold power not only in their own work-place or trade but also in the political arena. This legalised unions but provided increasingly complex regulations and hoops for workers to go through to express their power through action. Legislation has had mixed results for workers trying to act together to improve their lot.

By the end of the nineteenth century, unions were growing and spreading to embrace many workers. In Ireland we had the growth of the ITGWU, a union for the mass of unskilled industrial workers. This exploded in numbers and influence as a result of the development of industrial capitalism and its victory over other previous forms of production. Connolly and Larkin led this organising drive, and this gave birth to the modern union movement in Ireland. As well as seeking to improve working conditions, the workers who organised themselves in the ITGWU had a political vision of socialism for Ireland, demonstrated in the Irish Citizen Army, the involvement of union members in both the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, and encapsulated in the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil. The vision included national and public ownership of the fundamentals of the economy as well as the extension of social and economic human rights for all citizens. So far, this vision has never been fully achieved but there have been victories.

Much of what is taken for granted today was won by workers fighting for it: the length of the working day and week; paid public holidays and annual leave; minimum payments and overtime; paid maternity leave; and much more. Like the laundry workers, members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, who went on strike in 1945 for a second week of paid annual leave, their victory led to other unions claiming the same, and the two weeks became the new minimum for all from the following year.

This combination of a radical political vision of society and militant work-place action saw the trade union movement grow from tens of thousands to close to 200,000 workers by the early 1920s. Growth in employment over the decades has moved the movement to about 700,000 members in the whole of Ireland; however, union density (our percentage of the entire work force) has been declining from its peak in the 1980s when it reached 62% (higher than both Britain and the EU average).

Today it stands at about 35 per cent, with the private sector at about 21 per cent. This decline is related to the second wave of foreign direct investment which has largely been US and anti-Union. The State has ceased promoting union recognition in early stages of start-ups of large multi nationals and now actually promotes the non-union environment as a positive. But this culture has also affected Irish business with the 3 high-profile union recognition strikes in the 90’s in Pat-the-Baker, Nolan Transport and Ryanair not ending well for the union movement and has also emboldened large Irish employers like Dunnes Stores to continually refuse to recognise the trade union of their staff. But these are external factors and the movement itself has a lot to answer in terms of this decline.

Trade union models and ideology

Trade unions do not develop or act in isolation from the political and economic realities they find themselves in. Unions are influenced by, and play a part in, the society around them. The last few decades have seen the development of a political, economic and ideological environment that is increasingly hostile to unions and to collective values. Governments, the media and international institutions have led this assault.

The economic and political establishment have correctly viewed unions as an obstacle or challenge to capitalism and the maximising of profits for shareholders and of salaries for senior executives and so have set out to weaken and discredit them. Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There is no alternative,” and, as society generally has been fed this line, so too unions have, to a greater or lesser extent, accepted it, or lost their belief in an alternative.

Unlike a hundred years ago, when some strong unions had a radical and independent vision of society, many unions now have been relegated, and have relegated themselves, to being “managers” of change. Unfortunately, this puts the union into a position between member and management, as some kind of arbiter or mediator, rather than fulfilling its function as the worker-owned structure in which members can act collectively to win.

This has developed what is often called the “servicing” model of trade unionism. Returning to the first line of this article, the union is viewed as an insurance policy, a service to workers, not a workers’ collective. This means that the union official is usually the first port of call for sorting out issues in the work-place, rather than the workers themselves being organised to do so. Union officials lodge grievances and pursue issues through processes; the industrial relations process becomes the priority, not collectively organising workers together.

Now, however, more and more unions are at least talking about returning to the original approach, the “organising” model. This puts the emphasis on activism by members, both in the work-place and in the structures of the union: workers acting together, making the decisions on what is best for them, negotiating in the work-place, insisting on collective bargaining and union recognition, with the officials and other union resources there to advise, support, assist, co-ordinate, train and ultimately empower workers themselves. And that approach doesn’t end at 5 p.m. or finish in the work-place: workers have common issues outside work, such as water, housing and health, transport and taxation, and so the organising approach seeks to empower workers to fight, and on all their issues and concerns. Workers are people, not a cog in a machine, and so collective power enables workers to take on all the issues we face together.

This turn to empowering workers locally is more urgent than ever now, as we see a renewed assault on unions internationally, in both the British Trade Union Bill and in the United States in new legislation and a variety of legal outcomes there, through many high profile ECJ rulings and also through CETA/TTIP. And so if unions—and, more importantly, if workers who make up unions—are to survive and enhance their power in society, then workers must be encouraged, supported and resourced to do it themselves. The law, political parties or industrial relations institutions won’t deliver this unless forced, but workers can, just as they have in previous centuries.

The importance of winning union structures

To do this, union structures cannot be ignored. They might be boring; God knows they can be tiresome and draining. But they are important. All unions have structures, some more open and democratic than others, for members to be active in and to decide the direction of the union. Workers must win these structures to change the union. Class-conscious workers must win these structures to politicise the union and strengthen the demand for workers’ control and empowerment.

There are more than fifty different trade unions in Ireland, representing workers in practically every walk of life. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is the umbrella organisation for our 32-county movement, the biggest social movement in the country.

Trade unions are, by and large, governed by their members. Members can go forward for election onto the various committees that represent the members on a geographical or sectoral basis. These are commonly known as branch or sector committees, or sometimes regional committees. The governing body of a union is its National Executive Council, Executive or General Council, depending on the Union.

These unions reflect the diversity of views of any large group of workers. There are no good or bad unions per se, it is just that they reflect the left and right-wing views/traditions of their members and of those groupings that are more organised and hold positions within the union. So, just as class struggle, ideological and material, is necessary to advance the cause of workers within society, so too it is necessary within unions themselves. There can be a misconception that struggle within unions isn’t a necessary part of the broader struggle. But actually it is possibly at the present moment the most important battleground for workers in order to win their movement, and unions, to progressive, class-based organising and away from the servicing culture, ideology and model of the last few decades.

Members influence the direction and policies of their union by putting themselves forward for election to branch or similar committees, then progress further as committee chair, secretary, officer or president or, ultimately, becoming a member of their NEC. Members should be supported in this and provided training and encouragement. Often, however, if a member is not of the dominant political leaning of the union they will have to struggle without this support and so will rely on their allies and comrades on the ground to win. The Trade Union Left Forum is a resource for left activists to use. We can help you with ideas and materials to win support. Winning elections and positions within the union, based on the membership strength, is a vital part of realising the potential of the union and the movement.

The public face of a union’s leadership is usually the general or national officers: president, vice-president, and general secretary. These will vary in title in different unions. They are usually employed officials of the union who have been elected/appointed by the members to hold these positions for a limited number of years. Furthermore, the officers are accountable to the NEC, the committee of volunteer members elected by the members, representing the different sections of the union. All policy-making decisions come through the members of the NEC.

Each union has its own rulebook or constitution, which governs procedure on such matters as elections, decision-making, handling disputes, the quorum for committee meetings, motions, policies, frequency of meetings, and so on. This democratic process is ensured through adherence to the rules. Understanding and using your union’s rulebook and constitution, although possibly boring, is crucial to winning your union.

In accordance with their rules, all unions must hold annual or biennial delegate conferences. Delegates are members who are active in their union as shop stewards or in other roles and are nominated by fellow-members of their branch to represent the views and wishes of the branch or employment area. Each branch can propose motions to the conference on issues they consider most important, such as privatisation, water provision, the health service, pensions, education, pay, international solidarity, political party affiliation and so on. These are debated and voted on, to be accepted or rejected by a majority of delegates. In this way the membership decide on the direction and policy of their union. But experience tells us that to give meaning to motions members must continue after the conference to put forward plans and ideas for action and initiatives in order to breathe life into what the conference decided on. Local union branches or committees should themselves take initiatives on specific motions they support. Often motions lie dormant and hidden because of both the conservative ideological leaning of the current union leadership but also, more importantly, the lack of an organised left bloc within the movement.

The politics of class trade unionism

As class-conscious trade unionists we see the purpose of trade unions as being to build working class industrial power through the collective organisation of workers and to act collectively to counterbalance the power of employers and their Governments. Acting on the principle of solidarity, people support each other on the grounds that if something hurts one of us, then it is likely to hurt all of us in time.

As James Larkin put it, “An injury to one is the concern of all.”

If you want to influence the biggest social movement in the country, find the relevant union for you and become actively involved. Build alliances with like-minded people around a progressive agenda, and make change happen through activity and ideas. Politics and ideology are not dirty words for us: they are the life of our class and must be reclaimed and reinvigorated if we are to win our movement and win a better, socialist future.

The TULF will shortly launch a political pledge campaign to better coordinate and organise left class-conscious trade unionists across Ireland.

There has been, and still remains, a tension within all trade unions between those who represent a relatively narrow “trade” or “craft” consciousness and those who represent a broader political class-consciousness. There is also conflict and tension within unions between socialist (organising mentality) and social democratic (servicing views) ideologies. We need workers not only to join but to get involved to win our unions and to deliver the full potential of this collective movement and resource for working people to bring about socialism in Ireland. The TULF aims to help and be part of this.

Together we are strong; divided we fall.