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.