A DEPRESSING DISCUSSION ABOUT TRADE UNIONS

Diarmuid Breatnach

I attended a meeting last night discussing the state of trade unions in Ireland and I found the meeting depressing. Not the state of the unions, which could be grounds enough for depression it’s true, but the state of the Left that sits down to discuss these questions. Because where else can the remedy come from except from the activists on the Left and if they don’t have a solution ….!

Practically all the 40 or so in the room were activists in trade union, community and political struggles, many with decades of experience. Many have suffered in the struggle, made financial and other sacrifices, some have suffered unemployment as a result of their commitment and some have even seen the inside of a prison. As the result of that combination of experience, one would think that they would come up with a good way – or number of ways – forward, out of the dire situation in which the trade union movement finds itself at the moment. One would think …. but alas!

The title of the meeting was TRADE UNIONS — RADICAL OR REDUNDANT? It was held on the second day of the week-long program of political discussion and cultural events of the James Connolly Festival, organised by the Communist Party of Ireland. Billed as a “debate & discussion on the future for trade unions”, the panel was chaired by Garret Gareth Murphy of Trade Union Left Forum and consisted (in speaking order and in personal capacity) of Louise O’Reilly (SIPTU), Dave Gibney (Mandate), Ann Farrelly (Swords Says No but also a member of a teacher’s trade union), Laura Duggan of Work Must Pay, Bernie Hughes (unemployed member of SIPTU but also a community activist and recently jailed for allegedly breaking an injunction sought by Sierra/ Irish Water).

Having attended a public commemoration of the death of Bobby Sands and nine other hunger-strikers which was also to start at 6pm, I arrived late for the meeting and so missed one panel speaker’s contribution and much of what another said. But that still left the rest of what the second one had to say and the other three.

At 7.15pm, the panel speakers finished and the meeting was opened to comment from the floor. Around an hour of speakers and less than an hour allocated for contributions from the audience, a discussion which then had to be cut to allow the panel to respond. This unfortunately is standard for Irish Left meetings, right across the political spectrum. Of course the intention expressed was to keep the contributions to five minutes from each and of course too some of them went way over. In this case, with five panel speakers, I had in fact predicted what would happen on the FB page of the event, though of course I would have been glad to have been proven wrong.

It is understandable, in a way. Left-wing speakers tend to be communicators and have a lot to say. They are also often kept out of many arenas where they could express their ideas. But arrogance has to be a factor too, when one knows that a meeting is scheduled to last about two hours and there are five speakers and a chair – and one still takes over 20 minutes to speak. Where does one think that extra 15 minutes (or much more) is going to come from? It is going to be deducted from other speakers probably and certainly from the audience. Or if the meeting goes on longer to make up the deficit, the risk is of wearing out the audience. The solution is crystal clear but probably won’t be applied – book less speakers and chair the meeting rigorously.

So why are so many speakers invited? Sometimes it’s because a broad representation of opinion is sought and at other times it might be that a number of organisations are expecting to be given a speaker. Then each speaker might attract a different audience or members of a different organisation. I have taken part in organising rallies and public meetings too and I know that these issues present difficulties but I also know that they have to be addressed. If we want participation and are democratically minded, we should not continue to organise debates/ discussions in this way.

All the speakers I heard expressed the opinion that there was something seriously wrong with the trade union movement. That was hardly revelatory – it is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of people on the street and in the workplace, if they have an opinion about the trade unions at all. And quite a few have hardly any opinion about trade unions – they don’t enter their view of the world to any degree whatsoever. Laura Duggan related that many young workers, finding themselves in difficulties with Job Bridge or otherwise at work, when looking for help, go first to Citizens’ Advice or to her organisation’s Facebook page – the last place many of them go to is a trade union.

Since that dismal view of the trade unions’ performance is so widespread and was shared by the panel speakers, I would have thought a few sentences could have been devoted to it and the rest of the speakers’ contributions could have been dedicated to prescribing or at least exploring solutions. Exactly the reverse is what happened – most of the contributions I heard were about ways in which the trade unions have failed, including much about personal experiences, but very little about what the solutions might be. Well, maybe the title of the meeting could be partly to blame but as activists, are we not mostly about solutions? Did Marx’s dictum on philosophy totally pass us by, that “heretofore philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”?

So what were the solutions presented by the speakers? I recall “that the unions should recruit more young workers”, “respond more to young workers’ issues”, “there should be one big union”, “there should be education about political economy and history”, the unions should “continue participating in the struggles against the Water Tax”, “fight more strikes, especially when the membership have called for it” …..

Sure, OK, fine, brothers and sisters – but what if they don’t? What if the leadership, because that is what we are talking about in the failure of the trade unions, what if they don’t do what you think needs doing — what then? What are you going to do? What should we do?

The contributions from the floor followed much of the same pattern with however a greater amount pointed towards solutions. But again, it was mostly what was wanted from the leadership rather than what we could do to achieve the desired ends, especially in the face of the leadership’s intransigence. The need for young people to join the movement was expressed from the floor with on two occasions fulsome praise accompanied by applause for the one young person on the panel – well-intentioned no doubt but to me an embarrassing expression of the activists’ desperation.

Emigration, the 1990s Industrial Relations Act, leadership out of touch, the media … were all variously listed as being the reasons for the lack of resistance by the Irish trade union movement as well, of course, as the social partnership of decades between the unions and the employers and state.

One interesting contribution from the floor referred to an alleged ballot-rigging of which SIPTU had been found guilty in court years ago but which they appealed to the High Court. The brother relating this alleged that the Fianna Fáil Government of the day had the High Court clear SIPTU in exchange for the compliance of the trade union thereafter. Another brother a little later however denied there had been ballot-rigging (he actually said that “it was worse than that”!) and an argument broke out until the Chair quickly brought the meeting to order.

One brother in the audience stated that the problem was not at bottom whether the unions were fighting for better wages or not but about the politics of the union – if the politics were about social-democracy then of course the union would not act in the way we wanted. No-one responded to that contribution, presumably because either they agreed with it but couldn’t see how to progress from a union that isn’t even defending its membership to one with a revolutionary socialist ideology, or because they are basically in favour of social democracy, so long as it’s of a leftier kind.

I made one contribution to the discussion, in which I stated that although I have been a trade union member of different unions for most of my working life, and although I believe we should join a trade union, of course the trade unions are redundant. That is the opinion of most people at work and in the street and is the reality. But that doesn’t mean that trade unionism is redundant.

People will join a trade union if they see it fighting for its members. The workers who left the NUDL to join Larkin’s breakaway IT&GWU did so because they felt the NUDL had sold them out but they knew that Larkin wouldn’t do that and that his union would fight the employers. That was the same reason other workers joined the union too. If workers don’t see the union fighting, why should they join it?

I referred to all the bad history and difficult conditions for the operation of trade unions listed by contributors to the discussion. I pointed out that much worse conditions had been encountered and overcome by trade union organisers in the past – they had been deported in chains to Australia and in the United States many had been shot dead.

The Left in Ireland traditionally tries to deal with collaborationist trade union leadership by mobilising votes to replace the current leadership with Left candidates; I said that this process is too long if at all practicable and that our agreed Left candidates, if successful, are often corrupted by the trade union regime so that we have to start again. I proposed the same solution that I had done some years ago and on a number of occasions since, that trade union activists should form an organisation or network across the unions, in order to attend pickets when strikes break out, as people did with the Greyhound strike, to support the workers in struggle, to talk to them and also try to recruit them so as to have them go with us to the next strike and support the workers there.

I related some years ago being elected to the steering group of an organisation that was allegedly going to fulfill some of those expectations, the Trade Union Activists’ Network. I attended nearly every internal meeting for a year and was constantly trying to push it into action but it became clear to me, over time, that most of those present on the Steering Group had no real interest in the work and may have even been there for no other reason than to prevent activists from occupying their positions. Nevertheless, a grassroots network across the unions is still the only solution, I concluded; if we don’t build that we will continue to attend meetings like this in years to come, bemoaning the lack of success of our trade unions.

Some people – perhaps even most — may think they know better and after all, why should my ideas be any more likely to work than theirs? Well, perhaps for no reason; but their approaches have been tried without success for years – so why not try the one I advocate?

A somewhat separate issue which I did not address in my contribution was the much-promoted alleged support of trade unions for the Right to Water campaign. It is a fact that not one of those trade unions has advocated non-registration and non-payment. No trade union has advocated resistance to the Water Tax or its implementation by its members and, as one speaker from the floor pointed out, a number of local authority workers had been transferred to a private company installing water meters, without any resistance from the local authority trade unions.

Near the end of the meeting, speakers from the floor began to coincide in saying that we should continue to encourage trade union membership through recruitment, wearing our union badge, education, etc, etc. One went so far as to state that saying that trade unions are redundant is something some right-wing people and employers would love to hear, at which point I interjected that he was implying that “the critics are the problem”, something he hotly denied. But the fact is that the opinion of people about the trade unions is a result of the actions and inactions of those unions, rather than anything said in a meeting of around 40 people (or even a thousand).

I began this report by saying that I found the meeting depressing but that was not, it seems, what most others who attended felt. I found it depressing because despite all the lessons the Left is being taught, it seems unable to learn from them. But when the panel speakers came back to respond to the discussion, for me there were a couple of gleams of gold or at least something shiny in the bottom of the pan: Dave Gibney said that young workers will join a union when they see it fighting and spoke of the young workers in Dunne’s Stores who were enthused and politicised by their recent experience of being on a picket line; Louise O’Reilly said it was a waste of time expecting more sympathetic treatment from the media and that what we need is our own, left-wing newspaper.

End.

Credentials:

Diarmuid has been employed in many capacities, including as a factory labourer, construction labourer, kitchen porter, cleaner, laboratory assistant, foundry furnace operative, machine moulder, fitter-welder, youth worker, community worker, adult education tutor, hostel worker, hostel and addiction services team manager.

In the course of those, he has been a member in Britain at different times of the following trade unions:
Amalgamated Engineering Union
Construction Engineering Union
AEU (Foundry
Workers)

Community & Youthworkers’ Union
NALGO (ILEA: Youthworkers; Adult Education Tutors)

NALGO (Local Authority, Education)

Unison

……. and in Ireland of:
SIPTU (Marine and Port)
SIPTU (Health workers)

Diarmuid has made serious attempts to found union branches in a number of manual workplaces with some successes and some failures, including being sacked from two workplaces for trade union or solidarity activity. He has also founded a union branch (managerial section) in his more recent work managing teams working with the homeless and people with substance misuse issues, along with facilitating union branch founding for other grades of workers in workplaces he managed. During his employment by NGOs, Diarmuid has faced disciplinary proceedings three times and beaten them twice, once at the initial stage and at the appeal stage in the second; he took the third to Labour Court and was awarded compensation.

Elected Shop Steward and/or Health & Safety Staff Representative in NALGO and in Unison, Diarmuid has campaigned for health & safety improvements (including organising comprehensive risk assessments by the team) as well as representing workers at disciplinary hearings (with mixed results). Elected unpaid Assistant Branch Secretary, he has been active in organising a strike, speaking at shop meetings and organising and participating in pickets. For a year, he edited a trade union branch newsletter and contributed articles to it.

As a trade union, community and political activist, among the pickets he has supported have been at car manufacturers (Fords), building sites, newspaper (Wapping), refuse workers (Greyhound), catering workers (Subway, Mac Donald’s), against cuts and closures of services, also collecting money for miners’, fire fighters’ and health workers’ strikes.

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