Our Union Movement is Stagnating

Authors Note:

This piece should not be interpreted as a hit piece on trade unionism generally. This piece is a criticism of the failings of the Irish trade union movement. The criticism is penned with the hope that it is understood in good faith and rectified. Having said that, I doubt that Gerry Light or Patricia King will become radical revolutionaries any time soon, so I suppose the article is not for them.  This piece is for pissed off shop stewards. For worker organisers, for radical officials and for members of all unions.  It is for you to use your rulebook and begin to change your trade union. Use the criticism as a weapon against the class collaborators and take your union back to the philosophy of Connolly & Larkin!

Introduction

My experience draws on membership of four unions. Three of them are industrial, and one tenant’s union. They all operate in different ways, represent different workers and are differently sized. What they share is straightforward; they are all steadily losing members. Year in year out their presence among the workforce is becoming smaller and as a result, their bargaining power.

The reasons for this decline in membership can be broadly placed into two categories. 

  1. The trade unions have by and large abandoned all radical, non-conforming and militant organising. As a result, they have declined. 
  2. Trade unions all over the western world are entering a crisis, in part not of their doing and in another way, entirely their own doing. 

The two reasons can be elaborated and further surmised by stating the following:  since the death of James Connolly, the tradition of militant industrial struggle has dipped. In fact, I would go as far saying that the Limerick Soviet was the apex of industrial power in Ireland, and everything else after represented a march backwards. Although some might disagree with this assessment, stating that in 1972 almost one in every worker was a trade union member.  That is true, but trade union membership alone does not lead to socialism. Social Democratic countries with stronger collective bargaining rights by law have higher density rates than Ireland – but these unions are no more radical, no more political, and no more dangerous to the state than other Western capitalist countries with incredibly low membership rates and more stringent legislative trappings.  

Individuals v. Institutions

At this point, I would like to make the following comment. All the trade unions in Ireland have a small, but noted number of officials, members, representatives, and activists who are fantastic champions of our class. They tirelessly fight an uphill battle against craven class collaborators and saboteurs in their own union.  They can be counted on two hands, because they are few, and the fact is – they are losing. Every union in Ireland, except for two, is completely dominated by people who think the Labour Party are the inheritors of James Connolly and think inviting Leo Varadkar to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) congress is acceptable. As the sub-heading plainly shows, these individuals are not representative of their institutions. That is ultimately what is important when giving an assessment of the trade union movement. Let us begin.

What have Trade Unions Gotten Wrong?

This is not an exhaustive list. I have no doubt that those who have walked the corridors of union halls can add to it, but here is what my experience has taught me. 

  1. Trade Unions have too many well-paid officials 

A contentious point. Some of my friends in the union movement might not be too happy, or they might agree, but the bottom line is that anything upward of the industrial average wage (43,000 euro last I checked) creates a disconnect from other members.  My dad once summarised it in the following way when referring to his local Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) official: “How can the workers trust a ‘workers representative’ who pulls up in a Mercedes [of that year] and in an expensive suit tells them all about workers rights”.  I would be inclined to entirely agree. While you are still working class even if you earn 5,000 euro a month – you are not in the same bracket as most of your membership, and much like a “revolutionary” left TD who draws on a massive wage and lives in a massive house, you can easily begin to lose focus. It was only a few years ago that a well-known trade union official on 80,000 a year called ESB workers “spoilt”.  This issue of pay has been captured very well by another comrade of mine, who when seeing the make up of the Low Pay Commission and its Trade Union Representatives stated that, “There was nobody low paid on the low pay commission”. I do not know about anybody else, but I would struggle to trust anybody who draws on a 100k salary and talks about the worker’s struggle.

Lenin referred to this layer of working-class people as the aristocracy of labour and in this essay from a few years ago, reputed historian Eric Hobsbawn delves into detail into that subject. For further reading you can check it out here. (https://monthlyreview.org/2012/12/01/lenin-and-the-aristocracy-of-labor/

  1. Trade unions are not democratic as democratic as they should be.

Contrary to what unions themselves put out, many of them are exceptionally undemocratic. The influence of said well-paid officials is phenomenal. They can (and do) stop a balloted-for strike. They can make or break any campaign or initiative made by rank-and-file members. Officials that hold these positions are not elected, cannot be recalled, and essentially answers to nobody but the other officials of the trade union in corporate format. In some unions, certain branches have maintained a level of autonomy that allows them to keep afloat, but even then, those perverting the course of any radical activity have immense influence and power. Trade union officials have forgotten that our hard-earned dues through often genuinely really difficult work pay their wages.  

By contrast, consider the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (commonly known as the RMT). This trade union has a revolving set of industrial officials, which are directly elected for fixed terms. After serving their fixed term they resume their previous place of work or run for something else. Their officials can be recalled by their members. When I was given a tour of the headquarters by Eddie Dempsey a few years ago, I was provided a thorough breakdown of the mechanisms which made officials accountable to their members. 

  1. Trade Unions focus on legislative changes through political change rather than industrial militancy. 

Social partnerships are a fancy term for getting into bed with the State on pre-agreed terms and conditions. Even as I write this, senior officials in ICTU, particularly from SIPTU and Fórsa, are falling over each other to obtain a deal from the government and sell it to their own members. Social partnership is best characterized as class collaboration. It suspends and diverts union militancy in exchange for brokered deals. This flies in the face of the entire reason a union movement and unions should exist. Our trade union movement is our instrument to fight against the ruling class, instead, a vast part of this instrument has been turned into a negotiating tool for suits. 

4. Trade Unions are dominated by social democratic politics 

Since James Connolly was murdered, the trade union movement, led by his comrades, propped up the first Free State government through the Labour Party. The ensuing relationship that Labour maintained to the ITGWU and to ICTU completely poisoned all radical politics. This is well represented by the recent joint Labour-SIPTU commemoration of Connolly, where Alan Kelly, the landlord leader of the Labour Party, delivered his bullshit speech alongside Ethel Buckley, Deputy General Secretary of SIPTU. Both harped on about Connolly and his legacy whilst trying to justify their cowardly politics.  Even more entertaining was the fact that they had to stand behind special branch and a locked gate from a dozen CYM members who went there to protest their bastardization of the radical revolutionary. Every single trade union is bereft of communists and pilfered with class collaborators.  Most of them are obsessed with social partnership and pushing legislative changes while doing the least amount of work as possible. An organiser in one union recently told me that the officials call their members from private numbers to avoid handing out their phone number! This complete laziness, coupled with Labour Party-type politics has resulted in the political landscape and culture of trade unions to be outwardly social democratic, rather than being radical or revolutionary.

5. Trade Unions shun political education, for a reason.  

A couple of years ago, a senior trade union official strategically moved to cut out a known education group delivering political economy training to shop stewards and workers. He did this to make sure that said group could not deliver radical education in the union.  Another example is that of SIPTU College. On the face of it – it is a great idea.  An institute for working class people to develop their education and politics. The problem is the politics reflect SIPTU itself and can only be characterized as dogshit. The emphasis on negotiation, compromise and sitting at the table dominate the modules that are presented. The teachers themselves are integrated into the Labour Party and its politics. If you scratch through any of their Connolly talk, they are as radical as the Social Democrats.

6.Trade Unions are often anti-Republican in nature 

It remains a mystery to me as to why so many trade unions (despite for example claiming the mantle of a Republican in James Connolly) harbour such resentment towards the Republican movement and such antipathy towards discussion or advancement of the national question.  Institutionally ICTU tows the line which the Labour Party puts forward – which is that the Republican movement and the Unionist movement are two sides of the same coin, and we must strike a “third way”. This position is essentially the position of every half-baked social democrat in the country and one completely ambivalent to the question of imperialism. Republicanism is the direct result of the colonial plantation of Ireland, it is an emancipatory ideology rooted in seeing Ireland free and unfettered from foreign domination, whilst Unionism is the ideological justification for colonialism and imperialism. Ironically, many trade union officials with an antipathy for republicanism will still fly a Palestinian flag.

7.Unions don’t pay enough attention to migrants 

Although my experience is short in this field, I can safely say that the interest in migrant workers among the mainstream movement is minimal. Russian speakers have been completely abandoned to the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation and every day that goes by, more and more migrants are strategically recruited by agencies based in eastern Europe. The workers are sold a capitalist utopia where they will be able to live a happy ever after. The reality is that eastern European workers get caught in underfunded rural areas with no amenities slaving away in the factories of the beef barons and creating super profits. As all this occurs, the main trade unions that do have a presence in the meat and agri sector, sit idly by or worse yet, make deals that can only be described from bad to worse.

External factors that impact trade unions

Although the above reasons all focused on the issues within trade unions themselves, there are some external factors that should be considered when commenting on the state of the movement. 

  1. The 1990 Industrial Relation Act is central

The 1990 Act essentially prohibits political strikes and general strikes by re-categorising disputes as disputes pertaining to two parties and any actions having to be in “furtherance of the dispute”. Before any actions can take place there must be ample “negotiation” through various mechanisms, namely the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and the Labour Court. This means that any fire that workers might have had on the first of May, could be gone by November. A deal would then be brokered by the suits and before you know it half of the demands the workers desired are gone. Ironically, ICTU contributed and negotiated in the writing of this legislation, so make of that what you will. The correct position on the legislation is to support, campaign and fight for its abolition and although some unions have passed motions at their conferences to that effect – acting on said motion is an entirely different matter. Because of the way the legislation is structured, any activity seen to be or recognised by the Courts to be “in furtherance of an industrial dispute” but not following the procedures would be deemed to be not in accordance with the 1990 Act and therefore open to costly civil actions and remedies. Injunctions and damages are usually the main options for employers to hammer union finances with.

  1. Unions are declining in the West in general

Ireland is not the only country to experience stagnancy in the trade union movement. In the UK, US, Canada, etc it is much the same. Numbers have steadily declined since Thatcher-Reagan went on the offensive. Although their offensive cannot be ascribed to the unions, their response, or lack of it, can be.  The solution was to essentially surrender the militant edge of the working class in exchange for social partnership style national agreements, everywhere. This response, coupled with an aggressive offensive by the neoconservatives smashed many trade unions – some, like the miner’s union, never regained what they were, while others – cowed into submission moulded their unions into amicable NGO type organisations that would ask the legislature for things, rather than fighting.

  1. Anti-Communism has helped trade unions decline

Whether it is social democrats, Trotskyists, anarchists, or any other elements of the anti-communist left – they have advanced an anti-communist position and only fed it right into the hands of the right. This has made the staunchest advocates of militant trade unionism the scapegoats for many. It was not so long ago that Trotskyists of the Socialist Party variety engaged in a witch hunt in a trade union in Ireland after Communist Party members, ultimately expelling them in a show trial that would make their arch nemesis Josef Stalin blush.  Anti-communism in the English-speaking West maintains the isolation of any union member that openly states that they are a Communist. Unfortunately, this re-enforces the social democratic and tepid character of the union movement.

  1. Unions have embraced “apolitical” character

Centrist and liberal individuals within trade unions, i.e those who support the status quo, vote Fianna Fáil and Labour simultaneously attempt to paint themselves as above politics. As a result – you have trade unions posturing in a manner that suggests that they have no politics and, as a result, that political discussions do not belong in said union.  All this means in practice is that political alliances are made “informally” rather than being hashed out in the existing structures – party members of different groups/organisations pre-agree what they will push and do so. Everybody knows who in what is party and pushing what position, but it’s often pretended otherwise.

Conclusion

Although one could interpret this piece as an attack on the trade union movement, I would urge the reader instead to interpret it as my desire to improve and strengthen our union movement. To do so, a very honest assessment must be made of where our union movement is at.

It is high time we strive to take back the union movement from the watery Labour Party type suits and put the militant edge, law breaking, ass kicking and employer scaring culture back into our movement. This will require breaking the law, shattering ICTU bureaucracy, triple carding across multiple unions and fighting in a coherent and organised manner against the right-wing aristocracy of labour.

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