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(en) Ireland, Dublin anarchist bookfair 2013 - The state of the unions - the legacy of 1913 and the trade union movement today
Sun, 14 Apr 2013 11:50:39 +0300
Having spent the early part of this week at the annual conference of my union – the Irish
National Teachers Organisation – I’m struck by the view that unions today appear to be a
different world entirely from that of 100 years ago. My talk will focus less on 1913 and
more on where the trade union movement finds itself today ---- In many ways the past does
indeed appear to be a different world, and evidence of the fighting spirit shown by Larkin
and the workers of Dublin 100 years ago appears to have practically nothing in common with
a trade union movement that has spent the past 25 years – a quarter of the time since the
events we are commemorating - engaged in so-called ‘social partnership’ and which in the
past 4 years have suffered and accepted the effects of 6 austerity budgets, with workers’
incomes and standards of living slashed and public services decimated.
Young workers, in particular, have had their wages and working conditions savaged. In
2008 a primary teacher starting out, for example, took home €557 per week after tax and
other deductions, in September 2012 a starting teacher’s net take home pay was just €406 –
that’s a reduction of almost 28%.
These pay cuts have taken place as a direct result of the first Croke Park agreement – an
agreement that claimed it would protect the wages of ‘existing public servants’. Those of
us who opposed the adoption of that agreement appealed to members not to sign up to an
agreement that would sacrifice the wages and terms and conditions of young people likely
to join the public service in the following years in the hope of protecting our own.
Pulling up the ladder
And while it might not be the case that trade union leaders who advocated the acceptance
of Croke Park 1 were doing the equivalent of deliberately pulling up the ladder behind
those of us in employment and sacrificing the rights and conditions of young workers – of
those coming after us – in the (vain as it turned out) hope that we could therefore avoid
further attacks on our own wages and conditions – as I said maybe it wasn’t deliberate but
that was certainly the effect. The stark figures I’ve given in relation to the effect on
the levels of starting teachers’ salaries are to be seen right across the public sector.
What, we might ask, has happened to the trade union slogan of An injury to one being the
concern of all.
And so we moved on to the ‘Croke Park extension’ – and an invitation to talks that would
surely have seemed incomprehensible to Larkin or any of those who were forced to take to
the streets of Dublin in 1913. In November a further ‘invitation’ to talks came to the
trade union movement from government. Even in the context of ‘social partnership’ and
everything that has happened over the past number of years, these talks were to take place
on an extremely bizarre basis - Before the ‘talks’ even began there was a pre-determined
outcome – public sector workers would be €1 billion worse off over the course of the next
All that was up for negotiation was where the cuts would fall, whether they would hit
younger workers or more established workers, whether more would be taken from nurses or
teachers etc… The concept that the threatened cuts were wrong and should not even be
countenanced was not on the agenda.
And trade unionists in the public sector are currently voting on the outcome of those
talks – voting to decide whether to accept further pay cuts. As I said it seems like an
incomprehensible position for workers and trade union members to find themselves in.
As I said earlier I spent the first part of this week at the INTO Conference in Cork. And
to say that I spent those days in a bureaucratic nightmare is an understatement. The INTO
leadership has put the Croke Park extension deal to a ballot of members without a
recommendation, and they went out of their way to try to prevent the issue being discussed
in any real way at the Conference.
This was taken to ridiculous levels when they attempted to block discussion on what we
might do in the event of a No vote. Bureaucratic manoeuvrings that resulted in a number
of us taking a motion around to delegates on Tuesday night asking people to sign it to say
that they wanted to discuss it, presenting the standing orders committee first thing on
Wednesday morning with a motion signed by 228 delegates saying they wanted to discuss it,
that motion still being blocked on spurious grounds and eventually the standing orders
committee being forced to allow discussion on a ‘compromise motion’ as to what we might do
‘whatever the outcome of the vote’ – but with any reference to taking industrial action
removed from the motion.
As I said this type of bureaucratic manoeuvring, stifling of debate and discussion seems
to be a million miles removed from the spirit of trade unionism that we’re talking about
when we commemorate 1913 – but then we remember that as far back as 1907 when Larkin first
came to Ireland and began to organise workers in Belfast, Newry, Cork and elsewhere
friction quickly developed between the new Irish members and the British leadership of the
National Union of Dock Labourers for which Larkin was recruiting. The union officers
became alarmed at the combative spirit of the Irish branches and soon they were settling
disputes over the heads of the members on strike, sending them back to work on the basis
of weak and paltry deals arranged with employers behind the strikers' backs.
So perhaps bureaucratic manoeuvring and denial of members’ right to be heard has always
been part of sections of the trade union movement’s leadership role.
What is pretty clear, though, is that things have reached a fairly climatic state in this
regard. And there is a huge sense of irony that many of those – union leaders and members
alike – who will participate in events to commemorate the centenary of the lockout have,
over the last couple of years, been part of a trade union movement that in many ways has
come to stand for the total opposite of the idea of the strongest protecting the weakest.
In what could be considered a further dose of irony at INTO the conference in its first
motion in public session on Tuesday morning discussed and almost unanimously agreed a raft
of taxation measures to campaign for as an alternative to imposing cuts on pay – measures
based on the ICTU pre-budget submission and on the work of the Nevin Economic Research
Unit – a new higher rate of income tax for people earning over €100,000, a wealth tax,
greater contribution from profitable corporations, a financial transaction tax etc etc.
They mightn’t be – they aren’t - revolutionary demands but they are demands around which
the trade union movement can unite. The irony that the same union leaders who advocate
these demands also tell union members that they should vote to accept pay cuts is in your
face. It’s as if on the one hand we (the wider trade union movement) have a wishlist of
things we’d like to see. But on the other hand we have no intention of actually
campaigning for that wishlist – we’ll leave it as a wishlist and we’ll continue to allow
our own pockets to be dipped through paycuts, property tax, water tax and everything else.
So what’s to be done??
How have we got to this place??
What is the relationship between trade union leaders and members that has allowed this
situation to develop?
Indeed probably the question to be asked is – how do trade union members see themselves
and their union membership, how many union members see the union as ‘their union’??
I don’t think anyone here would deny the fact that huge numbers of union members refer to
‘the union’ as some sort of outside body over which they feel they have no - or very
little - control or influence.
How often have you heard someone saying ‘What’s ‘the union’ going to do about that? – as
if ‘the union’ is some sort of amorphous body somewhere ‘out there’ over which they have
And the truth is that in most cases, most workers have very little control over what ‘the
union’ – their union – does or doesn’t do. I’ve described the battle that was necessary
to even have a motion discussed at my union conference – it’s a battle that most people
don’t have the energy for (which is what of course does in power want).
And at least we were there – between 700 and 800 delegates – representing the 39,000 or so
Ask any member of SIPTU or IMPACT how to have a motion agreed and sent forward to their
union conference, ask them how to be elected as a delegate to the union conference where
policy is decided – and see how many of them have any clue as to how things work.
I would always have held that for a worker to join a trade union means having to
recognise, to some degree, that he or she has different interests from the boss, that s/he
has issues in common with fellow workers that can best be advanced by linking together.
But I don’t know whether that is still true. Are people now joining unions as a sort of
‘insurance policy’ – they’re getting discount deals and cheaper health insurance and
they’re buying the ‘insurance’ of having someone to ask if they have a problem in work.
‘The union’ is seen as a service rather than as a collective body.
And that’s in the public sector – where people can join the union without any
repercussions, where people can pay into that insurance policy without any danger that
your boss is going to dislike it. Even still, it is becoming harder and harder to
convince younger workers in the public sector to join the union – and if they see ‘the
union’ as an insurance policy of some sort that might protect their income levels, well
any sensible person would stop paying that insurance as you see your wages and conditions
And obviously in the private sector, in employments where joining a union in many cases
involves risking the ire of an anti-union employer, you’d want to be fairly convinced that
the collective solidarity that a union is supposed to provide does actually exist before
taking that risk. But look around and there’s very little evidence that joining a union
and taking that risk is actually going to improve things for you. Signs on it – union
density in the private sector is probably less than 25%.
So the question for us is, I believe, how to address that deficit – how to convince
workers who are not members of unions that they should join one, and how to convince
workers who are union members that they need to become active , they need to take
responsibility for the direction of the union – move from referring to ‘the union’ as
something outside of themselves, begin to see the union as OURS, stop seeing ‘head office’
and the ‘officials’ as anything other than our employees who should be taking their
instruction from us, and convince fellow workers that there is a benefit to engaging with
the union structures and organising to resist.
Surely there would be no better commemoration of 1913 than to re-ignite the spirit of what
trade unions started off as. Larkin described the potential power of our movement as
“The employers cannot carry on industry nor accumulate profits if they have not got the
good will of the workers or their acquiescence in carrying on such industry.”
How do we in 2013 re-ignite in workers - union members and non-members alike – that belief
in our collective strength? How do we convince our fellow-workers that just because they
say they’re going to cut our wages doesn’t mean we have to let them – we have the ability
to collectively withdraw co-operation, disrupt the system and ultimately withdraw our
labour in order to prevent us being bullied and pushed around?
How do we give people the confidence and the resolution to believe in an alternative and
to believe in our collective strength as workers to impose our agenda and to resist any
Anyone who approaches the question honestly would surely agree that the trade union
movement is in crisis, that there is a huge job of work to be done to convince the
fearful, the apathetic, the hopeless and the angry that their future lies in standing
together in solidarity and that things don’t have to be as they are.
And anyone who approaches the question honestly would have to say that we have all – all
of us on the left whatever shade of left opinion we might come from – failed utterly in
terms of organising people top resist the savage attacks unleashed on us in recent times
and presenting a vision of an alternative society that working class people in general
would see as an objective and a vision worth fighting for.
We are, I think, faced with asking ourselves the stark question of whether the current
trade union movement is fit for purpose? Is it possible to reform the unions that
currently exist into fighting bodies owned and controlled by the members? Or have they
become monoliths of power too concerned with the maintenance of bureaucratic structures,
too tied up in the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘but we can’ts’. And too unwieldy and far removed
from where members are on the ground to ever make it possible for members to take control
back into their own hands.
I think if trade unions didn’t exist and we were having a discussion about what type of
organisation we should set up to defend our interests and campaign for a better standard
of living for ourselves and our fellow workers, it’s fairly unlikely that anyone would
suggest that we set up a structure such as what we have.
So that’s the question I’m going to throw out there for discussion – if we want to
commemorate the spirit of 1913, how do we re-build that spirit in 2013 – how do we
re-build a movement from below, a movement that union members can feel proud of and can be
part of, can influence, can own, a movement that has the ambition necessary not just to
register our unhappiness but to re-discover the fact that its primary function is to
resist and obstruct attacks on our wages and conditions.
New type of union
To do that we need to take control of union structures, dump the current leadership and
replace them not with an alternative leadership but with a new type of union which will
take control back into the members’ hands. We need to return to the situation where
decisions are made at the base of the unions by the mass of members rather than the
leaders at the top or even branch committees.
If we are to fight effectively then we need all of the membership actively involved in
organising that fight. We need local union meetings that are packed out, where there is
real debate and where clear decisions are made. We need co-ordination between local
sections that is not reliant on full time officials. Where there is more than one union
in a workplace we need meetings of all the union members of that workplace to build
solidarity so that when one union acts all unions act.
If we want to commemorate the anniversary of the 1913 lockout we need to once more build
the sort of unions that the government & employers are afraid of. That means unions that
are clearly capable of going beyond protest marches or one day token strikes to conducting
the sort of ongoing industrial action that can force defeat on the government. In the
public sector, because there are 300,000 of us and the country depends on us to function
on a day to day basis, if we build that sort of organisation there is no way a strike
could last more than a few days. If we build that organisation they will be afraid of the
cost of strikes, not us. The point for us is to build a movement capable of organising
people not to strike as an act of protest but to strike in order to win.
And the question for us to debate now is – How the hell are we going to do that??
Words: Gregor Kerr
Text of talk given at Dublin Anarchist Bookfair 2013 at session on 'Exploring the Lessons
of 1913' - you can listen to an audio recording of all the presentions at that sessions
and the discussion that followed.
Subject: Organising, Union democracy, INTO, Strikes, 1913
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