Trade union movement must act to defend workers’ rights
The significance of the Thomas Cook occupation cannot be overstated. At the time of writing the issue of redundancy payments is not resolved but already the struggle has exposed the pro-big business nature of the courts and the Gardai. Crucially it was a victory of the spirit of the workers and showed the extraordinary ability of people to fight to defend their rights.
Twenty-eight workers arrested and dragged through the courts in scenes more common in far away dictatorial regimes. The Thomas Cook occupation showed that “social partnership” does not exist. It also illustrated the anger that working class people feel at being made pay the price for the crisis through job cuts and attacks on rights. When told that the company was going to close with immediate effect the workers occupied the building.
For four days, they defied extreme bullying from the courts until the Gardai shamefully smashed the glass front of the offices and arrested everyone in a 5.00am raid on Tuesday.
The brutal intervention by the state has a broader significance. The police raid (in which they were quite brutal in removing protesters who were outside the premises) and the mass arrests are clearly designed to intimidate workers generally from engaging in effective struggles in the context of a crisis that is getting worse and worse. Court injunctions have also been used by bosses at MTL in the strike on Dublin docks and in the recent national electricians strike. Mr. Binman also tried to get an injunction to stop pickets on its depots in Carrick-on-Suir and Limerick.
The bosses and the political establishment were particularly horrified that the electricians strike forced a pay increase at a time of crisis, showing that well organised militant action get results.
The High Court was intent on sending a message to all workers. The instructions were that everyone occupying the building must be brought to the court at 2pm the following day. In effect that was an order that the occupation must be broken up and the workers arrested to a definite timeframe and treated as criminals.
Showing tremendous courage the workers and to their credit most of the union officials, decided to continue with the occupation in the face of this threat and against the arguments of the union (Transport Salaried Staff Association) general secretary. When that decision was made, the best thing the TSSA could have done would have been to immediately issue a public call for workers to come down to defend the occupation and pursued the bigger unions to mobilise their members to defend the occupation which was the key point of pressure on the company.
In February, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions organised a demonstration of 120,000 workers in Dublin – they could have easily organised 500 or 1,000 trade unionists to block the Gardai from entering the Thomas Cook offices.
The Thomas Cook workers did everything they could and their stand got huge sympathy and solidarity from ordinary working class people. It would have been entirely possible for the trade union leaders, who have the authority and resources, to turn that sentiment into practical help at that vital time.
Laws are biased and court injunctions are designed to help bosses win industrial disputes. It is necessary for workers and unions to be prepared to break court injunctions. If bad laws were not defied workers rights would not have progressed over the decades.
That the leaders of the trade unions are not prepared to fight in the way that is necessary, or mobilise the power that workers have, is a major problem. When the Thomas Cook workers were facing the possibility of prison, just calling on the company to go to the Labour Relations Commission was an inappropriate and weak response from trade union leaders.
There was an alternative. If the unions had organised they could have successfully defended the occupation from the court order. That would have forced the courts, the police and the establishment to think again and also would have massively increased the pressure on Thomas Cook management to come up with a better offer. In such a way an outright victory could have been achieved not only for the Thomas Cook workers but for all working class people as the attempts of the courts and state to bully and intimidate workers generally could have been faced down and that would have given great confidence to people.
The actions of the state in the Thomas Cook occupation will not stop people from struggling and in fact ,it has actually made many people very angry. However at the same time, it will have some effect and that’s why the trade unions have an obligation to take practical steps to defend the rights of workers to take effective action.
The workers have added another powerful and proud page to the history of the labour movement in this country. The struggle that the workers waged has forced Thomas Cook back into talks. It is not clear what will come from the talks. But these workers, like many others, are also facing unemployment.
That is all the more reason why the trade union movement must not rest until all the Thomas Cook workers get substantially improved offers that will at least tie them over for a time. Workers should take heart from the magnificent struggle that has been waged. With similar determination we need to turn the trade unions into fighting organisations that defend the jobs and rights of working class people against this capitalist crisis.