The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) held its biennial conference in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast at the end of October. Militant Left (CWI Ireland) members actively participated in the proceedings raising the need for socialism and struggle, including Carmel Gates, the new General Secretary of Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), which represents over 43000 members from across the civil and public services and the voluntary sector. Carmel spoke on the climate disaster facing humanity and the need for socialist change.
Given the present times, the conference was held both in person, socially distanced, and online. Trade union membership across Ireland, North and South, has remained steady despite the massive economic dislocation caused by the pandemic. There are now more women than men who are members of trade unions – a situation reflecting the predominance of trade union membership in the public sector. By comparison, union density in the private sector is slowly shrinking in the Republic and largely stagnant in the North
There was much-anguished soul searching over this decline in density, even in parts of the public sector, but no real answers. Or, more accurately, no determination to engage with the reality that far too often workers are let down at times of crisis. The capitulation of the trade unions to the austerity programme in the South following the financial collapse in 2008 undoubtedly shook workers’ confidence in the movement’s ability to protect them. During the 2011-2016 Fine Gael and Labour coalition, easily the most brutally anti-worker government since 1922 [at the time of partition of Ireland], the trade union leaders insisted that workers place faith in the Irish Labour Party to deliver some crumbs from the table.
Instead, every year of that government brought new austerity measures, many of which – the end of council housing building, for instance – still weigh heavily on workers. It was the government that introduced the vulture funds into the Irish housing system; with devastating results that will be felt for decades to come. The same union leaderships who implored workers to keep faith with Labour were viciously hostile to the biggest working class movement since the tax marches of the 1970s; the campaign to beat the water charges. That this campaign showed that it is possible to confront and beat a government intent on crushing the working class is a fact never acknowledged among the upper echelons of the trade union movement. Maybe the answer to declining density lies in adopting the militant approach of the water charges campaign?
And this fact underlies the core dilemma of the ICTU 2021 conference and the tone and substance of the debates. For example, delegates were advised that the EU will bring in collective bargaining rights and minimum wage directives, which will have the effect of circumventing the Southern government’s opposition. So, workers are to wait on an outside agency, the European Union, to grant them rights instead of their trade unions organising and mobilising these workers to struggle for these rights. When one delegate politely pointed out that Fine Gael government minister, Leo Varadkar, had made clear that the Irish government will oppose any such directives, and will seek to water them down, there was much-hushed discussion at the top table.
Every strand in the trade union movement shares an abhorrence of Boris Johnson’s Tory UK government and its handling of Brexit. But it would be a catastrophic error for the movement to somehow conclude that faced with a choice between Johnson’s Tories and the EU, that the EU are friends of the working class. Sadly, this particular conclusion seems to have been made by far too many. The European Commission and the European Court of Justice have had no hesitation in wrecking collective bargaining rights, scrapping minimum wages, cutting and privatising public services and using EU law to undermine trade unions across the union. The post-2008 era is filled with dozens of examples of this, including in Ireland. That the EU has made a tactical shift post-COVID to a reliance on pump-priming capitalist investment rather than austerity should not be interpreted as a weakening of its commitment to driving down living and working standards in the name of competitiveness.
In the North workers’ rights is a devolved matter. The Assembly, based at Stormont, is not beholden to Westminster. Yet, progress on advancing basic rights for workers has been non-existent. Despite the fine words from each of the five main Stormont parties invited to address the ICTU conference, it would be wrong to place faith in any of them. Instead, as was shown by the health workers’ strikes in late 2019, by the Harland and Wolff eleven-week sit-in, by the successful stand of the Wrightbus workers and by the Queen’s University Belfast crèche workers, strike action and militancy are by far the most effective weapon workers have.
Indeed, a striking absence from the conference was input from those workers who engaged in strike action over the past two years in the most difficult of circumstances. The Debenhams’ shop workers’ dispute, one of historic importance, was a mere footnote at the conference and mentioned in passing only. Instead of listening to what the Lord Mayors of Belfast or Dublin have to say about the union movement, the conference might have better spent that time listening to the insights of the shop stewards who ran the many disputes that took place over the past two years.
Several mentions were made of an ‘existential crisis’ facing the unions on this island. That may be how things look if you believe in placing reliance on lobbying governments, the EU and on social partnership with employers as the only way to do trade unionism. If, however, you believe, as Militant Left does, that cultivating class consciousness and the will to struggle and strike for better wages, terms and conditions is the way forward, there is no basis for despair or talk of an ‘existential crisis’. Workers respond to clear leadership in times of crisis; whether that is a crisis in one particular employer or a national or global crisis like the pandemic. Where trade unions are visible, combative and prepared to use all avenues to defend members, workers will rally to them. If this means confrontation with employers and the government, this implication must be accepted.
Our view is that the crisis in density (union membership) can only be addressed by this approach. No one will join a union because ICTU has successfully lobbied the EU to bring in a directive that might or might not advance workers’ rights. It is time to get back to workplace organising, building political consciousness and militant struggle.
The recent election of Militant Left comrade Carmel Gates as general secretary by the membership of NIPSA, the largest trade union in Northern Ireland, demonstrates that when a clear class programme is put forward workers will vote for it. The recent success of Sharon Graham, elected by the 1.4 million membership of Unite the union (which organises in Britain and Ireland), on a platform of a turn back to workplace organisation and militancy, also confirms that there is a real appetite for struggle by workers.
COVID has thrown everything up in the air and no one can even attempt to predict what will happen even in the next few months. There may well be a limited and partial post-COVID economic ‘boom’. Certainly, labour shortages in key strategic points in the economy, such as logistics, are leading to wage increases well above what bosses usually concede. But the governments of the British and Irish states and devolved governments will seek to recoup the ‘cost of Covid’ in the years ahead from the working-class through a return to austerity, disguised by some new terminology but austerity nonetheless.
Anyone participating in the ICTU 2021 biennial conference would question whether the trade union leadership is prepared collectively to move into struggle. To repeat the mistakes of the post-2008 era would be a disaster and surely would decisively undermine the movement. Passivity and social partnership have no place in the coming period. The majority of workers who are not members of any trade union will remain outside the labour movement’s ranks if they see trade union leaders, once again, either silent or urging acceptance of austerity, wage cuts and cuts to public services. Militant Left campaigns to promote a fighting-back approach in our unions, which offer the only way forward for working-class people on this island.