The so-called "expert writers" on the Irish Trade Unions have no experience of the trade union culture in Ireland. Many of these trendy lefties have never attended a branch meeting, or participated in any trade union activity. Indeed some of these people live and work in Ireland and do not see the need to organise in their own non-union workplace.
According to the European Union half the working population in Ireland are trade unionists. Union density overall in Ireland was around 50% for a number of years in the 1970s and early 1980s, but by 1987 it had fallen to 43.5%. There has once again been a growth in membership since then, and current union density is estimated to lie at around 50%.
These British, French, Italian trendy lefties rather than criticise the Irish Unions should look at their own back yard; at the very least become involved in the trade union movement. Contrary to belief amongst the Continental trendy left, Irish trade unions have both a democratic content and mechanism.
Republican Socialists acknowledge the Irish Trade Union movement as the organised working class. As such, it is our only access to organise workers. It is not our aim to control and manipulate but rather to give a lead with ideas and action within our specific unions. Republican Socialists need to mobilise trade unionists on the ground to re-engage with their trade unions by participation within the democracy of trade unions at all levels.
However, it must be admitted that it was through this democracy that trade union bureaucracy set in. The struggle to transform the unions inevitably comes up against this conservative bureaucracy, whose jobs depend on maintaining their role as middlemen in the struggles and negotiations between workers and bosses. The top three officials in SIPTU receive nearly £80,000 a year.
In 1987 the propaganda machine of the Free State government and the bosses worked overtime to sell the Social Contract. Trade union leaders too were keen to sell their members the idea of social partnership; management and unions would get together to cooperate over improving the state of the Irish economy in order to share out the subsequent wealth generated. The Programme for National Recovery committed these 'social partners ' to "seek to regenerate the economy and improve the social equity of our society through their combined efforts."
As long as workers worked harder the size of the national cake would grow and consequently the workers share would grow to.
Today the government and the bosses yell bellicose attacks at workers fighting to defend themselves that there must be no conflict, no challenge to the social partnership, which has produced this redistribution of wealth to the rich, or the whole boom will fall apart.
Is it the case that the boom was created and is sustained by the social contract, which holds workers wages in check while the bosses rake in super profits? The social contract has been the cover behind which foreign capitalists have sought to boost their profits by rising productivity, that is changing working conditions to make us all work harder and longer.
As ICTU put it, partnership means moving from "the clenched fist of confrontation to the open hand of cooperation." They are tied to the idea of social partnership, more accurately class collaboration. They act like referees in the fight between workers and bosses rather than leaders. Yet they are not the ones suffering short-term contracts or total quality management.
Nevertheless, this can change. One Republican Socialist openly opposed this bureaucracy [and] moreover, using the same democratic mechanism was elected with more than 50% more votes under his hat than the bureaucrat.
Revolutionary change of the unions is about a fight to change the leaders and in many cases the structures and rules whereby all trade union officials are elected, recallable. Moreover, to achieve this requires the organisation of the rank and file of the unions against the bureaucracy. Remember every vote in the trade unions is by postal ballot. It is worth noting that in some cases for a trade unionist to be elected on to the Executive, it takes 5 times as many votes as a local authority councillor. Trade unions might be "schools for socialism", but trade union consciousness is not spontaneously socialist.
Some have asked the question why trade unions exist. Workers are aware what the Unions do. They know that they defend wages and conditions, and provide legal aid both inside and outside the place of work. These things are important. However, why was it important to fight for them?
The answer to this question is to be found in the foundations of trade unionism and more importantly socialism also. Workers had to fight for these things because the employers and governments were not prepared to give them until they were forced to. That is true and the force which they used was based upon their power to stop work, in other words in their power to strike. For that reason, Trade Unionists have always aimed at 100% organization, and have regarded the non-unionist as a danger and the strikebreaker as a "blackleg".
Why have the workers had to rely upon their power to withhold labour? "For the reason that workers have no other power than their labour power." In a capitalist society, the working class is in a distinctive position. In comparative terms, workers have no property. It is dependent upon the class, which exploits it. The capitalist, owns the factories, mills, mines, railways, transport. That is why the removal of labour by the workers can be so powerful a weapon when used on a large scale.
When Trade Unionists fight the employers on wages questions and the conditions of labour they are really fighting against consequences of the capitalist system. The existence of the private ownership of the means of production means also the private ownership of the things produced and their sale as commodities in competition with one with another.
Labour also is a commodity and those who sell their labour power, the members of the working class, manual and brain-worker alike, also compete (...)
Trade unions are the basic organisation of the Irish working-class. However; they are much more than that. They are the kernel of the future Irish society within the old.
Of course, since the workers' organisations exist in a capitalist Ireland they are subjected to alien class pressures. This includes both the Irish Ruling class and US imperialism. These pressures weigh heavily on the upper stratum and this often leads to degeneration. We are not dealing with an ideal norm, but with the mass organisations, as they really exist in class society. The distortions that occur, especially in periods when the working class is not on the move, can produce a feeling that the unions cannot be changed. This serious mistake is contradicted by the historical experience of the movement. Repeatedly the workers have moved to transform their organisations into organs and schools of solidarity, struggle and socialism.
The history of the Irish unions is not a straight line. On the contrary, it unfolds in an uneven fashion with various contradictory shifts in one direction or another. It is constantly characterised by the struggle between two traditions and two tendencies. A revolutionary one, reflecting the unconscious will of the working class to change society, and a subservient one, reflecting the pressures of the ruling class on the upper stratum, that then attempts to block the movement to change society and lead it instead like a lamb into safe channels.
In normal periods, the consciousness of the workers is affected by the dead weight of tradition and routine. In such times, most people are prepared to accept the leadership of the Professionals, Bourgeois and reformist politicians, Members of the Dail, Parliament, councillors and trade union leaders.
The Venezuelan CTV (the old national trade union federation) sold its soul to the old two-party capitalist system and governments it produced. For 40 years, the Venezuelan trade union movement lived through its worst period, because workers were puppets in the games played by the old parties (Copei and AD) and the bosses' organizations. Venezuelan still remember how AD (Democratic Action) decided the fate of workers, bought and sold contracts and worked with the government to control the unions and the CTV. We should remember that the bosses' strike of 2002-3was led by the CTV and Fedecamaras (the bosses' organization) working hand in hand. The Irish trade unions were doing just the same when they signed the social contract.
However, there are periods of crises and upheavals, when the working class is shaken out of the old apathy and begins to take action, demanding solutions, asking questions. Being close to the class, the unions reflect this changed mood very early on. Moreover, what happens in the unions today will be expressed perhaps as problems in the Irish Republican Socialist Party tomorrow?
The pioneers of Irish Labour, Connolly and Larkin were inspired by a vision. They believed that the trade union movement and Republican Socialism would become a powerful weapon of social emancipation. This revolutionary aspiration was, and in many cases remains, enshrined in trade union rules and constitutions.
Through the experience of collective struggle, the working class gradually raises itself to an understanding of the need to change society. It develops a sense of its own power and ability. One can see this in every strike. Marxists base themselves on this fact and strive to develop this tendency and bring it to the fullest expression.
The role of Marxists in the trade unions is to make conscious the unconscious will of the working class to change society. The working class has within its ranks a tremendous strength and resilience. Even when it suffers a terrible and crushing defeat, it recovers and again reasserts itself. It is like the Greek god Antaeus of ancient mythology, who when thrown to the ground, drew strength from his mother the earth.
Whatever obstacles lay in its path, the objective conditions of life force it to continually struggle against the system of capitalist exploitation. Those who argue that the class struggle is out of date are obviously out of touch with the reality of Ireland in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Trade unions must be organised to recognize that all the efforts of the working class must be directed to the goal of the conquest of political power. Their fight in the industrial field must be linked with the fight to obtain a Socialist Government which, backed by the might of the working class, would transfer the ownership of the means of production and distribution from private hands to social ownership.
[Originally published in The Plough, E-mail newsletter of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Vol. 4- No 25, Monday, 19th November 2007, website http://www.theplough.netfirms.com/]