Haiku for the Trade Union Fightback 2009 - 2010


The erosion of a democratic structure of the Unions has lead to a greater ability by the leadership to exert control over the Union.  Where there were assemblies of workers – arguments can be had and positions taken – but thanks to over 23 years of partnership – you don’t have them in many workplaces.   So where you had functioning branch structures it was possible to explore and debate ideas over the strike process.

What follows is the text of a talk that was prepared for the Activist Fleadh - which took place last weekend  in Dublin.  Due to time constraints it was never really delivered, beyond the haiku which is at the start of the piece. It is the view of one WSM member and Trade Unionist and reflects that but it is posted here in the hope of sparking a debate of how we proceed from here.

Trade Union HAIKU 2010 – Talk for 14thAug. Activist Fleadh

When asked to do a talk about Trade Union fight back – the running joke was that it would be a pretty short talk – so let’s work this into as short a format as I know – what better way than the 17 syllables – of the Haiku.

We vote up to Strike.
Leaders say, steady more talk;
End with less than zero

Let’s look at a brief history of how we got to where we are. 

Remember on Feb 21st 2009 – the Irish Times wrote
Up to 120,000 people have marched in Dublin in protest at how the Government is handling the economic crisis. The march, which was organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), took nearly one and a half hours to make its way from Parnell Square to Merrion Square.

Ictu maintained that the protest today was the first step in a campaign in support of a fairer way to achieve economic recovery.” 

The scheduled plan at that stage was that there would be a Strike on March the 30th – this followed the severe cuts that were implemented back in the Budget in December.  Partnership had broken down completely – the government didn’t have any answers except to keep coming back to the public service and getting more cuts.

We distributed a leaflet calling for
Strong, united industrial action would not only end the cycle of pay cuts but would also be of enormous value in learning how to stick together, strike back and win victories as workers. An all-out strike, supported where possible by semi-state and other non-public sector workers, can quickly resolve this issue, where 18 months of talks and ‘deals’ has only led us deeper and deeper into trouble

By that summer, the same Government who had found that they needed to impose cuts to the tune of billons to the Public Service had magically found €60 Billion to save the failing banks who had dealt out the chips for the casino capitalist developers who had turned the island into a massive monopoly board – building hotels here, getting of jail free there, passing go, and collecting money all the time and paying off friends in tents at race courses.

National Strike Now  -  was our demand whilst at the same time we realised that they (the leaders) would call it off as soon as they could.  There are no prizes for being right in this game, alas.

Gerry Shanahan – (Unite) stated on national radio that what the government had to offer the Trade Union movement was going to have to be more than tea & biscuits.  But nothing was promised and the National Strike was called off, so tea and biscuits were had.

The erosion of a democratic structure of the Unions has lead to a greater ability by the leadership to exert control over the Union.  Where there were assemblies of workers – arguments can be had and positions taken – but thanks to over 23 years of partnership – you don’t have them in many workplaces.   So where you had functioning branch structures it was possible to explore and debate ideas over the strike process.  But for many of our comrades – their experience of being in a Union is one of joining a moribund organisation with little in the way of regular meetings of workers or functioning branches.

Partnership had lead to the creation of a very service orientated Union – with members getting discounts on things like home insurance, but not really being involved in the decision making process.  Full time professional negotiation at the top level in partnership – has meant that there is little reason to attend branches. 

But when SIPTU organised the Communities against the cuts march – which I’m sure many of you were on – this was more than 10,000 people outside the Dáil, they were are the same time sitting down to look maintaining a partnership which the Government had no interest in being involved in.  The experience of this is that people are called out onto the streets – the scabbard is rattled and then we go home, whilst the big boys pull in their chairs to the table and sit down with the bosses and Government.

Looking back we had a cancelled Strike for March 30th –(2009) followed by a period of demoralisation, which you can imagine from a march of 120,000 people – to the sight of our glorious leaders running off to take off their coats, put their feet under the table and have some biscuits with the Government and the employers.

Then the Communities against the cuts march on September the 30th.

We have a strike on November the 24th - RTE send cameras up to the North to cover people shopping in Newry as the schools are closed.

A follow on strike for the 3rd of December is once again called off by the leadership; things must be going well in the talks!

Government impose their budget – tear up Partnership and keep a copy of David Begg’s ten points / commandments for alternative cuts/savings.

Then they dust off these tables from Mr. Begg Et AL had and call them back up for more tea and biscuits  as
There is a lot in the transformation agenda that is close to the Taoiseach’s heart’ said Kieran Mulvey of the Labour relations commissionand so it came to pass that it was looked at again.

Exactly a year and a day after the proposed date for the National Strike  – the NAMA plan goes through – and we also get the announcement of the Croke Park deal. 

This is the LESS than Zero that I spoke about in the haiku above.

By Mid June 2010 – we’ve accepted the Croke park deal, as recommended by the leadership of many of the Trade Unions.

 In the INTO, for example, union members were ‘led’ from a position where 79% of members voted for industrial action to prevent pay cuts last October to a 63% vote to accept those same pay cuts and a raft of changes to working terms and conditions. What had changed in just 7 months to bring about such a seemingly impossible turn-around?

Absolute FEAR – and FEAR write large.  The deal – which is terrible for workers - was sold by the leaders as the answer because ‘there was no alternative’ or the alternative that it was contrasted with was absolute Industrial WAR, a war which the leadership in our Union movement have neither the appetite nor the imagination for.    In fact this war was contrasted with Greece being the example.

So in 13 months we’d gone from 120,000 on the streets and the demand for action to the voting and acceptance to do NOTHING.  To suck it up and make our sacrifice – and bail out the banks who fuelled the developers and speculators.  Whilst Capitalism is in trouble everywhere our hard landing was made all the harder by these crooks.

Jack O’Connor for his management of the largest Trade Union in the country wins the Business & Finance MAN of the Year and for getting his members to vote for the Croke park deal and "acknowledging its importance to the economy"

What did Jack say  - "If the Croke Park deal is accepted, our position is going to be: the people of the public service have stepped up to the mark and have committed to huge sacrifices, now what are the wealthy going to do. If the answer is still nothing, it's going to be a political campaign."

I am sure the wealthy are trembling in their boots at the prospect of this political campaign.

Now we are 18 months down the road.  We have a deal agreed which is ‘less than zero’ step backwards for trade union members and can be torn up at any time by the government (like the last deal was) and it consists of an attack on all of us and arose out of ideas that were supplied to them by our own leaders.

Unions were once known for
militancy in organisation and in industrial action, its extension of membership to all sections of general workers to support other wage earners in weaker strategic positions, its vigour in fighting employers, its recourse to the sympathetic strike on the principle that an injury to one is the concern of all and its proclaiming as tainted goods, unclean and untouchable material in establishments in which its members or fellow workers were on strike or locked out”(1)

We need to get back to there from here.

We need to use the structures that exist (as we saw with the Communities against the Cuts and the Feb 21st march 09) as they can indeed mobilise the greatest numbers.  We need to fight against the fear – and prove that Strikes can achieve the goods.

Even when fighting defensive strike actions in 2009 still managed to bring about better deals for the Thomas Cook workers, the Cleaners at the Department of the Environment,  a 4.9% pay increase for the Electricians at TEEU, and better redundancy packages for Visiteon and Calcast workers in Northern Ireland.

Strikes can still achieve results.  We need to instil in our Unions that ability to organise and fight again.  We need to get the idea of a fighting militant union where solidarity truly means  what it says, coursing through our Unions.  We need to spread the influence of this into the Communities where the brunt of these cuts is being felt.  We need to use the Union structures to build a widespread network of people who are going to resist what is going on, and to build towards change.

As Gregor Kerr wrote “Trade unions belong to union members, not to overpaid bureaucrats” and we better not lose sight of this fact.  These ideas will bring about a change in the leadership which needs to happen.  Complacency slipped into our Unions making them Zombies for the wishes of the bosses.  It’s time to kill that zombie and make them true defenders of the working class again. 

It’s is also time to eradicate this FEAR – that fighting for something is better than accepting the idea that your neck is free from the axe for now.

  1. Fifty Years of Liberty Hall – Cathal Shannon

WORDS: D. Freeman