The Twisted Road to Partnership: Can the trade union movement be saved from the bureaucracy?


As the trade union leadership does its best to drag us back into a new round of ‘social partnership’, Gregor Kerr – an activist in the Irish National Teachers Organisation – compares the best and worst of recent developments in the trade unions and poses a challenge – Can we save the movement by ridding it of the stultifying bureaucracy that seems set to strangle the life out of it?

The past number of months have witnessed the best and the worst of the trade union movement and its leadership.  On the one hand, the presence of 5 trade unions – Unite, Mandate, CPSU, CWU and OPATSI – in the leadership of the Right2Water Campaign has certainly contributed to its being able to mobilise some of the biggest street mobilisations in the history of the state.  But on the other hand the paucity of ambition and their perspective on how change in society is brought about, sees those unions and their leaderships doing their best to drag what has been largely a community-led campaign down the well-trodden and unlikely-to-succeed electoral path.




Instead of recognising that the only way in which the successful abolition of water charges can be guaranteed is through a mass refusal to pay, the R2W leadership is pinning its ambitions on putting together a “coalition of candidates” who will be asked to sign up to a list of “alternative” national policies. This document or manifesto will be agreed at a closed meeting in early May and “a public statement will be made asking any candidate or sitting TD from any party who opposes water charges to agree to fight for the policies if they win a Dáil seat”.   

Even in the bid to pin the campaign’s hopes on electoral gain, however, the foolishness of depending on electoral gains to bring about change is acknowledged, with Brendan Ogle, Unite official and R2W spokesperson, agreeing in the same interview that the campaign will have no way of ensuring politicians will implement the policies after an election.  “If we can find the secret to making politicians do what they say they will, we’ll share it”, he is quoted as saying.  

Collective muscle

But of course there is really nothing secret or mysterious about making politicians do what they say they will.  It’s called using our collective muscle. It’s called standing together and imposing our will on those who would govern us.  It’s about using the very basis on which the trade union movement was founded – strength in unity and mutual solidarity.  

It’s not that surprising that the union officials at the helm of R2W don’t appear to realise where our strength lies.  For an entire lifetime, these basic principles of trade unionism have been forgotten and fallen into disrepair.  Instead of a movement based on the strength of the picket line, the trade union movement in Ireland has effectively become a policeman for the state.  Decades of so-called ‘social partnership’ have left us with a layer of trade union leaders many of whom see their role as being to compromise, to find common ground, to negotiate between workers and their bosses.  The idea that they as leaders of a movement are actually supposed to represent their members and are supposed to use the full might of our movement and our muscle to impose the will of our members on government or on employers has been lost.

In the Greyhound dispute last summer, for example, the workers were effectively abandoned on the picket line by their trade union leadership (notwithstanding some sterling work by the union organisers most directly involved). In the face of High Court injunctions and the threats inherent in the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, the senior SIPTU leadership proved itself to be craven and spineless.  Locked out workers were told that they had no option but to mount ‘legal’ pickets which effectively left them helplessly standing by the gates waving their placards at scab-operated trucks as they drove past them for 10 weeks.  It was only when the workers themselves and their supporters basically bypassed the official union position and mounted effective blockades of the plant that some movement was achieved.

Ironically, on some of those unofficial blockades, workers were joined by senior officials of other unions, including on a couple of occasions the current president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, John Douglas.  Yet the only way in which the senior leadership of the workers’ own union, SIPTU, saw the dispute being resolved was if the government could be persuaded to introduce a Registered Employment Agreement which would “guarantee” wage rates in the waste industry.   The contrasts between two visions of how trade unions should operate were probably never so stark – Workers on the picket line, taking collective direct action to defend their jobs and realising that the only way to win was to mount effective pickets which actually shut the operation down versus trade union officials in suits believing that all that was necessary to win was the right word in the right ear, and that clever negotiation skills are more important than industrial muscle.

Weakest Ebb

That belief in clever negotiators and an almost disdain for ‘old school’ union tactics of pickets and flexing of industrial muscle was responsible for the trade union movement being at its lowest and weakest ebb when the economic crash happened, and completely unable to respond in a way of painting an alternative vision for members to the government’s policies of wage cuts, cuts to public services and austerity.  Worse than not painting an alternative, the union leadership fulfilled a very useful (from the government’s perspective) role in aiding and abetting government policies.  The two major demonstrations organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions under the banner of ‘There is a Better Way’  were more about opening the safety valve and allowing us all to let off some steam than actually organising workers behind an alternative platform or programme.  

For workers in both the public and private sectors, union leaders became very much the facilitators of the imposition of austerity. In the public sector they busily and almost enthusiastically sold first the Croke Park Agreement and subsequently the Haddington Road Agreement – both of which slashed wages and gave away terms and conditions that had been hard fought for over the last number of decades. ‘Social partnership’ had supposedly collapsed but the mindset that had underpinned it still lived on.   


Trade union density - especially in the private sector - has plummeted over the 28 years since the first ‘social partnership’ agreement, the Programme For National Recovery, was signed in 1987.  Official OECD figures show that the percentage of the workforce who are members of trade unions has fallen from 46% in 1994 down to less than 30% in 2013 .  There are, of course, many factors at play in terms of why the trade union movement has haemorrhaged members not just in Ireland but internationally.  But it would be foolish to deny that the fact that Irish trade unions, through their involvement in social partnership, effectively hitching their fortunes to that of the government was a crucial factor.

Ironically while many unions remained affiliated to the Labour Party it was Fianna Fáil led governments for the most part with which unions entered ‘social partnership’ agreements.  Successive governments managed to do through ‘talk’ what Thatcher’s government in Britain had done through ‘war’ – effectively defeat the trade union movement as a force for positive social change.

Bureaucratic Nightmare

Throughout the years of social partnership, the bigger unions such as SIPTU in particular have become bureaucratic nightmares.  New structures mean that it is almost impossible for ordinary members to raise issues or to find a way to have democratic input into the formulation of union policy.  These same structures mean that groups of workers in struggle, such as the Greyhound workers last year, often find that the resources of the union are used in the first instance to attempt to dissuade them from taking action.  The union bureaucracy is positioned as an impediment to furthering struggle, and union structures are no longer used as a means by which workers in struggle can mobilise the support of fellow workers.

At the same time, within SIPTU as in other unions, a layer of union organisers beaver away at doing what union organisers should do – talking to workers, discussing their grievances, encouraging them to combine with their fellow workers to take on those grievances… but at the same time having to find their way around the bureaucratic minefield that the upper echelons of the union have become.

Many of these organisers are doing sterling work, and see a return to grassroots organising as being the key to re-vitalising our movement.   It is from this same perspective and focus of organising workers and encouraging them to tackle their grievances that some of the more hopeful signs of union life have come in recent times.  In early April, staff at one of the most anti-union employers in the state – Dunnes Stores – took strike action for a day in a dispute over union recognition and zero-hour contracts.  The strike action came as part of a long and innovative and ongoing campaign using social media and other campaigning methods, “Decency For Dunnes Workers” .


As this article is written a week after the one-day strike by Dunnes’ workers, reports are emerging that some of those who participated in the strike have been summarily dismissed, others have had their shifts changed and/or their shift patterns altered.  As a strongly anti-union company this reaction from the Dunnes’ management should have been anticipated.  Yet the initial reaction from the workers’ union, Mandate, as enunciated by Assistant General Secretary Gerry Light, was “The only resolution I can see to this, other than further escalation of our industrial action, is when the government’s collective bargaining legislation goes live in July…That will give the workers more teeth and may make Dunnes sit up and take notice.”  Echoes here of the stance taken by SIPTU’s leadership last year in the Greyhound dispute, a hope that government will come to our aid through legislation.

But a trade union movement that was truly built on grassroots organising and on the concept of an injury to one being the concern of all would have had only one response to this bullying by the Dunnes’ management - The stores where this disciplinary action took place should have been shut down by mass pickets straight away. The wider trade union movement should have called for a complete boycott of all Dunnes Stores until the punishment of workers was reversed. The union movement should have established a solidarity fund to which all union members could contribute a few euro a week to support those dismissed or taking action.

Responding in this fashion would have shown that we know that together we are far stronger than the company.  But we are only stronger if we choose to use our muscle. Instead we find the union leadership relying on the possibility of government legislation to put manners on Dunnes management. Yet another stark example of the fact that the hard work of organising being done by many on the ground and by many union organisers meets its first obstacle in the failure of the movement as a whole to see itself as a campaigning movement, one which can mobilise large numbers in defence of vulnerable groups.

Outside of the official union movement, the last couple of years have also seen much innovative work by groups such as Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) in terms of organising groups of workers that are in some of the most precarious employment.  The Domestic Workers Action Group has been inventive and original in terms of its strategies and tactics, and has been hugely successful in terms of bringing people together and winning victories through collective actions.

Two souls of Trade Unionism

The on-the-ground organising within the official union movement and the work of groups like MRCI are two examples of one soul of the union movement - the one that gives hope for the future.  But unfortunately, as referred to earlier, much of the movement is being smothered and stultified by a bureaucracy that is the polar opposite of the organiser model of trade unionism.  And that bureaucracy appears to want to drag the movement away from organising and back into a new round of ‘social partnership’ and deals with government.

Following the general election of 2011, with the Labour Party in government and many unions still affiliated to that party, the unwillingness of large sections of the trade union leadership to oppose government policy in any real way became even more pronounced.  Indeed sections of the union leadership, most notably SIPTU’s general president Jack O’Connor chose on a number of occasions to use public speeches to attack not the government that was imposing austerity policies on his members but ‘the left’ which was attempting to organise people to oppose those austerity policies.  Speaking at a commemoration for Alicia Brady, who was killed during the 1913 Lockout, in January 2014 O’Connor described ‘the left’ as having “a poverty of ambition” going on to say that  “we have an obligation to offer more than protest and caustic commentary…”  He criticised the left for “indulging in relentless political cannibalism on remote points of dogma”, saying that “We must be sufficiently pragmatic to avoid condemning those with whom we disagree on questions of strategy and tactics,… [and] be sufficiently flexible to recognise that until we command a majority it is entirely legitimate, indeed essential, for parties and individuals to participate in government with those on the centre right either in Dublin or in Belfast .”

As defences of Labour’s role in government go, this speech by O’Connor was perhaps more upfront than most.  It was certainly one that outlined in stark terms the other soul of trade unionism, the one that would keep us wedded to the ‘jaw jaw’ version of trade unionism, and undermine and blunt the grassroots organising taking place on the ground.

‘Social Partnership’ renewed?

That is clearly the ambition of the trade union bureaucracy – to get us back into some form of ‘social partnership’.  In recent months, we have seen O’Connor cosying up to Sinn Fein.  At a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in February, he advocated a ‘left-led’ government and effectively tied the fortunes of the trade union movement to a new ‘social partnership’ type deal with whatever government is elected after the next election.

The period leading up to and following the next general election will see the battle for the soul of the trade union movement intensify.  We will be faced with a stark choice – are we going to continue to build the ‘organiser’ model of trade unionism which has been so successful in recent years?  And in order to do so, are we going to rid ourselves of the stultifying bureaucracy that is preventing this move from organising to fighting?  Or are we going to allow ourselves to be brought back into a new round of ‘social partnership’?  If we allow the latter to happen, it is likely to sign the death knell of the movement that has been so painstakingly built over the past 100 years.  If we want the former – which I imagine most of the readers of this paper and article do – the question is how?

That’s an urgent discussion, time for it to begin.

WORDS: Gregor Kerr


                              This article is from issue 11 of the Irish Anarchist Review