Unions: the power is in our hands, let’s use it…

Saturday 28 April 2018

by Brian Forbes

As a lifelong trade unionist my biggest worry is that the trade union movement in Ireland is in serious trouble unless it fully embraces wider collaboration across unions and engages in serious alliance building with advocacy groups and like-minded campaign groupings.

Unions must be in the business of reconnecting with our communities and, in doing so, demonstrate that not only are trade unions alive and kicking but that they are a vital component of fighting back against the inequality and injustice endemic across Irish society today.

All unions collectively must promote organising as the dominant feature of trade unions in the ongoing class struggle perpetuated by the Irish political class hand in glove with capital and big business.

Unions must move to engrain political education within the very fabric of their existence to educate workers on the enemy. Jim Larkin and James Connolly knew their enemies full well and they faced them head on in class struggle.

The antidote to the neo-liberal mantra of “There is no alternative” (TINA) is correctly identifying the system we all live under in Ireland and establishing exactly who benefits from it thus preparing union members for the long hard struggle ahead.

Unions, like Mandate, who are proactively engaging in the political education of their members are helping to build a movement capable of not only challenging the system but in changing it for the betterment of the majority through the promotion of socially-just alternatives to current government policies. We can have democracy, or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few wealthy elites. We can’t have both.

Over the past five years I’ve witnessed a fundamental shift towards precarious employment practices in both the public and private sectors. A proliferation of part-time contracts and an insatiable desire on the part of some major employers for total workforce flexibility is creating a working society built around fear and not knowing from one week to the next what’s going to be in your pay packet.

We are witnessing serious inequality and economic instability imposed by successive right-wing governments as the state reduces its role in providing adequate public services, education and housing.

Add in the fact that wages have not significantly increased relative to the increasing wealth of big business and the 1% at the summit of society looking down on us all must be laughing hysterically at us.

Unions must be the catalyst for political and societal change. They must lead the vanguard opposing austerity and challenge the right-wing orthodoxy that exists in Irish political society today.

Organising workers harnesses collective political power and we’ve seen that – albeit on a smaller scale – with our lobby campaign targeting local TDs by their local constituents on the issue of banded hours contracts.

Nothing helps focus a TD’s mind more than the thought they mightn’t get votes from a large percentage of their union-minded constituents.

Unions are an untapped sledgehammer for the Irish working class. Since 1913, bosses have engaged in relentless class struggle as they continuously seek to wring concessions from workers for meagre returns. The union movement has in some ways allowed that imbalance to be perpetuated but enough is enough.

It seems that employers and the political class believe that workers’ rights are arbitrary – if we organise to defend them, then you can have them.

For me, that’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken from the magnificent Right2Water campaign –communities and trade unions politically educating their members and fighting back against the man.

The Irish working class needs to be organised and in the absence of Larkin and Connolly, it’s the Irish trade union movement that needs to step up to the plate on behalf of citizens the length and breadth of the country. In 1913, Michael O’Lehane, General Secretary of the Irish Draper’s Assistants’ Association (IDDA) – a forerunner to Mandate – said: “Our sympathies and support must go to the thousands of workers and their families who are at present in need of our assistance.”

If that quote came from a union leader today, it wouldn’t seem out of place given the existence of precarious employment practices, the cuts to social welfare, the desperate emergency housing and homeless crisis, forced emigration and the impact of austerity policies on the working poor to name but a few causes of poverty and a sense of hopelessness felt by thousands of people on this island we call home.

In 1913, unions were refused recognition by employers and that basic human right to belong to a recognised trade union for collective bargaining purposes is still denied to unions today.

Unions must demand laws that deliver basic human rights for workers in Ireland. The founder of the Dublin Employers Federation, Michael Martin Murphy, was the real victor of the revolutionary Ireland of 1913. It is the selfish capitalist ethos he espoused that remains the dominant character of the Irish State.

It is probably a bit unfair to completely blame him for the desperate state we find ourselves in today as the Catholic Church also played a major role in embedding capitalism and stoic right-wing fundamentalist thinking into modern Ireland.

Today, many companies – just like William Martin Murphy – are attempting to face down organised labour. Many are collectively engaged in attempting to break unions and are using union-busting firms to assist them in undermining and undoing years of struggle and achievement by the working class of Ireland.

Multi-national companies, with little or no tax liabilities, are challenging the industrial relations machinery in the state as they hive off and launder their profits off-shore and away from any social contract obligation here in Ireland.

It’s incredible that we, as a nation, stand idly by and allow all this to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if the wee barista in one of the tens of thousands of Starbucks that plague our high streets paid more tax to the taxman than the multi-billion-dollar operation he works for.

So, unions and wider Irish society need to wake up and smell the coffee! Irish society is being cheated out of having a decent equal society by political ideologues and global capital.

It is incumbent upon us all in the union movement to take seriously our obligations to wider society and join with unity of purpose to politically educate our membership and agitate them to take collective action across the public and private sectors.

Maybe we could chat about the establishment of an Irish Citizen Army, this time armed with a knowledge of the system rather than guns. Now wouldn’t that be an interesting development?

On a separate note the above reference to coffee reminded me of an auld joke I used to tell… Question: Why does Karl Marx only drink coffee? Answer: Because proper tea is theft. I’ll get my coat!