From Socialist Voice, January 2005

Trade unions

A small but hopeful step forward

In 2004 more than a thousand home helps employed by thirty-nine voluntary bodies were recruited as new members by SIPTU in its drive to build membership among unorganised workers. SIPTU recruited seven full-time organisers in 2004 with the specific task of recruiting and organising among the very large number of unorganised workers. The appointment of organisers, as distinct from more full-time officials, is the result of a promise made by Jack O’Connor as part of his election campaign when running for president of SIPTU.
     The announcement by SIPTU is to be greatly welcomed. It is now accepted that about 25 per cent of workers in the private sector are members of a union. If you combine the membership of the public and private sectors the total of organised workers comes to a very disappointing figure of about 37 per cent; this is down from 60 per cent in 1990.
     It is clear that with the expansion of the economy and the number of workers employed having risen to nearly 1.9 million there is an absolute need for unions to concentrate on organising the unorganised. It is also very clear that the “Celtic Tiger” is built on a low-wage economy, with nearly 40 per cent of workers living on the minimum wage, which is €7.50 per hour. Rents alone in Dublin are on average between €800 and €1,200 per month; on top of that you have to buy food and clothes and pay for electricity, gas, and transport. If you have children, then the pressure is really on.
     For far too long unions concentrated on inter-union poaching, particularly in the public sector, more concerned with guaranteeing the union a regular source of dues, deductible at source, than with spending time and resources in building up influence and strength among the majority of workers, who remain unorganised.
     Also, if the trade union leadership was honest with itself it is clear that the continued emasculation of the unions in “social partnership” has hindered its ability to project its own vision of society or to present any clear alternative policies, distinct from those of employers and the Government, which has rendered the labour movement irrelevant in the eyes of many workers. Social partnership has blunted its weapons of struggle and left workers wondering what is the point of joining.
     We also have a significant number of the present generation of union officials who have grown up within partnership: their whole industrial experience is one of social partnership, and inevitably their view of the role of a trade union is that of a service provider.
     The recent resistance by workers and their unions in Dublin Bus, Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta has shown that when leadership is given, workers will respond in a positive way. It is clear that the Government has retreated on the all-out privatisation of Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta for the moment. The removal of Séamus Brennan from the Department of Transport in the recent Government reshuffle and the departure to Brussels of Charlie McCreevy, former Minister for Finance, are clear indications that they have retreated.
     A number of factors have brought this change about, including the resistance by the workers in these companies and the political defeats suffered by the Government, particularly Fianna Fáil, in last year’s local and European Parliament elections. Workers were able to find a political voice with which to register their opposition to Government policies. The beneficiaries of this protest were Sinn Féin and independents. The Labour Party under the present leadership of Pat Rabbitte is so indistinguishable from the other establishment parties that it has failed to take any advantage of the growing discontent.
     The lesson is clear for the labour movement. It needs a strong, articulate, independent political voice in the Dáil; and if the Labour Party cannot provide it then others will. Secondly, we need a more independent, active, campaigning trade union movement. It has been shown time and time again that workers respond if their needs and interests are reflected in the policies and campaigns of trade unions. The bottom line under capitalism where class consciousness is weak and underdeveloped is self-interest and self-preservation.

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