From Socialist Voice, July 2005

ICTU reaffirms its mission

The biannual conference of the ICTU took place in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on 21–24 June. Whatever the cynics say in the trade union movement, the ICTU conference is the most important date in the trade union calendar. It brings together delegates from all over Ireland to discuss, debate and make decisions on a wide range of issues affecting working people.
    To add an international flavour to the conference there were fraternal guests from the British and Scottish TUC, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO. The general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation also addressed the meeting.
    The address of welcome was made by the mayor of Belfast, Councillor Wallace Brown (DUP), who also hosted a dinner for invited guests in the City Hall. Hopefully, this is a good sign for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As Brendan Mackin, outgoing president of the ICTU, said in his address to the conference, “we need ministers in Stormont who are answerable to local people and who can work with the ICTU and with others to find solutions.”
    There was a lot of debate on the issue of migrant workers, with seven motions on the agenda. These condemned the exploitation of migrant workers by unscrupulous employers and called for a change in the current work permit and visa arrangements, which allow employers to hold the work permit of workers, thereby creating a bonded-labour relationship. The ICTU is continuing to press the government to introduce legislation to reverse that situation, with the work permit in future held by the employee and not the employer, giving the worker the flexibility to move from employer to employer as he or she sees fit.
    The tone of this debate was set by the annual report of the Executive Council. Referring to recent deportations, it stated: “Separating mothers and children in the middle of the night, or removing children from school classrooms, is just not acceptable. There is much to be said also for an amnesty allowing people who are law-abiding and worked hard in the country for many years to stay here.”
    Tributes were paid to the Gama workers who struggled successfully against their rogue employer, to the unions who represented them, and to the Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins, for his role in exposing the super-exploitation of these workers by a company specifically invited into the country by the Tánaiste, Mary Harney.
    Privatisation featured as an issue at the conference, with motions calling on the Congress to mobilise and campaign vigorously against the privatisation of public services and state-sponsored companies. Passing the resolution is, of course, the easy part: it is now up to Congress delegates to go back to their unions and insist that these motions be vindicated.
    There is widespread recognition within the trade union movement now of the need to organise and recruit new members. A resolution from the Executive Council of the Congress itself asked the conference to reaffirm that the mission of the trade union movement is to promote social justice by recruiting and organising workers in trade unions and using collective influence to force a redistribution of the wealth of society in furtherance of the common good.
    At the beginning of 2005 there were 770,000 workers in unions affiliated to the ICTU, an increase of 15,000, or 25 per cent, on the figure for 2004. Adding the 40,000 or more who are members of unions not affiliated to the ICTU gives a union density of 35 per cent. Some speakers, including the incoming president of the ICTU, felt that unions should raid their war chests for strike funds to finance a recruitment and organising campaign.
    Motions put to the conference included those on such issues as child care, education, health, pensions, the proposed European Constitution, and international solidarity. The resolution on the European Constitution, moved by the ATGWU, called on the ICTU to actively campaign for a decisive vote against ratification. In his remarks to the conference the ATGWU delegate said that the constitution should now not be put to the electorate, on the grounds that it is gone. The French and Dutch have emphatically rejected the constitution, thereby rendering it redundant. In his address to the conference the general secretary of the ETUC extolled the European Union and claimed the constitution was defeated by the nationalist right in France and Holland. However, as correctly pointed out by the ATGWU delegate, it was in fact the left in those countries that defeated the constitution, because it would have made the privatisation of public services, the free movement of capital, a liberal market economy and the maximisation of economic competition into constitutional principles—in other words, a complete victory for neo-liberal capitalism.
    Unfortunately there was no debate on this motion, as the ATGWU agreed to remit it to the Executive Council—but only on the condition that a vigorous debate about Europe will take place in the movement, and that any decision will be made by a special delegate conference, and not by the Executive Committee of the Congress.
    Another important motion, supporting the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people and calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories occupied in 1967 and an immediate cessation of the building of illegal settlements, was passed unanimously.

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