From Socialist Voice, December 2005

Stop the race to the bottom!

It is now ninety-two years since the modern Irish trade union movement was forged in battle during the 1913 Lock-Out in Dublin. The legacy of that momentous struggle has shaped and formed how Irish working people understand trade unionism. It left a legacy of respect for a trade union’s picket and the fact that membership of a union was more than just a service, that workers and employers have distinct and separate interests.
    The struggle in Irish Ferries is about more than the 543 workers directly involved: it has ramifications for workers throughout the Irish economy. The race to the bottom will not stop at the ferry ports but is already affecting workers in construction, food-processing, small manufacturing, agriculture, and services.
    After decades of “social partnership” and a doubling of the work-force, our unions are now weaker than at any time in their history. The density of unionisation is now clearly at dangerous levels. Trade unions now represent less than 30 per cent of all workers in the private sector. It is estimated by some trade unionists that if the haemorrhage of members that has occurred over the last four years was to continue for the next four years, union density will be down to about 17 per cent. That translates into one employer in seven recognising a union; that more than 80 per cent of all private-sector workers either feel unable to join a union or don’t feel that unions are relevant to them.
    This would have severe consequences, not alone for workers. Many unions would not be viable, which would result in further rationalisations and amalgamations, and not necessarily for the right reasons. Clearly unions have lost the central meaning of what it is to be in a union. It is more than getting the check-off system established by the employer and paying union dues. The over-emphasis on full-time officials and the playing down of the role of shop stewards means there is no real union presence on the shop floor, no real sense of the power of the union, in many jobs. Getting the bosses to pay the union dues so the union will get off the site is not organising workers.
    We need to start to rebuild our unions and rebuild their influence among workers before they decline any further. The argument about social partnership was not simply about wage increases but was fundamentally about the role and nature of trade unionism. It has been pointed out frequently that social partnership would lead to real dangers for Irish workers. This is now being borne out with the declining numbers and influence.
    Employers who do not want to replace their Irish workers with non-nationals or are prepared to abide by Irish labour law, pay and conditions and to recognise unions will also be increasingly forced to go down the road of displacing their work-force with cheap non-national labour by the economics of the market. They will be forced to do so by competitors who are prepared to use cheap foreign labour, who do not pay the minimum wage, and who impose harsher working conditions.
    This undercutting of Irish workers’ wages and conditions will not stop at the private sector. As more and more of our public services are opened up under EU directives to compulsory competitive tendering, jobs in the public sector will come under the same downward pressure as sub-contractors bring in workers at lower rates of pay and worse working conditions to displace existing workers; or existing workers are going to have to take huge wage cuts in order to retain their jobs against non-national labour.
    The European Union itself is the executor of all these policies and wishes to impose them throughout the EU. They want to use eastern European workers as a battering-ram to smash wages and working conditions won by workers over many decades of bitter struggle. This is what European big business has wanted all along: to take back from workers what they were forced to concede. The EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy has given his backing to the employment in Sweden of Latvian building workers at Latvian rates of pay.
    According to the Services Directive, a Polish-registered company, for example, operating in Germany or Ireland would be bound only by Polish labour law and need pay only Polish wages. That company could well be owned by an Irish business person, living in Ireland (perhaps). Flags of convenience are not only for ships!
    Because union density has been declining right across the board, there are now large sections of the economy where unions are not organised, with the result that there is no-one to police the legally binding obligations on wages and conditions or to ensure that the bosses meet them. So we have the potential for more and more de-unionisation. We can’t rely on the government to enforce the law, as there are only thirty-one labour inspectors to cover more than two million workers and to enforce Irish labour law. This just about sums up the commitment of the current pro-business government.
    This process is not going to stop by talking nice to the bosses, or appealing to their “better nature,” nor will Bertie Ahern or this government defend Irish workers. At present we have leading elements in the trade union movement approaching important problems like the Irish Ferries dispute in a supplicant manner—something you would not find a representative of the employers’ organisation doing. They are more concerned about salvaging social partnership and getting this dispute off the agenda at all costs and appear to be petrified about bringing workers into the struggle. But this problem will not go away because they wish it would.
    ”Social partnership” implies that everybody can co-operate to achieve some shared goals. How can you have partnership when one side of the partnership is in a constant struggle to block workers from joining a union, or wants to derecognise unions, or, in the case of the government, will not bring in a constitutional right to join a union of choice? This talk of “partnership” is about the emasculation of the trade union movement.
    The race to the bottom will be stopped only by the pressure of organised workers in a united, campaigning struggle. Our unions need to shed the illusion that the government is going to save Irish workers from a few rogue employers—because the majority of employers are actively opposed to workers joining a union. In fact many public services are now being and will increasingly be contracted out to companies that win contracts by submitting the lowest tender. This can only be realised by employing non-union cheap labour, the majority of whom will be non-nationals. Being in a public-sector job will not make you immune from the neo-liberal policies of the current government and of the European Union.
    Racism is the product of a society built upon greed and exploitation, which will exploit whatever differences and divisions it can to its advantage. We have had eighty years’ experience of the use of division in the North of Ireland, and look at that legacy! Workers can’t afford to turn upon each other, national against non-national, for the only ones to benefit are the employers, with bigger and bigger bank balances.
    If we want to win this battle—and we need to win it; if our trade union movement is to mean anything or to have a future, then we need to prosecute the struggle to a successful conclusion, in a way that shows that we are determined and committed. The employers and the government think they have our measure when they put their hands up and say, “There’s nothing we can do.” Clearly their minds and attention have not been focused enough.
    The present crisis has backed the trade union movement into a corner. The choice is stark and clear: we either turn and fight or face destruction. We still have the capacity to fight and win, if we have the determination.

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