From Socialist Voice, July 2007

Where is the labour movement going?

For the last twenty years the trade union movement has been involved in a consensus and “social partnership” arrangement with the Government and employers’ organisations at the national level.
     The problem now is that the trade union movement has been institutionalised and incorporated in the state apparatus and has lost the political will and confidence to act in an independent or campaigning way. It is unable to put forward any political challenge to the “social partnership” concept.
     The ability of the trade union movement to campaign on issues was very evident in the recent Irish Ferries dispute, when more than 100,000 workers demonstrated in Dublin and thousands more in Cork, Limerick, and other centres. The result of these demonstrations was
• a huge awareness by the general public of the gross exploitation involved and a massive amount of good will in society in general for the trade union movement
• an increase in the size of the Labour Inspectorate
• proposed legislative changes in areas covering the terms and conditions of employment.
     A number of lessons can be learnt from the Irish Ferries dispute and the mobilisation of workers in that dispute.
     1. The mobilisation and good will were not captured and built on by the movement.
     2. It is the trade union leadership at a particular level that is institutionalised into the state apparatus. Some even attempted to block the mobilisation at the last minute in an effort to immobilise the movement. They were forced by the outrageous behaviour of the employers to give a lead, and when they did, workers responded.
     3. It is obvious that the legislative and other changes were brought about not by “social partnership” but by workers using their industrial muscle to effect change. It is also clear that since the pressure created by that mobilisation has been challenged into safer waters for the establishment, attempts are being made to pull back on commitments given regarding the legislative change.
     “Towards 2016” is the current national agreement, which gave a 10 per cent pay increase over twenty-seven months. We said at the time that this increase would hardly compensate our members for inflation, let alone improve their living standards; and now we know we were right.
     But before a head of steam built up on this issue the general secretary of the ICTU issued a statement saying that “Congress calls for action to ease the impact of inflation.” It states that if something cannot be done on inflation the Congress will have to “ask” the employers and the Government to advance the date for negotiating the next pay module of the “social partnership” agreement. Straight away the Taoiseach proposed an early meeting with IBEC and the ICTU to discuss inflationary pressure. Result: the head of steam dissipates.
     To illustrate further how depoliticised the Congress has become with regard to any left-wing challenge to its behaviour, during the recent general election in the Republic there were no statements and no involvement by the trade union movement in the debate at all: no appeal to members to vote for parties or candidates that oppose privatisation or the “co-location” of private hospitals—all central issues facing workers, and areas in which the trade union movement has very detailed policies.
     It is increasingly the belief among some workers in the private-sector unions that public-service unions have too much influence in the trade union movement in the South, that they are institutionalised into the state apparatus and will berate anyone who has the temerity to challenge their position regarding “social partnership.”
     One possible reason for their excessive influence is the fact that union organisation in the private sector is weak, now standing at between 18 and 20 per cent. The failure of the unions to recruit or seriously campaign for new members, to encourage organisation and activism, has weakened its political and industrial clout.
     For all those concerned about the future of our movement, we need to seriously address the question of arguing for and working towards building an independent trade union movement with a campaigning strategy.
     To this end, the Communist Party will host a national meeting in mid-October in Dublin of left-wing and progressive people, north and south, who are active in the trade union movement. It is now time to build unity among all those concerned about the independence and the future of our movement. The time is now right for them to come together and discuss, to build and to win support among the grass roots of the movement for an alternative to the cul-de-sac that our movement is being corralled into.

■ Contact the CPI for further details of the conference; or if you would like to register now to take part send us an e-mail message at

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