From Socialist Voice, August 2009

Lessons from the contractors’ dispute

The strike by several thousand electricians could be seen as a test of union strength within the private sector, and in that regard it is a test that they passed with notable success. While the strike was rooted in the electrical contracting industry and in the nature of pay determination for that sector, the strong support among other private-sector unions has made it something more than simply an electricians’ dispute.
     In many ways the strike fulfilled some of the original objectives of the proposed national strike on the 30th of March. While the electricians’ dispute was smaller in scale, it was nonetheless an impressive show of strength within its industry.
     The TEEU not only secured a 4.9 per cent recommendation from the Labour Court but also sent a message to the ICTU. Congress leaders were thus unable to use the recent biannual conference as a showcase for their agenda nationally, which has hitherto amounted to little more than an over-zealous attempt to secure agreement with the Government and cling to the concept of “social partnership.”
     Furthermore, it seems to have further prompted a shift in thinking, with many unions relishing the nature of the TEEU’s success and providing encouragement to the bigger unions, such as SIPTU and Unite, that real gains might be secured by going on the offensive.
     IBEC has already recognised this, as evident by Brendan McGinty’s recent scaremongering on RTE Radio over Jack O’Connor’s comments on a sustained campaign of action. Employers, of course, would much prefer to emasculate unions behind the dead-end strategy of “social partnership.”
     As the Communist Party has been arguing in recent months, the situation is now so serious that the labour movement must either become radical or be redundant. The party notes how the strong resistance shown by electrical contractors was enough to finally get the Government to introduce measures to safely ground employment regulation orders in the Oireachtas, thus insulating registered employment agreements from legal challenge. Previously this proposal lingered on without resolution as incessant meetings between ICTU leaders and the Government produced little results.
     This resonates with the lessons from last year, when the resistance shown by pensioners forced a retreat by the Government on medical cards at a time when all that the leadership of the trade union movement could manage was a call for a meeting with the Government to discuss its concerns. Again, it is clear which approach produces results.

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