From Socialist Voice, October 2009

Workers in struggle

Unions approaching the Rubicon!

Many unions are fast approaching their Rubicon—the point at which they decide either to stand up and fight or to lie down, surrender, and become redundant.
     There is absolutely no doubt but that many employers are exploiting the present crisis and initiating union-busting campaigns. On top of the assault on workers’ terms and conditions of employment we are also witnessing concerted efforts in various industries to break unions and their membership. It is fitting that a number of unions are celebrating centenaries as employers return to the tactics of a hundred years ago.
     With active support from the Government, indeed following in the tracks of the Government, employers unilaterally impose new contracts, pay cuts, and changes to pension schemes. In addition, they walk away from agreed negotiating procedures, Labour Court recommendations, and LRC mediation. And that’s where unions are recognised!
     But there will come, or may already have come, an issue that will force every union leadership to consider whether to fight or lie down. Those that fight have a chance of surviving, regardless of the outcome of their dispute; those that lie down will do so at the risk of laying to rest their union for good. Fighting does not come in the form of court cases or media battles—while they may have a use—but will largely be dependent upon troops on the ground: strength in numbers.
     Fighting is the only method of survival for unions today; and even reluctant leaders will have to consider the future of their unions, if only out of self-interest. And so every union must face the daunting task of mobilising a membership that has been dormant for thirty years of so-called partnership and that—largely through no fault of their own—does not know how to stand united in the face of employer, media and Government onslaught.
     One such union facing the choice this month is the IBOA, the Finance Union. This union is possibly better prepared than others, given the lengthy strike undertaken in 1992, when the banks combined in a concerted effort to break it. The union fought then and has since grown substantially in membership, despite having to expel some six thousand members for passing pickets. Today the membership stands at its highest figure ever, of 23,000 members.
     On Friday the 9th of October, Ulster Bank announced that it was walking away from negotiations and instead was “offering” its employees new contracts. The headlines presented by Ulster Bank are “generous” profit-sharing options; the small print is an assault on pensions and pensionable salary.
     The reality is that this is a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to the IBOA leadership and members. The future of collective bargaining with Ulster Bank and in the industry as a whole is at stake. All employers will be watching how the IBOA responds, to assess their prospects of doing away with the union.
     Will the IBOA fight or surrender? The general secretary, Larry Broderick, appears to be acutely aware of the lessons from the IBOA’s recent history and has stated that the union will respond forcefully and if necessary take industrial action, maximising disruption to the banks’ operations. We must wait and see.

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