From Socialist Voice, April 2011

Trade unions: The battle for ideology

We all know that in recent years the political and economic environment has become far more hostile to organised labour, and we don’t need economists to tell us that this has caused severe hardship in some cases for workers, the unemployed, and the poor.
     The so-called austerity budgets were marked by savage cuts in public spending, cuts in social welfare, in children’s allowance and in public-sector workers’ pensions, on top of a savage assault on jobs in the private sector and all the other measures designed to make working people and the poor pay for the financial crisis of the state and the banks.
     The challenge faced by trade unions in representing their members in the industrial relations arena, and in the broader political and economic environment, has become more urgent and more complex.
     For trade unions this challenge is compounded by a significant loss of membership, particularly in the private sector. The decline in union membership has weakened union power, and this in turn has played a part in the demise of unions’ broad representative status.
     Why has the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in particular, and the trade union movement more generally, failed to articulate a clear political and economic vision for Irish workers? Lest we forget, let us remind ourselves that the trade union movement was founded on a set of core values and beliefs: equality, justice, democracy, and collective struggle.
     The trade union motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” is an important and valuable slogan, not merely to be used on the bottom of posters but to be the very basis of the movement’s tactical thinking and strategy.
     Unfortunately the movement has failed to place these values within a clear political and economic programme that can mobilise its membership and the broader labour movement.

New trade union pamphlet

Trade unions have always had two faces, as the sword of justice and as vested interest. In Ireland, trade unions have somewhat abandoned the sword of justice face, and the vested-interest face has won out.
     It is now time to challenge the trade union movement to wield the sword of justice and to reclaim our trade union ideology, which is based on solidarity, collectivism, and a shared social responsibility.
     If unions rediscover this conviction, and persuade their own members and members of community groups and civil society more generally, then the interests and rights of working people can find a common ground.
     “It’s easy for some political parties,” has been the cry of some trade union officers, “to snipe from the long grass at the failures of the trade union movement.” This has never been the Communist Party’s position. However, we do want to pose a challenge to the movement to enter into a debate about the future direction to be taken.
     Through the publication of our new pamphlet, which will be launched on May Day, the Communist Party of Ireland seeks to focus the debate on the politics, structure, vision and actions of the Irish trade union movement, with a view to mobilising its resources in the advancement of a just society.
     The pamphlet covers a number of areas: a clear view of the roots of the crisis, an analysis of the trade union movement’s response to the crisis, an articulation of a class analysis for the way forward, and proposals for renewal.
     We will be inviting a number of general secretaries and presidents to respond to our pamphlet, which we hope they will do. We want to make the discussion as broad as possible, and so we will also invite union members and activists to become involved in the debate.
     We look forward to the responses.

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