May 2015        

Change of strategy at the ICTU

The new general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, announced a change of strategy in a speech on 17 April to the annual delegate conference of the Public Service Executive Union.
     Needless to say, the bourgeois press reported only a couple of aspects of the speech, even though the event was open to the media. (The speech is available at www.ictu.ie.)
     Patricia King set out her own core values:
     1. All workers have the right to earn, and should have the prospect of earning, a fair and decent wage, sufficient for a basic standard of living for themselves and their families.
     2. All workers should be confident that, through their trade union, they can conduct normal negotiations with their employer on their terms and conditions without fear.
     3. All workers are entitled to be respected in the work-place.
     The attack on trade unionists in Dunne’s Stores and the arrest around the country of working-class activists opposed to the attempt to privatise water are a sure indication not only that these principles are ignored by employers and forces within the establishment but that these same people will use all means at their disposal to prevent any progressive or civilised legislation in this society.
     The arrests and dismissals are designed to intimidate and break any spirit of resistance. The capitalist class shows contempt for workers’ organisations and will do everything possible to block legislation on collective bargaining or a living wage. To quote Patricia King, their philosophy is clear and simple: “Nothing gets in the way of profit-making, we will never deal with trade unions, and we will not permit the commodity titled Labour to stand in the way of our profit progress.”
     The attempt to split the public and private sectors continues. Already the bourgeois press has started the rhetoric about “pay increases” in the public sector, even though, under the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement, there is a commitment to pay restoration. The public sector is the most unionised part of the labour force, with high levels of unionisation also in manufacturing, retail (large retailers and banks), and services. In these sectors there have been pay increases and the protection of conditions. It is in industries such as construction, contract cleaning, hotels and restaurants, and in the community sector, where union representation is weakest, that pay and conditions are worst.
     There has been no social dialogue with the government and employers since early 2009. Trade union influence has largely been exercised by trying to lobby the Labour Party as the minority party in government. There has also been lobbying of Sinn Féin and some of the other opposition groups.
     In the private sector, negotiations have taken place locally with employers’ groups on a company-by-company basis. There has been no direct discussion with IBEC since 2010. Patricia King reckoned that IBEC was now less representative of employers, with such groups as ISME, the Hotels Federation, Restaurants Ireland and Retail Excellence coming to the fore as the main opposition.
     Ireland is a low-pay country, with 22 per cent of workers on low pay. Out of eighteen OECD countries, Ireland is second only to the United States, where 25 per cent of workers are on low pay. 68,000 are paid only the national minimum wage, while 244,300 are on variable-hour contracts.
     Every year the state subsidies employers by paying €300 million in family income subsidy, €77 million in Job Bridge, and €13½ million in Jobs Plus. These subsidies are nothing more than transfers to employers so they can maximise profits at the expense of their workers.
     Patricia King believes the ICTU has a central role to play in developing, supporting and organising strategy. But organising has to be closely linked to industrial activity. The strength of the trade union movement will be measured by its ability to exert its power.
     The ICTU Charter for Fair Conditions at work seeks a living wage, fair hours of work, the right to collective bargaining, respect and ethics at work, and public-sector procurement. This charter would be presented to all members of the Oireachtas individually, so that they have an opportunity to sign up; those who did not would be made known to the electorate. Besides politicians, other groups and organisations, such as companies, community groups, and non-government organisations, would also be asked to sign up.
     This would be a new strategy by the ICTU in both organising and lobbying and would be a welcome first step towards achieving change.

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