Article from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
Editorial:- Trade unions: Solidarity and struggle not partnership
THERE IS a common theme that unites the declaration of war by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain on public services, the sacking of workers by Gate Gourmet at Heathrow airport and the plan by Irish Ferries to replace its staff with low paid migrant workers from Eastern Europe. The common theme is the complete lack of leadership from the leaders of the trade unions on these islands to all of these attacks and problems facing the working class.
During the high profile and important strike at Gate Gourmet, solidarity action by BA workers showed how anti-trade union laws should be dealt with. Yet the so-called left leaders of the TGWU have recommended that workers accept a rotten deal that will result in 144 redundancies. The company will decide who is to face the sack and it is feared that trade union activists will top their list.
Speeches by leading union officials at the TUC congress were dominated by calls for the need to build partnership with the bosses. Senior Labour politicians poured out the arguments for why workers had to accept cuts in their pensions, and why Thatchers' anti-union laws had to stay. Left union leaders such as Bob Crow (RMT - rail workers' union) and Matt Wrack (FBU - firefighters' union) failed to get elected to the TUC general council. Bob Crow and Matt Wrack are out of step with the majority of Britain's union leaders because they are prepared to fight the bosses.
SIPTU president Jack O'Connor responded to the news that Irish Ferries were introducing slave labour conditions by saying that "all hell will break loose" if the company proceeds with its plans. Apart from some verbal threats to withdraw from social partnership, Jack O'Connor and the other leading SIPTU officials have done little so far to stop Irish Ferries.
In an incredible speech to the recent SIPTU conference, Jack O'Connor said "Right now, I cannot assure you with confidence that talks on a new national agreement can result in tangible measures to prevent displacement, curb exploitation or protect employment standards." He went on to say, "But a line has to be drawn somewhere. And we have made it very clear that we will not acquiesce with a race to the bottom in employment standards, whatever the consequences." That is exactly what SIPTU and the majority of the ICTU leaders have been doing for the last 17 years of social partnership, acquiescing with the employers and successive governments in attacking the rights and conditions of workers.
What we need in Britain, the North and in the South is a fighting trade union leadership with a willingness and clear strategy to take on the employers and the governments. The Gate Gourmet workers could have won their dispute if the TGWU leadership had been willing to build on the solidarity action of the BA baggage handlers and shut down Heathrow airport. Irish Ferries can be stopped if ICTU and SIPTU organise to black their ships from Irish ports and issue the call for British and French dockers to do the same. The example of the militant tactics of the French dockers who have shut down the ports in Corsica and Marseilles shows the way forward.
New Labour's plans to devastate public services in Northern Ireland is an opportunity for the unions to unite Catholic and Protestant workers in a mass movement of opposition to privatisation and the water charges.
The draconian assault on workers at Gate Gourmet and Irish Ferries will soon become the norm as more and more companies strive to maintain their profit levels by imposing slave wages and working conditions. It is inevitable that workers will fight these attacks and in the process will test and find wanting the present right wing union leaders.
The majority of workers don't support the class collaborationist attitudes of the majority of the TUC or ICTU leaders. In the oncoming battles, many thousands of new union activists will participate in building a left opposition within our trade unions armed with a programme for action that can win over the majority of working class people to the traditional rallying cry of the trade union movement - solidarity and struggle!