Unions in Britain & Ireland: Take on the right wing

Socialist View Summer 2001

The suspension of Mick O'Reilly from his post as Regional Secretary of the ATGWU is one of the most serious attacks on the left of the trade union movement in years. This witch-hunt has been instigated by the right wing leadership of ICTU and SIPTU, and has involved the Irish and British governments at the highest level. It has been reported that the leadership of SIPTU spoke to Bertie Ahern who contacted Tony Blair who in turn then spoke to the ATGWU General Secretary Bill Morris about dealing with Mick O'Reilly.

By Stephen Boyd

This move against Mick O'Reilly and the attacks on ASTI and the ILDA are confirmation that the right wing leadership of the trade union movement are acting more and more openly as the agents of the bosses' interests in the workers' movement.

This suspension has occurred because Mick has been the most outspoken leading trade unionist against social partnership and also because of the recruitment of the ILDA into the ATGWU. The ILDA joined the ATGWU earlier this year because management at CIE had consistently refused to accept its right to negotiate on behalf of its members. SIPTU took the ATGWU to the ICTU disputes committee claiming that 62 of the ILDA members were actually SIPTU members in arrears even though they left SIPTU over two years ago. ICTU have told the ATGWU to throw the ILDA out.

Defend Mick O'Reilly

What is happening is that ICTU, and the leaderships of SIPTU and the NBRU are collaborating with CIE management to try and break the ILDA who have been the most militant section of that workforce in the recent period. The bureaucracies are sending out a signal to all activists, that if you oppose the dictatorship of social partnership that we will use everything at our disposal to crush you.

A battle must now be launched that involves every trade unionist that believes in democracy within our movement. Mick O'Reilly needs to be defended and a mass campaign of opposition should take place not only inside the ATGWU but also in every other union and amongst the general public against this suspension. If they get away with sacking Mick O'Reilly, then it will spur on the bureaucracy to move against all other opposition.

The Socialist Party has explained consistently over the last number of years that a process of change had begun within the ranks of the trade union movement. We have explained that this process would eventually be reflected in a political shift to the left within the unions and a challenge from the membership to the right wing leadership's' strategy of social partnership.

This process is still unfolding but already we can see clear signs in a number of unions of what is to come in the next number of years. Social partnership is the 'credo' of the right wing both in Ireland (North and South) and Britain. In the South of Ireland social partnership now encompasses every aspect of the trade union movement and its relationship with the employers and the government. So much so that anyone who dares to challenge it is immediately demonised and vilified. We saw the ludicrous statements from so-called industrial relations experts during the ASTI (secondary school teachers) dispute who said that the ASTI couldn't expect to get away with being outside the 'normal industrial relations channels, in other words social partnership. But social partnership is not 'normal industrial relations'. It has only existed in its present form in the South for 14 years, and it is in reality an alien doctrine which has been brought into our movement by those with an agenda which ultimately aims to emasculate the unions turning them into nothing more than service providers who act as facilitators between management and the workforce to ensure the smooth running of the capitalist system. The industrial action and campaigns by workers at the Royal Mail, term time, the ASTI, the ILDA, Aer Lingus and many others represents the real traditions of our movement. Recent events indicate that it is actions such as theirs, challenging the CBI and IBEC and the British and Irish governments' agendas through industrial action that will more and more become the norm once again in industrial relations.

During the current period sections of activists are drawing the lesson that they need to be organised to challenge the 'credo' of social partnership. This lesson is being drawn by activists because of the experiences that they have gone through. It is events and particularly the effects of the forthcoming economic recession that will drive many thousands of activists to draw similar lessons. A new layer of trade union activists is coming on to the scene.

Opposition to the right wing leaders of the movement was temporarily quelled and knocked back during the 1980s and 1990s because of many factors that we have outlined before. The number of good activists who survived this period has been small, but nevertheless in a number of unions those who came through this period are now being joined by fresh layers of activists who want to reclaim their unions for the membership.

Broad left in NIPSA

In Britain this can be seen in unions such as UNISON, FBU, CWU, PCS. In the North this process is most pronounced within NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance). The broad left in NIPSA has been in existence for over 20 years. Members of the Socialist Party have played a key role consistently through the broad left in opposing the right wing clique who have dominated this union of 38,000 public sector workers (biggest union in Northern Ireland). However, over a long period the support for the broad left as reflected in the leading bodies of the union was seriously diminished. For example, in 2000 there was only one broad left member on the unions' leading body the General Council. However, in the last two years a dramatic turnaround has taken place. Now the Broad Left/Time for Change group has 12 members on the General Council, 20 out of 25 seats on the Public Officers' Executive and nine on the Civil Service Executive, and five out of seven seats on the General Purposes Committee. The positions of president and treasurer were also won by members of this bloc.

The reasons behind this spectacular turnaround in support for the idea of a fighting leadership are a clear indication of a process that is unfolding throughout the whole of the movement in these islands. In NIPSA a combination of factors has had a dramatic effect on the consciousness of many activists. The continued assault on the public sector by Blair's New Labour regime, which has been fully backed up by the Green and Orange Tories in the Assembly has resulted in a developing anger and fear amongst NIPSA members that their jobs, wages and terms and conditions of employment as well as the service that they provide to the public is seriously under threat from creeping privatisation. This is being brought in all sectors of the public and civil service through practices such as Best Value, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) and Public Private Partnerships (PPP). And this process is set to go even further as New Labour outlined quite clearly after their recent re-election that they intend to privatise the NHS.

Struggles by NIPSA members over the last two years have been as a direct result of the Blairs' anti-public sector policies. These struggles show clearly that when workers have their backs against the wall and face the choice of struggle or having to accept roll backs of past gains and when leadership is given they will fight even against the wishes of their own trade union leaders.

The struggles by the childcare social workers in North and West Belfast and Foyle and of the term time workers showed what can be done when a fighting leadership is given. Not only did these groups of workers achieve magnificent victories they also opened the eyes of thousands of NIPSA members to the fact that their current union leadership was totally incapable and unwillingly to defend its members' interests. The recent victories for the left in NIPSA are in great part due to these disputes.

Members were given a clear practical example, that when it came to fighting for more resources for childcare or for decent wages and conditions for workers in the education sector that broad left and Socialist Party members were prepared to take on management, and the political establishment. In sharp contrast the right wing bureaucrats did as much as possible to hinder the members.

Fighting SIPTU's bureaucracy

Similar changes are also taking place in a number of unions in the South. SIPTU, the largest union in the South, has been the main driving force behind social partnership. This union because of its huge numerical strength, and strong right-wing dominated bureaucracy has been able to swing the votes on the national wage agreements over the last 14 years. Many union activists have despaired at the apparent unassailable strength of those who are entrenched on the fifteenth floor of Liberty Hall. However in the last number of years serious and important cracks have opened up in SIPTU's monolithic structure. DAGO (Dublin Alliance of General Operatives) is a rank and file group which has been established by activists amongst SIPTU's building workers. This group has played an important role in taking on SIPTUs full time officials and the construction industry's' management. DAGO has organised workers into taking direct, and on many occasions illegal industrial action. In Dublin Airport a similar development is unfolding.

In Aer Lingus for many years there has been a cosy and corrupt relationship between leading SIPTU's full time officials and Aer Lingus management. This unhealthy relationship played a major role in keeping the majority of Aer Lingus workers in the misery of low pay. A combination of the current Celtic Tiger boom, and huge profits at the company has resulted in a battle between Aer Lingus workers and the management over pay. The move by 1,400 Aer Lingus Cabin crew to IMPACT was a significant blow to SIPTU's bureaucracy. The cabin crew received wide sympathy throughout the company and a similar move was considered by loaders, catering & cleaning staff, airport police, clerical staff in Aer Lingus and also workers in Servisair to try and get out of SIPTU.

There is now a widespread hatred of SIPTU in the airport. Many workers feel that if it was easy to get another union recognised that there would be a mass exodus from SIPTU. However SIPTU have learnt have from the split to IMPACT and the events with ILDA to make this situation very difficult. A layer of rank and file shop-stewards across the airport sections have begun to come together to get organised to collectively take on the SIPTU leadership as a co-ordinated alternative and have succeeded in pushing the bureaucracy back in some instances.

What these events illustrate is that when a lead is given, no matter how big an obstacle the bureaucracy is to preventing workers from taking action, they will find ways around these barriers. There is now a constant battle against the SIPTU leadership who are working hand in hand with Aer Lingus management to try and break all opposition. For example management have concluded a deal with the loading section but have refuse to settle with the cleaners where there are shop stewards opposed to the SIPTU leadership. This is an attempt to split the workers and to undermine the cleaners' shop stewards.

Developments in the CPSU

In the CPSU important gains have been made by rank and file activists. Socialist Party members and others organised around the Activist group have over many years been struggling to win a majority on the executive committee. The main thrust behind their work has been to convince the members that it is necessary to replace the right wing careerists with members who were prepared to fight to end the serious problem of low pay being faced by many CPSU members. The election of Denis Keane to the presidency for two years was a very important step forward. And at this year's conference the left took an outright majority on the executive committee. There is now a real possibility that the full time bureaucracy within that union can be beaten and replaced in the next period.

Lack of democracy

Many of the problems that are faced by trade union members are due to the lack of democracy within the movement. In the vast majority of unions the full time negotiating officials are un-elected and highly paid. In SIPTU and the AEEU, branch secretaries are full time officials. This is an important tool in the hands of the bureaucracies of these two unions which helps them to maintain a grip on the structures right down into the roots of the union. Therefore the idea of campaigning for increased democracy is gaining a bigger echo in a number of unions as members and activists are starting to see clearly that the ability to elect full time negotiating officials could have a dramatic effect in weakening the right wing bureaucracy.

How many of the current full time officials would be elected into their jobs on a regular basis? How many of these officials would even stay in these jobs if their pay was set at the average industrial wage? Socialist Party members in unions throughout these islands have consistently raised this issue for debate on the floor of conference in unions such as NIPSA, UNISON, FBU, PCS to name but a few. Now in the AEEU, the left group around the journal Engineering Gazette is campaigning for the election of officials. Unity Left within MSF is probably going to adopt the same position in the near future. The Socialist Party would argue that this demand should be to the forefront of the programme of the broad left/activists groups that exist and are developing throughout the unions.

Our party has been to the fore of the struggle over many decades for the establishment of broad lefts within the movement. The successes of the left within UNISON, NIPSA and the CPSU have been largely due to the consistent work of our members and others on the left, painstakingly at times pursuing the development of these bodies. Left groups within the unions must at all times put forward a political programme which shows clearly to the rank and file that it has a credible alternative to the current right wing leadership's policies. Broad left groups exist in many unions in Britain.

Rebuilding the left

However in Ireland, at present, there are very few strong broad left caucuses in existence. During the next period it will be essential for left activists to put to the top of their agendas the aim of constructing such bodies. However, it is crucially important to understand that broad lefts cannot be parachuted artificially into a union. Five people sitting in a room above a bar cannot just declare themselves to be the rank and file opposition within a union. The development of broad lefts is intrinsically linked to the struggles of the membership. In NIPSA for example the broad left has received it greatest level of support from the members at times of heightened industrial struggle. That is a key lesson from the last two years in that union. In SIPTU organised left opposition is developing in a number of sectors i.e., the building industry and Aer Lingus precisely for the same reason. It is a task now for those who aim to build left caucuses to try and bring the various activists who are being thrown up by these struggles together into co-ordinated campaigning groups around agreed programmes and strategies.

In the South whereas a change has begun, it is by no means uniform or straightforward. There are a number of conflicting processes coming to bear on the movement. The 'straight jacket' of social partnership is still affecting the ability of the members in a number of areas to struggle properly for their slice of the Celtic Tiger boom. Also partnership has played a major role in depleting the ranks of those currently active at branch level and in other structures of the union. In most unions except at times of industrial action most branches struggle to get quorums for meetings. This problem is slowly being overcome.

The boom has been a double-edged sword for the working class. On the one hand, large sections of workers have been able to secure wage increases way above those of the national wage agreements because of labour shortages that exist in most sectors. Some of these pay increases have been won through struggle. However, the majority have been won because the employers can't afford to risk strike action, because loss of production during the current boom would have a detrimental effect on their market share and also because they simply can't afford to have their employees leaving and going into other areas of the economy or even to their competitors.

The other side of the boom which has 'slowed' up the move in the direction of increased militancy within the unions has been the ability of the government to make significant tax cuts. It is the case within a number of unions that even amongst good people an attitude prevails at times that all you have to do is wait until the next round of budget tax cuts for your pay rise. The current pay increases of the PPF combined with the tax cuts, and what is seen by many as the 'defeat' of the ASTI has been a factor within the CPSU in the development of a reticence to taking industrial action for a pay claim outside the PPF.

Effects of a recession

However, with the recession in the USA, and the likelihood of this developing into a world recession over the next period, these factors will be taken out of the equation. Another intertwined contradiction is that the majority of workers are coming under increasing financial pressure due to the current levels of inflation, the pressure of house prices and ever rising rents.

What is clearly indicated is that once the Celtic Tiger economy slows down and goes into recession, a mountain of problems that have been stored up will translate into the unleashing of a new phase of anger and militancy in the trade union movement.

We can already see the outlines of this potential in a number of areas. One indication which shows that this potential is recognised by our enemies has been the more than usual openness of the ICTU bureaucracy in its collaboration with government and business in opposing workers who have moved into struggle. The ICTU leadership will now do anything within its power to protect social partnership. The truth is that the trade union bureaucrats, above all of the 'social partners', need partnership the most.

The government and IBEC will face massive difficulties when social partnership is decisively broken, but the right wing of the unions will be left floundering, and will face a tremendous political assault from the rank and file. Its open collaboration was clearly shown during the ASTI dispute, and more recently in its moves against the ATGWU and the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association (ILDA) and Mick O'Reilly.

The tide is however turning now in favour of trade union members. The battles that have begun in unions like NIPSA, CPSU, SIPTU, UNISON and now the ATGWU to reclaim the unions for the membership will intensify in the next period. This work, alongside the inevitable battles that will be fought against the effects of the oncoming world recession, will put the current class collaborators who 'lead' our movement under enormous pressure and will eventually lead to their unceremonious removal.

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