Date Released: 28 July 2016
Speech at the Mother Jones Festival, Cork by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, on Thursday, 28th July, 2016
Comrades and friends,
This year’s Mother Jones Festival takes place against the background of the continuing trauma of the most serious crisis in global capitalism since the 1930s. It is important to say from the outset that this is a demand side crisis largely attributable to exponentially growing inequality in what we know as the “developed world”.
The phenomenon manifests itself in the world of work or the “labour market” in the form of mass unemployment, increasing precariousness and social insecurity on an unprecedented scale. This is increasingly evident in Ireland, Europe and the West. Precarious work, of course, is not new in the developing world where it has been the order of the day for a long time.
It falls to the trade union movement to step up to the task of reasserting human priorities in the workplace and ultimately in the wider economic and social paradigm. It is important to stress this because in the culture of “business unionism” this tends to be taken for granted or even lost sight of altogether. It is also important to say that trade union organisation is the only way to address the task. More important, it is crucial to assert that the trade union movement in Ireland still has the capacity to meet the challenge and to win for working people. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise of this short paper here this evening.
However, to do so, our movement must transform itself, ideologically, culturally and structurally.
In practical terms, it is a challenge which must be met at an industrial, pedagogical and political level.
In order to approach it, we must disabuse ourselves of a number of deeply held myths and misconceptions. One of these, for example, is that the dramatic growth in the, post- Lockout, Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union between Easter Week 1916 and the end of 1918 was primarily attributable to the resistance offered during the Lockout itself and the subsequent events which occurred throughout the decade of rebellion. The fact of the matter is that what happened had more to do with the Munitions Act. This was because, in 1917, the legislation which had been put in place by the government in the United Kingdom to maintain industrial peace for the duration of the war was extended to Ireland. Agricultural Wages Boards which had been set up across the UK to determine wages and conditions to guarantee the food supply were then put in place in Ireland as well. Virtually immediately, agricultural labourers found that the most effective way to secure improvements was by joining a trade union and they flocked to the ranks of the ITGWU in their thousands. It quickly established itself as the dominant union in the sector, absorbing smaller land and labour unions along the way. Membership, which had fallen to somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 by the time of the Easter Rising, increased to 68,000 by the end of 1918 and 120,000 in 1920. Obviously, the sentiment engendered by the Lockout, the Rising and the War of Independence influenced developments but they were not the primary reason for the growth in union membership. The institutional arrangements put in place for conciliation and arbitration over a whole range of industries also resulted in a very dramatic rise in trade union membership and density across every single region of the UK.
That phenomenon has replicated itself repeatedly in all circumstances in which conditions favourable to the growth of union membership have presented - e.g. during the post war period across Europe, the period following the economically regenerative 1960s and the period following entry into the EEC in Ireland. The purpose of this reference is to debunk the myth that declining union density in the Ireland or indeed throughout the developed world is in some way attributable to some kind of inter-generational or cultural disconnect. It could be argued that such exists but it is consequence rather than the cause of the phenomenon.
The simple fact of the matter is that working people and indeed people generally for that matter will organise in one of two circumstances or better still when a combination of both exist. These are:
That rule applies throughout the history of industrial societies and in all circumstances irrespective of generational dynamics. It therefore follows that the challenge we must overcome is to instill a belief in people that they can actually win by organising.
Of course, the reality is that the balance has shifted quite dramatically against organised workers and in favour of capital over the past quarter of a century or more. This is attributable to the complex interaction of an array of global factors, each of which merits an entirely separate paper on their own. However, for this evening’s purpose I will simply cite the most significant of them:
Lenin wasn’t wrong when he said “the crisis of social democracy is the crisis of capitalism”.
In Europe, in particular, the response which has been employed since 2010 (and earlier in our case) has been one of retrenchment - austerity combined with a “race to the bottom” in the workplace to maximise “competitiveness”. This, as we know, has resulted in the generation of mass unemployment particularly among the young in several European countries which has not been seen since the immediate post war years, accompanied by precariousness and hopelessness which is increasingly evolving into desperation.
We are now entering a new and more dangerous phase in the evolution of the crisis of capitalism and of European and global history. What has happened is that the politics has now caught up with the economics as we always said it inevitably would and it is manifesting itself in a sharp swing in most cases to xenophobic nationalism and the radical right. It is no overstatement to say that we are on the road to catastrophe. This leads through the disorderly collapse of the euro which would inevitably result in levels of deprivation and societal break down beyond anything that can be visualised in our everyday imagination. It would end in a regime of competing nation states and ultimately in regional wars.
I should say at this point that unless the policies of one-sided austerity or even fiscal neutrality as they now call it, combined with the race to the bottom in the world of work, are abandoned immediately the scenario I describe above is not some vague possibility - but is actually inevitable.
I turn then to the question as to “What is to be done?”. After all we are not the EU Commission, the Council of Ministers or the governing board of the ECB. We are not even the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). What can the trade union movement under pressure in a small country in the western periphery of Europe actually do? Well, it remains to be seen - but our obligation is to do everything that we can in our own space.
First and most importantly, we must address the ideological question. Our movement is comprised of an array of organisations founded on the basis of different but not incompatible premises. A number of our unions are vocational organisations formed to promote the interests of those employed in a particular profession, vocation, trade or craft. Others are more general in character formed to promote the interests of members but in the context of a wider historical mission towards an egalitarian society. As long as we function on the basis that, irrespective of the prevailing conditions in the economy and more particularly in society, the cause of a particular vocation or trade or craft can be furthered independently, we cannot make real progress. We have to face up to the challenge of influencing the conditions within which we organise and operate as distinct from simply promoting the cause of a particular group in a context which is determined by others.
The other concept that must be debunked is the notion that it is in some way our role to provide an antagonistic voice against management in those businesses and institutions which recognise their employee’s right to organise and be represented by trade unions. This thinking is fundamentally flawed. Our task is to optimise the quality and the security of our members’ employment in these businesses and institutions. It therefore follows that we must be at the forefront of the thrust to enhance productivity and innovation instead of getting in the way of it as we sometimes do. The fact of the matter is that the security and quality of our members’ employment is entirely dependant on the prosperity of the enterprises in which they work. Moreover, the key to good working conditions and indeed standards of living generally is exponentially increasing productivity. I emphasise, because it will undoubtedly be misrepresented, that this is not about increasing the drudgery or onerousness of work. Actually, it is precisely the opposite.
There is another complementary reason for this approach and that is to minimise employer hostility. We have to reverse the current equation in which we can sometimes find ourselves impeding the prospects for an enterprise that engages in collective bargaining instead of actually enhancing them. Meanwhile, we fail to confront those who do not respect their employee’s right to organise or be represented by trade unions. This equation is graphically evident in any analysis of the deployment of trade union resources as between ‘servicing’ members where we are recognised and organising to confront those who do not afford recognition. It is a fundamentally flawed strategy and it is doomed to failure. The reality of it is that, apart from workers, we should be able to demonstrate that employers who recognise trade unions also enjoy an advantage over those who don’t.
The second criterion I mentioned at the outset arises in the pedagogical arena. This is at least two-dimensional.
In the first instance, we have a responsibility to equip workers to assert their own interests by knowing their rights and understanding how to vindicate them. At a collective level, that extends to developing a greater understanding among our members and workers generally of the nature and character of the forces and influences at work in capitalist society. This applies both in terms of the economics of the companies in which people may work and the wider political arena as well.
In parallel with this, we equally have a responsibility as has been the case with the craft unions of the past to facilitate the education, training and development of our members and workers in the enhancement of their skills. This is particularly applicable in the rapidly changing dynamics of the modern labour market where skills and competencies are becoming redundant almost as rapidly as they are appearing.
The third criterion I mentioned at the outset relates to the political arena. As long ago as the new unionism of the 1880s, our leaders recognised the necessity to compete for political influence and power in order to overcome the limitations of what could be achieved through workplace collective bargaining. This saw the development of political funds and political affiliations to the labour and social democratic parties. Today, in the light of the crisis of social democracy and the increasing diffusion of political representation on the left, there is a need for a more nuanced approach. However, this is not an argument for the depoliticisation of trade unionism. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. However, our political activity should focus on shifting the entire fulcrum of the debate in society in a manner which prioritises human considerations and egalitarian objectives as distinct from promoting one political party. The aim must be to frame the architecture of the political ‘centre ground’.
On the face of it, this seems an awesome challenge. Yet it is still entirely within the capacity of the trade union movement in Ireland as things stand at present but it cannot be undertaken successfully by any single trade union. Thus, we must have the courage and vision to make the changes that will enable us to accomplish it. The roadmap was outlined in the recommendations of the report of the Commission on Trade Union Organisation to the biennial delegate conferences of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, in Killarney in July 2011 and then in Belfast in July 2013 – the centenary of the Lockout.
These envisaged developing a stronger, more united, more coherent movement, organised in a federal rather than a confederal congress. This, while respecting the autonomy of each individual trade union, would facilitate co-ordination of collective bargaining and organising across each of the individual sectors of the economy in both jurisdictions on the island. Such co-ordination would optimise the prospects for the negotiation of the best possible agreements with employers who respect their employees’ right to organise. Simultaneously, it would enable the deployment of irresistible force in support of workers seeking to organise where unions are not recognised.
This capacity would be reinforced by the development of a fully resourced research capacity, a new workers college, an independent workers controlled media platform and the opening of trade union centres in every major town on the island.
The elements are actually reflected in the ‘One Cork’ project which is underway on a small scale here in this city.
As we stand today, we have the capacity to ensure that workers can organise to win but that will not remain the case indefinitely. The sands of time are ebbing away. It is time to wake up and smell the roses!