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ATGWU witch hunt: A new union for workers?
Much speculation has surrounded rumours of the founding of a new union that would challenge the existing pro-partnership trade union movement. The removal of Mick O’Reilly, head of the Irish region of the British based Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU), has led to reports in the press that the use of the Cork Butchers’ negotiating licence would be the legal mechanism to allow the setting up of an ‘Independent Workers Union.’ This union, it is declared, would be the means to continue the anti-partnership stance that characterised O’Reilly’s stewardship of the ATGWU and would offer workers in existing unions, and indeed unorganised workers, the opportunity to join a union that might possibly represent their interests in a much more militant fashion.
That such an organising vehicle is sorely necessary can be seen by the history of social partnership deals negotiated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions with the bosses and government. These deals have allowed the latter to profit from the boom economy while restricting the wages of workers, leading to a dramatic decline in the share of income in the economy being received by workers and a corresponding increase in that going to profits. It has tied the union movement to an unashamedly pro-boss agenda of privatisation, work intensification, corporate tax cuts and subordination to the anti-working class policies of the European Union. It has provided crucial political cover to a political and business establishment exposed again and again to be utterly corrupt. It has witnessed the increased erosion of what little democracy existed in the trade union movement and its organisation along business lines. It would be no exaggeration to say that for many workers protecting themselves from attack from their boss and state is hampered by their trade union and not assisted.
However, if the new union is simply a vehicle for one left trade union leader then it will certainly fail to break the partnership currently strangling the labour movement.
After all were not the ITGWU and FWU both splits and wasn’t the bus workers yet another new union and don’t all of them now exhibit the same problem? How many times must the lesson be learnt that the problem of democratic and fighting trade unions is not primarily an organisational problem. If the political problems are not already understood and the possibilities of fighting inside existing unions on this strategy exhausted then at the end of the day the problem will not be solved because it hasn’t been understood. But this is not an end to the problems that the new union formation faces.
In a period of right wing offensive the attraction of militant workers to anew union could lead to their isolation and defeat. The new union is not being posed in the context of an upsurge of militant activity or of a particularly important dispute but seemingly as a response to bureaucratic moves against a few personalities in one union. The emphasis put on the negotiating licence of the Butchers union is worrying. Whatever the importance of legalities, and they are important, the real power of negotiation comes from organisation. Organisation comes from open and militant campaigning. We have yet to see any open campaigning for the new union and while others will be in a better position to account for its activities the lack of such an open campaign is a signal of weakness. Speculation that the new union is simply a threat against the witch hunters of the T & G are not disproved by such methods.
At the end of the day the wisdom of setting up the new union is a tactical decision but it is a decision that is best taken when the principles that inform tactics have been fully debated and digested. There has been no sign that this process has taken place and therefore no evidence that the correct decision will be taken, in so far as it is possible to form a judgement in what will always be an uncertain situation. But of this we can be certain. We don’t need a repetition of the history of previous new unions that litter the history of the Irish union movement and all of which are now pillars of the partnership regime that currently emasculates the Irish working class. Whatever its limitations the new union might well be an important arena for socialist intervention but we should not pretend that this in itself is the purpose of the whole exercise.