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Independent Workers Union Conference

Clarity about the bosses – confusion about the union leaderships

John McAnulty

20 April 2006

It would have been worth attending the Congress of the Independent Workers Union (IWU) held in Dublin on April 8th, if only to hear the devastating analysis by Pavel Janeczek of the way in which the bosses use the agency system to divide workers in Ireland, and the equally devastating denunciation by Gerry Corbett of the model contract now being touted around the bosses by SIPTU – a model contract that sells itself to the bosses on the grounds that it wipes out all the gains made by shopfloor workers in the past century.

The members of the IWU have a much clearer grasp of reality than the official union bureaucracy, and it was the clarity of the members vision that was the great strength of the conference. 

There are however serious weaknesses. There were just over 50 people at the conference, of whom over 40 were delegates, reflecting both the relatively small size and the isolation of the Union. In part this is due to the unofficial alliance between the left organisations and the existing union bureaucracy, indicated by socialist ‘heroes,’ representing the loyal opposition within the unions, whose role in the runup to the conference was to attack the IWU and defend the official bureaucracy by using the anonymity of the internet.

Another striking weakness was indicated by the nature of the motions. Among others, motions called for An Post to develop a state banking service, for the tax take on banks to be doubled, for disciplinary action to be taken against Ministers and government officials who squander public money, condemned outsourcing in the public service, and called for gas, oil and mineral resources to be taken back into public ownership.  These motions would have been unexceptional in other unions, where delegates are trying to force a hostile bureaucracy to adopt a left position. Here, where the members already have democratic control of the union, they obscured the need for a strategy to meet the aspirations of the members.

The one clear element of strategy was to advance the cause of the union through recruitment. Much of its work is aimed at organising people at the most oppressed levels of the workforce. Individual cases are fought at the Labour Court, Employment Appeals Tribunal and at the Rights Commissioners.  This strategy has had some limited support.  The initial union had about 700 members, The General Secretary, Noel Murphy, reported that the IWU now has over 1,000 members, 7 branches and 3 offices – in Cork, Dublin and Monaghan. 

There is however no prospect that this strategy will lead to the union becoming a dominant force in the workers movement.  The fact is, a section of the IWU have an alternate strategy, unveiled in a fanfare at the start of the conference when secretary Noel Murphy announced a proposal for unity from the ATGWU.

The announcement highlighed the central problem facing the IWU. A section of the leadership remains wedded to the idea of building a unity with a 'left' bureaucracy that has broken from ICTU and rejected social partnership (see: The Awkward Squad ).

Central to this scenario is the figure of Mick O'Reilly of the ATGWU. In fact the IWU itself was formed in the expectation that Mick, locked in battle with ICTU and the leadership of his own union, would leave the ATGWU and appear at the forefront of a new mass left trade union movement (see: New Union Launched In Cork). In the event Mick retained his job as secretary of the ATGWU and ATGWU remained within ICTU and within partnership. The IWU fell back on a strategy of individual recruitment.

This new unity proposal shows that the original strategy is not dead, despite the facts that: 

  • Mick, despite his criticism of social partnership, does not reject it, as the IWU does.
  • The ATGWU remains inside ICTU, the IWU outside.
  • The IWU prides itself on its internal democracy - not something either Mick or ATGWU are famous for.
  • A new union struggle against partnership would also involve building a new political organisation of the working class. Mick is a member of the labour party - even more collaborationist on the political front than ICTU are on the industrial front!

In the event the proposal to join with ATGWU was roundly rejected by delegates. It was not however withdrawn; Secretary Murphy simply remarking that it would be a long time before there was further activity around the issue.

The lack of an agreed strategy represents a serious problem for the union. Up until now they have been able to grow through representing individual cases and taking up the cases of superexploited migrant workers. In the aftermath of Irish ferries the ICTU unions are trying to bolster their positions by using the legal elements of partnership to secure minimum wage. Its a strategy that will eventually make the minimum wage the maximum wage, but in the meantime the greater size of the ICTU unions could strangle the IWU.

The IWU have some strengths to play to. They have recruited a significant number of migrant workers. They have representatives of these workers on their executive and they have established connections with unions in the home countries. They have succeeded in doing this because they stand, not for the minimum wage for migrant workers, but for the full equality that will alone preserve workers rights in Ireland.

There is one other weapon. The right to associate membership holds out the possibility of linking militants in many unions and beginning an effective fight against the betrayals of social partnership.

The irony of the situation is that the IWU are ignored by the socialist organisations because of these organisations links to the official union bureaucracy, yet the union leadership hold some of the illusions held by their left critics! The latest plans of ICTU, involving a ten-year deal on social partnership, will leave no room for illusions.  The IWU, and the working class in general, will have to fight the existing union bureaucracy or face an historic defeat.


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