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Independent Workers Union conference:
Déjà vu all over again? Is the IWU project at the end of the road?

8 April 2007

John McAnulty

The big question at the IWU conference in Letterkenny on 31st March was the same as the big question at every other conference since its foundation.  Will the union take Mick O’Reilly’s offer and join him (now in the new superunion of ATGWU and AMICUS) or will it continue as an independent union? 

The third option, that the IWU, through its system of associate members, would act as a focus for rank and file action across the Irish Trade union movement, seems to have fallen off the table.

Mick’s argument, the argument of the left bureaucracy in the Irish trade union movement, was so detailed that it deserves an article on its own.  In brief, he argued that the size of the new union generated resources that, used for recruitment and organisation, would enable the union to dominate entire sectors of the economy and thus have the muscle to defeat employers and government. 

Disarmingly, and unlike almost the entire Irish left, Mick accepted that the mass opposition to outsourcing and pay cuts at Irish Ferries had been defeated, that workers there were working at the minimum wage and that it was likely that many were working at below the minimum wage.  The way to victory now was through the new superunions. Of course, sign up to Mick means signing up to Mick’s unity drive towards Jack O’Connor and SIPTU, who are in turn absolutely committed to unity with the bosses through social partnership.

This rather lame argument looked attractive in relation to the main counterargument from the floor.  This was that the union could develop through individual recruitment, through local campaigns, through a non-party political orientation.

This is entirely wrong. A strategy of individual recruitment is to abstain from the big battles of the working class.  The campaigns that will involve the working class are national, not local.  Indeed, the local campaigns listed were marginal to the working class or not class based as all. One resolution, luckily defeated, advocated abstention from elections – a return to industrial syndicalism discredited for decades.

The outcome of this approach is a lack of realism and a throughgoing moralism. The resolutions are dominated by calls on the government, for example, calling on the government to legislate to protect the rights of migrant workers. These resolutions blissfully ignore the role of the government in ensuring the superexploitation of migrants, the ability of the union to change government policy, or the need for a strategic plan showing workers how they can protect themselves through their own actions.  The defining aspect of the union, opposition to social partnership, was the central theme of the secretary’s address to conference, but this opposition is worn as a moral statement dislocated from activity. In fact the IWU was invisible during the recent campaign when ICTU condemned the working class to 10 years handcuffed to the bosses through the ‘Towards 2016’ deal. It could only have been effective through an associate member programme that gave a voice to the anti-partnership minorities in other unions.  The lack of these structures also leaves the union on the sidelines as the crisis around the Nurses grows. Even on its website the IWU fails to take up this real and current struggle.

The IWU has many attractions – delegates who openly profess revolution, speakers from revolutionary organisations from the US and Latin America, a burning sense of injustice and oppression that are often filtered out of other union conferences.  However it cannot forever stand frozen between the two poles of Mick O’Reilly on the one hand and individual and local action on the other. In previous years a third option existed – associate members who had the potential to begin building a rank and file movement across the unions to fight the big battles against social partnership and against the issues of deregulation and privatisation linked to social partnership.  The time for the IWU to break out of a endless circle of false choices is long past.


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