Return to Trade Unions/Social Partnership menu
New IWU Health branch

The questions around trade union remobilisation

John McAnulty

26 June 2008

At a function in the Dockers Club in Belfast in May a new organisation of health workers, Universi, was formed.  Its formation raises anew the questions surrounding the decay of the official trade union movement and the possibilities of regroupment by the working class.

Unversi is a new union branch of the Independent Workers Union, becoming its health branch in the North. It was formed by former members of the new ‘superunion’ Unite, itself recently formed from a fusion of two unions, Amicus and ATGWU. The members of the new union, former members of the Amicus section, allege quite blatant collaboration between trade union officials and bosses against the interests of their members.

Present at the function were members of the ATGWU section of Unite, former airport workers just off hunger strike in protest at the union’s refusal to pay legal fees incurred when the union betrayed them and left them to fight a major industrial and legal dispute alone.  The dispute is based on the worker’s refusal to sign a ‘gagging clause’ binding them to silence over the betrayal.

The presence of these two groups at the foundation of the new health branch is a testimony to the rotten state of the Irish trade union movement today, a state confirmed by daily stories of betrayal from every corner of the island.

It is very understandable that militants are struggling to free themselves from the chains of social partnership, a formal process in the South, slightly less formal in the North, in both parts of Ireland a disgusting conspiracy between bureaucrats and bosses.  It is natural that that struggle for freedom might lead them to break from a corrupt movement. Our sympathy should not blind ourselves to the dangers of this strategy.  At worst the bosses and scabs will combine together to smash the new union. At best they will manoeuvre to isolate the militants and slowly strangle the new organisation.

The decision has been made and the main job now is to try and ensure that the new movement survives.  To do that it needs to come out fighting and outline an alternative policy to that of class collaboration. 

However a number of comments at the founding function betrayed a traditional ‘Labourist’ view that has in the past obstructed the formation of a class struggle movement in the North. The secretary of the Dockers Club, welcoming those attending, boasted of the long history of the club where dockers, divided unto different sites on the basis of religion, could leave politics behind at the door of the club.

Gordon McNeill, ATGWU/UNITE hunger striker, expressed a similar view when he suggested that he and his fellow workers had been able to unite around the immediate demands for fair pay and trade union representation and leave ‘Orange and Green issues’ to one side.

In practice it has been the view of the IWU, which has concentrated on individual recruitment on bread and butter issues rather than on broad campaigns that challenge the traditional unions.

The labourist view is the traditional view, and it has left class politics on the margins of Irish politics.  In our view class struggle is not something that fits into the cracks of a sectarian society, but a bold alternative in the revolutionary tradition of James Connolly. It is not something that is restricted to ‘bread and butter’ politics, but involves workers opposing the denial of democracy represented by partition and posing the unity of the Irish working class in a Workers Republic as the alternative.

A new trade union alternative does not have to deal with every question immediately.   It develops policy as it deals with immediate issues.  One opportunity arose at the Belfast Socialist Forum meeting on the 12th of June, when leading experts from Britain and Ireland detailed the need for a workers fightback against the privatisation drive in the health services.  Universi met this challenge, with IWU president Patricia Campbell stepping forward to chair the meeting and agreeing to co-ordinate a network of activists following the discussion.

There is however a broader problem.  The Independent Workers Union, through its opposition to social partnership and by standing outside ICTU, already holds to a central policy in the fight to rebuild the workers movement. In practice it has not followed through, with opposition to social partnership being expressed as moral outrage rather than leading to concrete campaigns and with the union invisible when potential mobilisations, such as the campaign against hospital co-location in the South, begin to form. 

The union has a new opportunity with a new base in the North, it can revitalise itself and launch a new campaign across Ireland to put itself at the centre of the fightback.  It has a key organisational instrument in that it allows for dual membership, so that it could serve as the nucleus of a rank and file movement across the unions.

The choices are simple.  It’s fight or die.


Return to top of page