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The Awkward Squad

20th August 2004

The article below was first published in Fourthwrite, a contribution from a leading member of the new Independent Workers Union.  We see it as an important beginning to a necessary reflection on the regroupment of the workers movement, but we do have important differences with a number of points, outlined by John McAnulty below.  We would welcome a response from Joe himself or from anyone else anxious to discuss strategy. 

The Awkward Squad

Joe Moore, Cork trade unionist

May 1997 saw the return of a Labour Government in Britain after 18 years of Tory rule. During that 18 years, a most sustained onslaught was waged against the Trade Union Movement. Parallel to this all the State owned utility and transport companies were privatised. These privatisations resulted in huge job losses, a worsening of pay and conditions for those workers lucky enough to hold onto their jobs, and a deterioration of services for the public. Services that had been put in place with taxpayers money were now in the hands of multi-national companies whose only motive was profit.

The attack on the Unions was equally as devastating. Firstly the National Union of Mineworkers was defeated. The Tories had a personal vendetta against the NUM because of the role it played in bringing down Ted Heath’s Government in 1974. Thatchers attack on the NUM was going to be a fight to the finish. She was supported however in this endeavour by the role played by both TUC General Secretary, Norman Willis, and Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock. Their betrayal resulted in the miners having to fight the resources of the State, without the full support of the working class political and Trade Union establishments.

After a year long heroic struggle, the miners were defeated. After the miners, the next group of workers to be attacked were the printers. The catalyst for this fight was the move to Wapping of Murdocks printing works and the establishment of a non-union shop there. Again as with the miners, the workers struggled bravely. They were again supported by their rank and file colleagues but betrayed by Willis and Kinnock. With the defeat of the printers, the Tories goals became easier to achieve. Despite determined isolated struggles, the Trade Union Movement as a whole had been beaten by our class enemies using the law, the police the judiciary, the media and unfortunately class traitors within the trade union and labour movement.  The election of the Blair Government was seen as the end of a long winter and the beginning of a new dawn for the Trade Union Movement. Blair and company had different ideas however. Not alone were privatised utilities not nationalised but privatisation was taken further into areas not even attempted by the Tories, with the use of Private Finance Initiatives and Public Private Partnerships. Thus health care, education and local services are being handed over to the financial backers of New Labour.

Neither was anti-Trade Union legislation repealed. It was however used against any group of workers who dared to challenge the concept that the “market” determined everything. This caused a serious dilemma for the Unions.  A Labour government was preferable to a Tory one, the Labour Party was the political voice of the Unions, Unions supported the Labour Party financially, yet Labour in Government was no different than the Tories. This led to increased tensions between both wings of the labour movement.  Opponents of the government began to win elections for senior Union posts. Firstly a relatively unknown train driver from Leeds, Mick Rix, won the General Secretary election in ASLEF. This was followed by Bob Crow in RMT, Mark Serwotka in PCS, Billy Hayes in the CWU, Andy Gilchrist in the FBU and Tony Woodley in the T&G. All stood on a platform totally opposed to New Labour policy. The biggest upset for Tony Blair was the defeat of his “favourite” union leader, “Sir” Ken Jackson as general secretary of new union AMICUS by Derek Simpson. While all of the above are totally opposed to current Government policy, they differ on what tactics to use. Those on the left, like Serwotka, want to build a political force to the left of New Labour. Others for example Woodley want to “reclaim” Labour from Blair and Co.

The election of these left wing leaders, called the “awkward squad”, has been accompanied by a growth in rank and file activity. Rank and file newspapers have been established by activists in the Communications Workers Union, Fire Brigades Union and the PSC public service union. The election of left wing activists into leadership positions alone is not enough to take on employers and challenge government policy. It needs to be accompanied by a growth in rank and file activity.

While the above gives a brief overview of the situation in Britain, what is the shape of the Irish Trade Union Movement? Do we have an awkward squad?  Let us look at those who would claim to be on the left and are opposed to the Governments policies on privatisation and Public Private Partnerships. The most prominent of these, given his position as President of SIPTU the biggest union in the country, is Jack O’Connor. O’Connor has made numerous statements against Ireland’s involvement in the US led war against Iraq, the proposed privatisation of both Aer Rianta and CIE, and the Bin tax.

Let us examine O’Connor’s report card for 2003. During the year he faced three tests. We will look at each in turn and see how he did. 

Test No. 1.

Shannon Airport This civilian airport has been used by foreign military powers since at least the 1960’s. This is totally contrary to 26-county neutrality. The main user of this facility is the US government. Military traffic through Shannon has increased dramatically in the build up to both the war against Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003 alone an average of 14,000 US troops passed through Shannon each month. This does not include flights that carried military equipment, including weapons of mass destruction. This total disregard for our neutrality has resulted in Shannon Airport becoming a focal point for antiwar protests. These actions include demonstrations and blockades, as well as incidents of non-violent direct action by Mary Kelly and the Catholic Workers. The Government’s response has been to supply Garda and army protection for the US war machine, and to use the repressive might of the State against those who oppose the militarisation of the airport.

Where does Jack O’Connor fit into all this. He is on record as being opposed to the US led war carried out since 9/11. He has spoken out on the issue on numerous occasions. Could he have done more? The majority of staff in Shannon Airport are SIPTU members. Without the Co.-operation of these workers, the US military could not use Shannon. Has O’Connor called on his members to black the US war machine? No. Has he assured them that SIPTU would fully support any worker who took unilateral action on the issue? No. If that type of support and leadership was given then Fintan Lane, Mary Kelly and the Catholic Workers would not have had to spend time in prison. O’Connor failed test number 1.

Test No.2 July 2003

The ICTU Biennial Conference was held in Tralee, Co.. Kerry. As is usual at these conferences, a number of fraternal speakers address the delegates. These are usually officials from other European countries. They normally speak for about 15 minutes and receive a polite round of applause. One of last year’s speakers was in a different league entirely. His name was Luis Eduardo Garcia, from the Colombian Trade Union Sinaltrainal. Luis was in Ireland as part of a wider tour to promote a boycott of Coca-Cola because of it’s role in the murder of Colombian Trade Unionists. Luis got a standing ovation in Tralee. The Conference decided to unanimously support the boycott. Luis subsequently addressed a fringe meeting in Tralee which was attended by over 50% of the delegates. Again he received unanimous support.

However once delegates returned home things changed. Support for the Coke boycott began to fade. In fact a trade union campaign against the boycott was launched. This campaign was led by SIPTU. What was Jack O’Connor’s reply? Silence. He failed his second test.

Test No 3. Bin-tax

The arguments against all local authority service charges on the basis that they are a double form of taxation are well known. SIPTU are totally opposed to these charges. Jack O’Connor has been to the fore in this opposition. Last September, Fingal County Council began a policy of refusing to collect the bins of those householders who would not pay the bin-tax. The residents responded by blockading the refuse trucks. The local authority replied by using the Gardai and the courts against the campaign. This resulted in over 20 people being imprisoned, including Joe Higgins T.D.
The workers employed by the local authorities to collect the bins are SIPTU members. If they were given support by their Union to refuse to implement the Council’s policy, then the bin-tax could be defeated. Jack O’Connor refused to give leadership on the issue. Local residents let their feelings be known on the matter when they booed O’Connor at a public rally outside Mountjoy Jail. Again O’Connor had failed his final test. If Jack O’Connor is not a candidate for the awkward squad, then who is?

The other prominent opponent of neo-liberalism is Mick O’Reilly of the ATGWU.  Mick is not only opposed to privatisation but was also prominent in the campaign against the Nice referendum and has continually opposed social partnership.  Because he is a genuine member of the awkward squad, Mick was suspended from his position on false charges. This suspension lasted over two years. Some people are of the view that the political establishment had a role in this suspension. If this was the case it is proof that Mick is a real threat to the status quo.

Another Trade Unionist who bucked the system is Brendan Ogle. (All Fourthwrite readers should read his book “Off the Rails”) He clearly explains what those who challenge the Trade Union establishment can expect. ILDA was on its own an awkward squad. Despite all the pressure applied the train drivers remained united and still remain to this day as part of the ATGWU.Other prominent opponents of class collaboration include Dick Roche of the Waterford Trades Council, Clare Daly in Dublin Airport, Des Derwin currently challenging the establishment in the SIPTU Vice-Presidential election and Owen McCormack of Dublin Bus.
The establishment of the Independent Workers Union marked a milestone in militant trade unionism. This union is not affiliated to Congress and is totally opposed to partnership with the bosses. Its General Secretary , Noel Murphy is indeed a fully paid up member of the awkward squad.  While the Irish Trade Union movement does not yet have the equivalent of Britain’s Awkward Squad, there are hopeful signs out there of the beginning of a fight back against over 16 years of social partnership and collaboration with a right wing neo-liberal agenda.

Another view of The Awkward Squad

John Mc Anulty

Joe Moore, in his article on The Awkward Squad, provides a brief summary of the development of the British union movement since the rise of Thatcherism. Joe gives his main focus to the defeat of the trade union movement by the state and the power of capital. In my view in my view greater emphasis should be given to the surrender and betrayal of their members by the trade union leaders. It is worth remembering that the trade union legislation restricting the right to strike were only imposed after a number of unsuccessful attempts. The British government made a mistake in its first attempts in targeting individual workers. Workers defiance, their willingness to go to jail and the mass solidarity that was produced defeated the government plans. No such difficulties were faced when the government aimed instead at the trade union bureaucracy. They refused consistently over a long period of time to put themselves in a position where their own salaries and the union assets on which their salaries and pensions were based would be put at risk. 

Having refused absolutely to fight the anti-union laws the trade union leadership essentially abandoned the miners to their fate. Protestations of solidarity were aimed more at disguising their role than at offering any real help. The defeat of the miner's strike then became the justification for a policy of craven surrender to all the hammer blows of Thatcherism that were then rained on the working class. The official policy became " waiting for Tony".

It should have been no real surprise, after decades of working-class defeat, to find that Tony felt no real need to meet the needs of the class and that fact was committed to the extension of the Thatcherite experiment. The policy of the trade union leadership then became one of appeasement of New Labour. When Tony Blair attacked the working-class the role of the trade union leadership was to appease, to be ‘realistic’ and to get whatever crumbs they could.

Given this background and the viciously right wing nature of the Blair government is hardly surprising that the official trade union strategy is in crisis or that people willing to criticise the failures of that policy in their election programmes are beginning to be elected within the trade union movement. We should welcome these changes as an indication that working-class militants are beginning to regroup and look for an alternative, but we should be cautious about grouping all the new leadership together or thinking that a new policy based on mobilising the working class to challenge capital will arise spontaneously from this disparate group, some of whom, after all, have been prominent figures throughout the years of betrayal. 

The best of the new crop of leaders have indicated a willingness to break from Labour and found a new party, but they have not actually proposed a new party or begun to mobilise any section of their membership around this project. 

Others can't really be defined as being in opposition to Labour. Any examination of the fire brigades union tactics would indicate a desperate attempt to avoid a conflict despite constantly being kicked by the labour government. Tony Woodley of the ATGWU is in fact one of four major union leaders to indicate trade union support for Labour in the elections and for Tony Blair as Labour leader for a further term. In return the union leaders have been offered concessions on holidays but to win this concession they have signed up to a new Labour policy based around a massive assault on public services and the sacking of tens of thousands of civil servants. 

The danger of taking too seriously the ins and outs of the trade union bureaucracy is that it will distract us from the bigger picture – the task of mobilising a rank and file movement of workers willing to take democratic control of the movement and build both a political and industrial challenge to capital. 

In Ireland I accept completely Joe's critique of Jack O'Connor. At a certain level O'Connor's role in the trade union movement is blindingly obvious. However the points have to be made because they are not accepted by the Irish socialist organisations who constantly promote O'Connor and his ilk. The left parade the ICTU leadership at anti-war and anti-privatisation rallies in the hope that a broad platform that ignores politics can generalise support. This opportunism even leads the left to ignore workers attacking O'Connor in favour of their links with the bureaucracy, as happened in during in the bin tax protests. 

O'Connor fails the tests that Joe sets for him, but Mick O'Reilly, whom Joe puts forward as a leader of the awkward squad, fails a number of tests himself. It is true that Mick came under very sustained attack from the Irish trade union establishment for relatively minor criticisms of the partnership agreements. However, despite the fact that a number of workers did try to organise in his support Mick at no stage was he willing to come out from behind the bureaucracy and publicly organise rank and file workers. The result was that he won his position in the bureaucracy at a cost of the political fight against partnership.

The search for an awkward squad fails because it is not a useful concept. In Ireland as in Britain a renewed trade union and socialist movement will not come about spontaneously through the clumping together of dissident elements of the existing bureaucracy. Rather we should look for the emergence of rank and file structures, independent of the existing bureaucracy, from which we can learn by exploring different strategies and policies. 

From this perspective the different members proposed for the awkward squad all have something to say about methods of struggle.  For Socialist Democracy the chief lesson of the O’Reilly battle is the extent to which involvement in the backstairs manoeuvring in the bureaucracy can actively prevent rank and file involvement.  Much more interesting are the lessons of Brendan Ogle’s campaign to represent the train drivers.  At the current time he has found a home in the ATGWU, but it is clear that this represents something of a prison, with a massive vote for strike action by his members diverted by the ATGWU union leadership into a long drawn out court action.  From his earlier attempt to set up an independent union we learn the extent to which the union bosses will unite with employers and government to smash independent action.

Now the IWU has been set up, with some legal protection.  An urgent task that faces it is to open dialogue with the vast majority of workers inside the official trades union structures, in order that we can strike together and prevent the isolation of the new union. 

The concepts of rank and file democracy and of unity in action are likely to be more useful than putting our faith in the awkward squad.


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