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Trade Union activists meet in Dublin

Joe Craig

8th May 2005

Around thirty people met at the headquarters of the ATGWU in the second meeting of a ‘Trade Union Activists Forum’ to discuss cooperation among socialists active in the trade unions. A majority but not all of the activists were members of left political organisations.

The meeting kicked off with a number of presentations, the first of which was by Eddie Conlon of the Teachers Union of Ireland on social partnership. In a comprehensive paper he outlined how profits had surged over the period of the Celtic Tiger while wages had risen much less and how the share of wages in the economy had therefore fallen from 77% in 1971-80 to 55% in 2003. The figures for the EU15 and the US were 74% to 68% and 70% to 66% respectively. Workers in the Irish State have therefore witnessed a much greater fall in the wage share of national income than even the United States.

Prices meanwhile were 13% above the EU average in 2002, second highest in the EU, while personal debt has increased from 43% of disposable income in 1990 to 69% in 2001. Taxation has fallen but inequalities in taxation have increased as taxation on consumption has risen. Its share of the economy is higher here than in the EU, 26% vs 20% of Gross Domestic Product. Tax evasion is enormous – 41 people earning over €500,000 paid no tax at all in 2001 while in 1999/2000 the average effective rate of tax on the average industrial wage was 20% while 73% of the top 117 earners paid less than this.

The social wage has fallen from around 21% in 1992 to 14% in 2001, against an EU average of 28%, and the risk of slipping into poverty for those in work has increased from 3.2% in 1994 to 9.2% in 2003. Inequality of income has increased.

The Irish State is now renowned for its flexibility in the workplace with ‘low job security, substantially more workers on low wages and fewer workers rights.’ Changes to conditions are more and more made unilaterally with no consultation with workers or their representatives.

All in all a searing indictment of social partnership.


The next speaker, Owen McCormack of the Bus and Rail Union and SWP, reported on the issue of privatisation, arguing that far from rejecting ideological positions the trade union movement needed to declare loudly that it did have an ‘ideological hang-up’ about privatisation. Privatisation was all about profits for big business and it was necessary to oppose it, not because the semi-state companies were ‘workers paradises’ but because the alternative was worse – involving attacks on workers terms and conditions.

The speaker emphasised the importance of current moves to privatise Aer Lingus and of this being resisted, not just because of the intrinsic importance of the company but because of its significance for the rest of the public sector. The speaker also condemned the recent ICTU proposal, made without reference to the membership, to create a State holding company which would have ownership of all semi-state companies vested in it and which would then sell a share to the private sector in a bid to raise money for much needed investment. This investment, he said should be made by the State itself. He argued that recent industrial action by bus workers had successfully held off the threat of privatisation at CIE.

Unfortunately this represents only a partial picture of what is happening as the recent annual financial report of the company reveals that of its €240m turnover €70m is subcontracted out, i.e. it is already privatised.

Migrant Workers

The next speaker was a migrant worker from South Africa who said that he is treated as if he chose this country to come to but that he considers that after all the telephone calls for months pestering him to come to the country it is Ireland that chose him! He argued that the situation facing non-national workers is more like bonded labour than free wage labour. The holding of work permits, and sometimes passports, by the employer puts all the power in their hands. This permits migrants to work for only one year at a time, only the employer can renew the permit, workers cannot get resident status and spouses and family cannot work. This puts severe strains on relationships and he told of one person he knows who recently committed suicide because of these strains.

Trade unions meanwhile sign migrant workers up, take their dues and do nothing to represent or defend them. Often the workers do not even know they are in a union. He told of one worker he knows who works in a restaurant in O’Connell Street who gets €5 per hour, works seven days a week and hasn’t had a holiday in seventeen months! Migrant workers like these are scared and he appealed to Irish trade unionists to help them.


The next speaker was meant to be the Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins but although he was unable to attend another SP member related what was happening to the Turkish workers at GAMA who have been in the headlines because of bank accounts held in their name in Holland but which until recently they knew nothing about!

The workers were demanding the proper rate for the job and access to their accounts. This had more or less been won but the outstanding issue remains remuneration for the enormous amount of overtime that they had worked in the past and which the company is refusing to pay out because to do so would involve them admitting to breaking the law in relation to working hours.

The speaker noted that other construction firms had wondered how GAMA had been able to tender for work at half the cost and taking half the time. There’s no mystery now!

East European workers have been brought in to do the Turkish workers work but the real scandal has been the role of SIPTU. It is reckoned that the union has taken over €250,000 in dues from the Turkish workers but it has done nothing for them, accepting the word of the government that everything to do with the employment of the workers was ok.

For the speaker the key lessons revealed in this dispute were the nervousness of the bureaucracy about struggles which breach the 1990 Industrial Relations Act and the qualitative depth reached in the rottenness of the trade union leaders.


The next speaker was Mick O’Reilly of the ATGWU who recorded the declining strength of the Irish union movement from around 50% of private sector workers unionised in 1960 to around 20% today. He argued that the problem was not one of legal rights since these are probably better now than in times past although he did point to the pernicious objective of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act which outlaws a basic practice of trade unionism – solidarity action.

He attacked the policy of unions seeking pre-production agreements which he called beauty contests in which union leaders compete with each other in promising that their union will allow worse terms and conditions for workers as long as they are their members. He noted that these types of agreements no longer take place because unions are too weak to bargain for them!

He said that his union was impressed by the activities of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the USA led by Andrew Stern which has managed to grow its union while the US union movement has been in dramatic decline. (Stern has been described by the mainstream press and media as someone who ‘intends to create a new, more dynamic labour movement’, and who has ‘turned SEIU into a model for other unions’.)

The ATGWU thus intends to spend a lot of money increasing its membership and not doing what currently many trade union officials do – refusing members because more members just mean more work dealing with complaints and problems. He said that the union bureaucracy was itself now worried about the decline in membership.

He finished by saying that the union movement needed a political strategy.


In the afternoon a member of the steering committee which had organised the meeting put forward a draft platform for the network. This consisted of thirteen points including opposition to social partnership, privatisation, ‘repeal or reform’ of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act and ‘democratic trade unions run by the members.’ He noted that the number of strikes was now the lowest in history, that union density was declining, that between 1990 and 2002 just 8% of new private sector jobs were unionised and that opposition was now isolated and sporadic. From anti-social partnership campaigns that only existed when the deals were made we have moved to a situation where there was no campaign over the last deal.

He proposed that a network be created which would have a bulletin/newsletter and that a conference be organised in September.

In the open discussion a number of comments were made. An SP speaker said that the point on democratic unions needed elaboration, although it became clear that no one was presenting the draft programme as the finished article.

The worker from South Africa pointed out the danger to Irish workers of the lower wages, terms and conditions which migrant workers were placed under and noted that while migrant workers would leave the country Irish workers would be here to suffer the consequences of increased levels of exploitation.

An American worker, obviously well informed, called into question the example of the SEIU which he said had failed to fight anti-trade union laws and had given no political lead to American workers through its massive ($80m!) support for the Democratic Party and its millionaire candidate John Kerry.

A speaker from the Independent Workers Union called ICTU and SIPTU the most corrupt organisations in the country and challenged the leadership of the ATGWU to leave Congress.

In response a member of the steering committee recalled the example of the teachers’ union ASTI which had left Congress but which he said was now going to rejoin. He then made a puzzling remark. He said something along the lines of the network not making opposition to social partnership a condition of unity. It was not taken up and it was not clear, at least to this observer, what exactly was meant but the question should nevertheless be addressed.

Our view

The list of policies proposed for the Group is deserving of support even if some formulations could be improved, for example why the hesitation in the formulation calling for the ‘repeal or major reform’ of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act?

The general point to be made however is not so much the demands themselves but their priority and focus. The focus should be on opposing social partnership and the priority of policies should be reviewed. For example the need for democratic trade unions is listed second last but should be first or second.

There is the nagging feeling that below such differences lie unresolved problems about what the network should be for. Kevin Keating, when intervening into the debate for Socialist Democracy, welcomed the new acknowledgement from left activists that the working class had suffered severe defeats. Until now a numbing optimism has characterised left analysis of what has been happening to the labour movement.

Elements of this still remain. Some speakers were reluctant to accept the argument and pointed to some signs of fight back and general unpopularity of some attacks on workers such as privatisation. Kevin responded by noting that acknowledging the defeats that have taken place and the new attacks in the pipeline is not invalidated by pointing to limited signs of fightback or the need for one. No one challenged the very gloomy picture of the trade unions painted by Mick O’Reilly or challenged the facts of corruption of the unions in relation to migrant workers. Also new, he noted, was the emphasis on opposing social partnership and the rotten nature of the trade union bureaucracy.

All this will ultimately be clarified by the new group deciding on not only the letter of its programme but its essential purpose. Some at the meeting seemed to lay emphasis on creating a web site as a resource for trade unionists. Welcome as this would be, it would be wrong for the group to see itself as a simple resource for trade unionists. Instead it should be a campaigning body standing on a clear platform of opposition to social partnership.

The remark by a member of the steering committee that this policy should not be a condition of unity would be unobjectionable if what is meant is that the group should campaign along with workers in struggle without laying this down as a condition. It would be wrong however if what is being muted is that opposition to social partnership should not be the policy of the network/group itself.

To refuse to unite the group in opposition to social partnership would be to bring trade union politics into the socialist movement, not socialist politics into the trade unions.

The purpose of socialists uniting in a trade union network is not to create workers struggles but to support and give some political understanding and leadership to those involved. The purpose of the group intervening will not just be to build solidarity but to explain how any particular struggle fits into the social partnership scheme, how resistance might be built and to warn of the treacherous nature of the union bureaucracy.

The hesitation in going beyond the project of calling a conference in September reflects not just past failures (one speaker mentioned that we had all been here before many, many times over the past twenty or more years) but uncertainty over just exactly what the group is for. One member of the steering group wanted an event in July raising the questions of the health service and the EU constitution but this appeared to fall. The speaker was right however to reflect a certain worry that things are proceeding so slowly.

Our view is that the body should build itself as a campaigning organisation which at present should constitute itself as a propaganda group taking up all the issues affected by social partnership. This should be the routine of its activity whether through a web site or regular printed material such as a newsletter which would be distributed to trade unionists and at conferences/meetings/demonstrations.

Beyond this it should seek to intervene into disputes in support of workers in struggle. Kevin Keating proposed taking up the issue of public money funding the exploitation of GAMA workers through picketing Dublin Council. This was not taken up but it is an example of what should be done.

Hesitation arises from past failures but agreement on policy and a beginning of regular activity can quickly inspire more confidence and recruit new forces. This is the perspective that should be fought for at the planned September conference.


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