Last Saturday 70 activists from from a range of unions including SIPTU, UNITE, MANDATE, CPSU, PSEU, BATU, TEEU, IMPACT, IWU, TUI, INTO ASTI met at a forum organised under the title ‘Reclaim the Unions’. The purpose of the meeting was twofold. Firstly it was an opportunity for trade union activists to discuss the state of the trade union movement in the wake of three years of attacks on jobs, pay and conditions from governments and employers during which the leadership of the trade union movement has failed to offer a fighting lead to the membership. From there we could then discuss the measures necessary to prepare for the attacks that lie ahead.
In the discussion, chaired by Eddie Conlon of the TUI executive there was a common understanding that a combination of factors have weakened the trade union movement. Institutionalised Social Partnership from 1987 until 2008 largely robbed a generation of trade unionists of the opportunity of being trained up as militant activists by taking on their employer locally to advance and defend pay and conditions. Likewise the lack of a real radical alternative to the cuts agenda from the trade union leaders, even among those who opposed social partnership and the Croke Park deal, means that they implicitly accept the attacks and offer no strategy of sustained resistance to the membership.
The discussion moved on to what steps were needed to rebuild the combativity of the trade union movement. A genuine debate emerged as to whether it was a better strategy to develop activist groups within the existing unions to fight the bureaucracies along the lines of the CPSU Activist Group and the newly created ASTI Fightback whose successful launch was explained by Andrew Phelan. An alternative view was argued by some construction worker activists and Dave Cotter from the IWU that the efforts of genuine union activists would be better spent taking people out of the existing unions and either switching to better unions or building new militant organisations from scratch like the IWU.
The prevailing view in the discussion articulated by Stephen Boyd (UNITE) and Kieran Allen, President of the SIPTU Education branch and Tadhg Kenehan from IMPACT Dublin City Council was that while there was some exceptional cases in which the movement of members from one union to another was warranted, in general it was better to stay and fight in order to avoid the danger of separating the best fighting elements in the unions from the broad membership who are then left in the thrall of the right wing leadership.
Terry Kelleher from the CPSU Activist Group and Owen McCormack now in SIPTU’s Dublin Bus branch lead off the second session by making proposals for where to take this initiative. It was proposed and agreed that a national network of trade union activists would be built and formally launched at a conference in September. A committee to organise the conference was elected. It was also agreed to organise a protest at the ICTU conference in Kerry in July.
An extensive network of activists spread across all sectors and key work places can be a structure through which solidarity can be built for strikes and campaigns that emerge. Very importantly a trade union activists network can be a means of quickly disseminating into the workplaces the key lines of political argument that answer the cut back consensus of the bosses and politicians as well as the defeatist arguments of the trade union leaders.
With further attacks in sight on REA and ERO rates mainly affecting private sector workers; 25,000 job cuts and attacks arising from the Croke Park deal in the public sector and privatisation of assets in the commercial semi state sector it is clear that the organised working class has major battles on its hands in the months and years ahead. This first step in building a network of trade union activists can ultimately make a big difference in ensuring that the thousands of workers who want to fight can link up with the best fighters in the movement and defeat government and employer austerity.