March 2017        

Our class needs a strong labour movement

Tommy McKearney

Do you recall the old Joe Hill song “The Preacher and the Slave,” which included the great line “Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”? The song was composed over a century ago, and some may believe that harsh working conditions are a thing of the past. For those who think that, we now have a different, more enlightened type of capitalist employer.
     Then consider a recent posting in the “situations vacant” columns of a rural newspaper. The advertisement read:
. . . we currently require a pool of casual staff that may be called upon at short notice to work in various roles that arise within our health foods, bakery, dairy, and retail departments. It is important that applicants are flexible in their approach to their hours of work, as these roles will involve weekdays, evenings, weekend and night shifts.
      This employer is based in Co. Armagh but advertised for workers in Co. Monaghan—proof, if it were needed, that neo-liberalism and exploitation of the working class transcend partition.
     As this advertisement was appearing, workers in the local Tesco branch in Monaghan were preparing to strike for one of the most basic of rights: to have a long-standing contract observed by the management.
     Moreover, as Mandate members were getting ready to take action, the media were reporting Bus Éireann’s decision to cut its employees’ terms and conditions while also closing important bus services between rural Ireland and Dublin. And all the while the minister with responsibility, the otherwise stridently verbose Shane Ross, was insisting that public transport in the Republic should be regulated by purely commercial considerations.
     It would appear that Ross’s only contribution to the provision of a public good is to remind us of James Connolly’s observation that governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class. Because, while the actions of Tesco and Bus Éireann are at present in the public eye, they are merely examples of an overarching campaign, backed by the state, to push down workers’ wages and undermine their terms and conditions in the work-place. Similar practices are commonplace throughout the manufacturing, retail and service sectors, while this type of pressure is also being felt by middle-ranking professionals.
     In spite of this, the Fine Gael-led coalition continues with its self-congratulatory line that, under the leadership of Enda Kenny and his accomplices, the Republic has experienced an economic recovery. They point to a recent report from the Central Statistics Office showing that the unemployment rate for January 2017 fell to 7.1 per cent from 7.2 per cent in December 2016.
     What the government’s spin doctors failed to say, though, is that the CSO also reported that, despite growth in employment, more than 100,000 people are working part-time,¹ because they can’t find full-time jobs. And, ominously, Ireland’s rate of low-paid employment is among the highest in the European Union. Moreover, privatisation in industries such as housing, health and care for the elderly, and the less visible but still onerous costs to parents of educating children, have all undermined the social wage.
     Against this backdrop, the balance of power on the shop floor has continued to move towards the employer. A striking member of Mandate told me that the Tesco management had threatened workers on short-term contracts that if they took part in the strike their contracts would not be renewed. Don’t forget either that many employers in the retail trade refuse union recognition altogether.
     What we are experiencing in Ireland (and it is happening north and south) is part of a global phenomenon as capital responds to the 2008 financial crisis. As Socialist Voice has repeatedly stated, the ruling class is taking advantage of the situation to strengthen its grip over the economy and society through the imposition of what is euphemistically called “austerity.” Nor should we be so naïve as to believe that this is happening by accident. Well-funded and corporate-supported schools of business studies are everywhere producing management cadres indoctrinated with a philosophy that a writer in the Financial Times recently described as hyena capitalism.
     To counteract this continuing offensive on the working class it is essential that organised labour is equipped with countervailing power. However, the capitalist ruling class everywhere has ruthlessly and indeed scientifically employed globalisation and contemporary technology to weaken the labour movement. The ease with which capital and labour can be migrated from country to country has intimidated many working people. As a result, trade union density in Ireland is falling in the private sector, and while it is still significant in the public sector all too often the struggle there is defensive.
     Put bluntly, as organised labour is at present structured, it is experiencing increasing difficulty in finding the necessary leverage to hold its own, let alone win intensive industrial disputes; and, worst of all, the bosses know this.
     Nevertheless, organised labour does have influence, and demonstrated this through the water tax protests, where it was the key in the mobilising of tens of thousands. Also worth noting is that falling sales in Tesco during the recent strike show that a sizeable section of the public supported the workers’ action and refused to pass the pickets.
     The trade union movement has to bring this asset to bear on all situations; and therein lies an avenue that must surely be pursued. The working class needs a strong labour movement, just as organised labour needs the active support of communities outside the work-place. There has to be a recognition within working-class communities that issues such as that of Tesco and Bus Éireann workers are matters of concern to all and must be actively supported by all.
     Achieving this will demand effort, and not just by trade union officials but by all left-wing activists. One suggestion would be to encourage a review of organised labour’s relationship with the wider community and how this can be improved and strengthened. There already exists a considerable body of research dealing with this issue and the concept of “community unionism” in general.² Such material could provide a basis for initial discussion, and indeed some of our unions have already made tentative steps in this direction.
     However, more must be done to harness people-power in the struggle to ensure that the balance of power swings back towards organised labour; and it’s a responsibility that all on the left must share.

1. Employment Monitor (Social Justice Ireland), no. 3, January 2017, p. 2, at http://bit.ly/2lZXdtu.
2. Just one example among others: Jane Holgate, Trade Union Involvement in Broad-Based Community Organising: A Comparative Study of London, Sydney and Seattle (University of Leeds, Working Paper no. 14), at http://bit.ly/2mDmSVJ.

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