The National Federation of Shop Stewards & 'New Liberty'

There is nothing new in the idea that ordinary trade unionists need to come together to look after our own interests, and the interests of the unemployed and the poor. It was done back in the 1970s to oppose the no-strike National Wage Agreements (forerunners of Partnership 2000). After the NWA was voted in the activists did not shut up shop and go home.

A national federation of shop stewards and rank & file committees was formed. Groups of union activists from Cork, Drogheda, Dundalk, Galway, Dublin, Sligo and Waterford immediately affiliated. Others followed later.

If we feel demoralised by a decade of 'social partnership' deals, it may be useful to quote from the first issue of the federation's paper, the "Trade Unionist':

Many people have asked "what are you are going to do now that the National Wage Agreement has been accepted?

The answer is simple. We will continue to fight for workers' rights. It has become obvious that democracy is dying in the trade union movement and it is equally obvious that the job of restoring all workers' rights lies in the hands of the workers themselves.

The time has come once again for the rank and file to organise, to mould ourselves into a cohesive unit, acting together to restore those rights which were handed down to us. There is an insidious force which is operating against the workers today: the combined strength of the Federated Union of Employers (now called IBEC), the Government and our trade union leaders. All of this is pitted against workers' efforts to raise our standard of living.

The only real strength a worker has is the right to withdraw labour. If any organisation supports the limiting or taking away of that right it will be acting in the interests of the bosses."

They agreed:

1. A return to free collective bargaining.
2. A national minimum wage.
3. A 35 hour week without loss of pay.
4. Full equality for women workers.
5. Five days work or five days pay.
6. Abolition of restrictions on the right to strike.
7. End of the two-tier picket system.
8. Withdrawal of the ICTU from the Employer/Labour Conference.
9. For greater democracy in the unions.
10. Joint union and rank & file committees at work and throughout industry.

The local committees in the federation fought for more democracy in the unions and brought workers into contact with each other so that they could give real solidarity to their brothers and sisters on strike. Among the better known strikes where this was seen were Crown Controls in Galway and Monique Clothing in Dublin.

Following on from this we saw the establishment of groupings like New Liberty in the ITGWU (a union that is now part of SIPTU), the AGEMOU(another union that has merged into SIPTU) rank & file group, and the Teachers Action Group. New Liberty supporters led one march of several hundred strikers from the electronics industry right into Liberty Hall when the officials showed reluctance to give proper service to the strikers. The Teachers Action Group can claim much of the credit for putting the issue of sexism in schoolbooks on their unions' agendas.

These groupings certainly did not achieve all they set out to do, but they were worthwhile. They did have their achievements. Today we can sit quietly and hope that 'someone else' will 'do something', or we can make a start now. We still have a need for struggle in our unions against the bosses, and against those officials who see the members as some sort of a problem to be kept under control.

We still need more (a lot more!) democracy in our unions, we need to get rid of rotten deals like Partnership 2000, we need to stop the cutbacks that hurt the poor and the unemployed, and we need to disobey and destroy the anti-strike provisions of the Industrial Relations Act.

If enough of us come together in an active campaigning network of trade unionists we can do it. This bulletin is one contribution towards creating that network.

Alan MacSimóin

Correspondence to SIPTU Fightback, 22 Melrose Avenue, Dublin 3

To the SIPTU Fightback page