The Good News and the Bad News

Perhaps 15 January 1998 might come to be regarded as the day the 'long dark night' of Irish trade unionism began to end. On that day, an unofficial rank and file group of construction workers, Building Workers Against the Black Economy, led about 100 members of various unions on two mass pickets of two building sites, in defiance of two High Court injunctions brought by Cramptons, who are effectively refusing union recognition and insisting that striking BATU members are employed by sub-contractors who are refusing to regard them as PAYE workers. [A prize to the first entry to identify all the issues facing the trade union movement listen within the above paragraph!]

On the same day, 150 shop stewards and other 'part-time officers' of SIPTU members at Dublin airport met to discuss ways of helping the striking baggage handlers at Ryanair. At one point the full-time officials were asked to leave so that, according to the Aviation Branch president, members could have a "very full and frank discussion of how Ryanair staff could be supported effectively."

The difference between these heartening developments of rank and file action and those of days of yore is that while the 70s cases were mostly of members acting in defiance of their officials and leaders, both of the above are remarkable for members acting unofficially in parallel with and with the tacit consent, almost, of the officials; for simply doing what BEFORE THE 1990 ACT would have been normal trade union practice.

In other words the Act, or rather the Unions passive compliance with the Act, is sidelining the union officials, or they're sidelining themselves, and obliging them to stand aside for quasi rank and file bodies, acting under a 'flag of convenience', such as Building Workers Against the Black Economy or a Branch general meeting without an official, to take the initiative. Watch for more of this.

The bad news. Parallel but running in the opposite direction to this 'resurgence of the industrial struggle' is a series of attacks by employers and closures which are meeting little or no resistance and fly in the face of the triumphant headline of Tiger job- creation. Closure after depressing closures: AST, Premier Rathfarnham, Assurance Dungarvan, Applied Magnetics; Compsie (Derry), Arklow Pottery, ACCO (Dublin), Borden (Athy and Mallow), Apple (Dublin).

In many cases the workers are treated like serfs (Clara Candy Finglas closed at Christmas, workers informed by post; Millfield Cork, closed after Christmas, first shift told they had one hour to leave premises, others told when turned up at door.

Tara Mines, after bleeding the ore for years, blackmail the workers into accepting higher productivity under pain of closure; when the SIPTU miners and general operatives refuse instead of leading a fight, Congress down to the shop stewards begin a campaign to persuade the miners to accept the cuts and the extra work. The Tara changes were a joint management-union proposal. Partnership in action!

It need not be like this. But our movement is totally bereft of the notion of fighting closures and threatened closures and the will to do it. While the initiative and imagination involved in SIPTU's intervention in the Seagate closure was tremendous and innovative, the sad fact is that had they been SIPTU members as the Packard workers were, the Union would have had nothing different to say as regards avoiding the closure, whatever about offering advice, service and negotiating better redundancy terms. The market cannot be fought; you can't stop a closure; that's what almost anyone in a position to offer leadership in a closure in SIPTU believes. But the Rathfarnham and Dungarvan closures can be stopped.

Making Tara Mines into a political issue and linking up a few of the other simultaneous closures and making them into a political issue would put a different complexion on these closures. Two occupations in the Clonshaugh Industrial Estate, at the same time! It couldn't happen. No, building workers don't defy injunctions any more. Shop stewards from outside companies don't consider sympathetic action anymore. You don't even get 150 stewards and reps at meetings any more!

Correspondence to SIPTU Fightback, 22 Melrose Avenue, Dublin 3

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