'Partnership', trade unionism and anarchism

Nov 13, 1999

Alan MacSimóin (SIPTU branch committee and WSM member)


This is a talk given to a WSM meetings. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative in order to encourage discussion. Also it may be in note form and has not been further edited. Still I hope you find it useful. Other talks are here
Talk given by at 'Ideas & Action', November 13th 1999.

As Partnership 2000 nears the end of its three year term, talks are underway by the employers' organisation IBEC, the government and the ICTU to draw up a fifth national 'partnership' agreement.

Partnership in CIE and on the sites

While the economy is booming and the fear of unemployment has receded in most areas, our unions are not exactly overflowing with militancy. In fact we have seen an offensive by employers. Nobody needs reminding about Ryanair.

In Irish Rail the company is suing all eleven members of the executive committee of the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association, looking for hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages arising from the ILDA taking industrial action. Although the ILDA represents the majority of train drivers, and is a registered trade union it does not have a negotiation licence (these are granted by the government through the High Court). Having no licence means they have no legal immunity and can be sued for loss of earnings by their employer.

McNamara builders are trying to break the building workers' union BATU. When faced with a demand that bricklayers be directly employed (rather than through sub-contractors which means no continuity of employment, no PRSI benefits, no pensions, no sick pay, no tool money, etc.) McNamaras came back with their own demand that BATU lodge £1million as security against industrial action, that any bricklayer working on a McNamara site be allowed to join BATU if the company requested, and that this agreement be a legal contract registered with the High Court. This would mean that McNamaras could bring in strikebreakers at any time and insist they be allowed to join the union in order to vote against any industrial action!

And the silence from most union leaders has been deafening.

There has also been resistance. Strikes do still break out. Overtime bans and 'work to rules' are still used. But we should be clear that the ideology of 'partnership' is strong. Despite the wealth of the Tiger economy, despite the corruption of senior politicians and businesspeople; most workers see no alternative Ébecause they haven't been shown one. That is part of the reason for the nurses putting such emphasis on their being a 'special case' rather than simply saying 'we do the work, we want to be well paid for it'.

Are workers leaving the unions?

According to the ICTU's own figures the percentage of people at work in a union has been falling:

1980 61.8 %

1987 56.2 %

1993 55 %

1995 52 %

In growth sectors such as retailing and personal services it is as low as 20%.

This doesn't mean that workers are leaving the unions but it does mean that the unions are not attracting new areas of membership in significant numbers.

The growth of service industries accounted for 34% of the workforce in 1979, and is now probably about 50%. This sector has traditionally been more difficult to unionise due to the small size of workplaces and greater casualisation. Thus the number of jobs is growing in areas where union organisation has been traditionally weak.

Alongside the growth in services has been the increase in all forms of what is known as "atypical employment". Part-time workers now constitute over 10% of the workforce, while those on temporary contracts account for another 10%. These people are more difficult to organise. It is estimated that just 20% of part-time workers are in unions.

For all the talk of us being 'partners' there is still a lot of employer opposition, especially from small indigenous employers and US companies. In this period of social partnership the IDA no longer finds it necessary to recommend union recognition to incoming companies. The emergence of a very visible non-union sector poses a real danger, providing an example for other bosses to follow.

The operation of national bargaining has worked to take many issues off the local agenda. The absence of local bargaining is reflected in the continuing decline in the level of strike action. This presents problems for activists trying to generate membership participation. If nothing major is happening at workplace level, why bother going to meetings? For some workers their union is now seen more as a service they buy into rather than an organisation they are part of.

The erosion of democracy

The context for a return to centralised bargaining back in 1987 was increasing international competition, a large national debt and rising unemployment. With a worldwide shift to the right (remember this was the era of Reagan and Thatcher) most union leaders were proclaiming that there was no alternative to a project aimed at improving national competitiveness through co-operation. Given the low level of struggle and the disarray among the left in the unions many members saw no alternative to the leadership's strategy.

In a feature in Industrial Relations News (IRN) back in early 1993, Norman Croke, a full-time SIPTU official, admitted that centralised bargaining is eroding trade union democracy.

"When negotiations take place in camera through the aegis of the Social Partners, active trade union membership participation is severely curtailed. Trade union members and lay officials are relegated to the position of passive observer within their own organisation and workplace."

The question for trade union activists is not whether rank-and-file activity is a good thing but how such activity can be motivated. In other words, what are the aims, structures and strategies needed to combat the apathy and, in periods of low activity such as we are currently experiencing, where should our energies be directed?

What should anarchist trade unionists be doing today?

With over 50% of all Irish employees unionised, there is a great potential power in the trade union movement. The tapping of that potential poses a challenge for all those interested in building a free and socialist society. It is important that in discussing what can be achieved, we realistically assess the current position and avoid trotting out ritualistic slogans.

On the organised left, the main strategies put forward for trade union work could be summarised as

1.Building Broad Lefts,

2. Rank-and-filism

3.Building a Solidarity Network (Laying the groundwork).

It is crucial that we understand what each involves.

1. The Broad Left Strategy

The principal objective of the Broad Left Strategy is to elect a more 'radical' or 'left-wing' leadership. Those who advocate a Broad Left Strategy do of course usually argue for officials to be electable and re-callable and for them to be paid at the average wage of the members they represent. The fundamental flaw in this strategy is, however, that it is presumed that, by electing a new leadership, the unions can be changed from the top down.

This strategy does not however address the basic problem. Just as society cannot be improved fundamentally by electing a 'left-wing' government, neither can the trade union movement be reformed in this way. Pursuit of the Broad Left strategy means that the election of leaders becomes more important than fighting for changes in the very rules and structures of the movement which would allow for more democratic participation.

Just as Anarchists believe that workers do not need leaders to organise our society, so we contend that the potential power of the trade union movement is stymied by the current divisions between leaders and led. Real decision making is concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people. This situation has been compounded by the amalgamations and 'rationalisation of structures' which have occurred over the past number of years.

Within the current structures, a trade union official's role is that of arbitrator, conciliator and fixer. In order to fulfil this role, an official must have control of his/her members. If an employer cannot be sure that the official can deliver workers' compliance with a deal, why would that employer bother with negotiations at all? It is because of this that officials are so quick to condemn 'unofficial' action (i.e. action which hasn't been given their approval) and this is also the reason why the average official does not encourage a high level of debate and activity among the rank-and-file.

No matter how 'radical' the official might personally be, the structures of the movement dictate that he/she is not in a position to encourage members to fight for their demands. The Broad Left strategy - while usually padded out by calls for a 'fighting leadership' (whatever that is!) and for internal democracy and accountability - is essentially aimed at the election of a new leadership who will supposedly bring about change from the top. It fails to address the crunch issue - it is not the individual leaders who are the real problem, rather it is the structures, which give them all-encompassing power.

2. Rank-and-Filism

This strategy involves fighting within the trade unions for more democracy, more struggle and more involvement by 'ordinary' members. It is a strategy with which Anarchists would be in full agreement. However, and we must be clear about this, a rank-and-file movement cannot be willed into existence. Constant repetitive calls for the building of a rank-and-file movement do little or nothing to bring about such a movement.

Where such groupings have existed in the past they have come about as a result of groups of workers coming to the realisation that the union bureaucracy is an obstacle to them in their struggle. In circumstances where they are denied sanction for strikes or find themselves being dragged into endless rounds of mediation, conciliation, Labour Court hearings, Labour Relations Commissions etc., workers often come to the conclusion that it is necessary to bypass the union officials in order to fight.

It is when workers are in conflict with bosses, when their confidence in the bureaucracy has been eroded and when they themselves are confident enough to take up the fight that they realise the need for independent organisation within the unions. The point is that rank-and-file movements come about as a result of workers' confidence and experience of struggle - not the other way round. At a time of low struggle and confidence, any attempt to build such a movement will attract only a very small number of activists. That is not to say that such attempts (where they arise from a genuine anti-bureaucratic feeling) are wrong, just to counsel against unrealistic goals.

3. The Solidarity Network

Nothing is to be gained by constantly putting out abstract calls for the ideal - a genuine mass rank-and-file movement that would begin to relclaim control from the bureaucrats. Indeed the constant issuing of such calls can often provide cover for those who do not wish to make a realistic assessment of the current position and apply themselves to what can be done in the here and now.

In periods of low struggle such as that which we are currently experiencing, it is important that revolutionary trade unionists take stock of the possibilities for action, that we address and debate issues such as:

It is also important for anarchists and socialists within the trade unions to continue to provide support for those struggles, which do occur. (In fact such support is even more necessary in periods of low struggle in that those trade union battles which do take place are invariably of a defensive nature).

Now is the time for those of us who wish to see wholesale change in the trade unions and their structures to be laying the groundwork, to be identifying key activists and discussing issues with them, to be building contacts within various sectors and various unions. This is work, which can often be slow, tedious and unglamorous, but it is work that is crucial if we are ever to take realistic steps along the road to building the oft-demanded 'mass rank-and-file movement'.

This is what we mean when we talk about building a Solidarity Network. What is involved in reality with initiatives like the 'SIPTU Fightback' bulletin is the laying of the foundation stones for our greater ambitions.