It is true that most workers only attend union meetings and take part in activities when a dispute is about to break out. It is also true that a decade and a half of 'partnership' deals has strengthened a feeling of passivity. After all, your basic pay increase arrives after behind closed doors talks; you may get to vote yes or no - but that's the limit to your participation.
We want a situation where the national bodies of the unions see their role change from one of'leadership'/order-giving to one of co-ordination and providing resources to the membership. We want those people effected by decisions having the right to make them. This means devolving more power to branch and section/workplace level.
Text of a leaflet distributed at 'Rank and File Conference - Social partnership: Claiming Back Our Unions', Sat. 10th Feb. 2001, Teachers' Club in Dublin
Big changes in our unions will probably only come during big struggles, when a lot of members see the need for their unions and see the need to make them more democratic. Today, we can start arguing for a democratic agenda. We can ask our branches to put motions to conferences, we can start the debate among the activists.
Within our unions we could be trying to win rule changes that increase democracy and membership participation. As union rules differ, it is up to activists in each union to prioritise particular changes they want to achieve, but a few suggestions for kicking off the process are...
This is not a complete programme, but merely some proposals to start the process of claiming back our unions.
Sometimes work in the unions can be extremely boring and seem to be almost a waste of time. But if we manage to wrest control from the bureaucrats currently strangling them, they will prove to be one of our best weapons in furthering the battle for a free and equal society. One element of this struggle is kicking off the fight for more democracy. After all, they are supposed to be our organisations.
Opposition to 'social partnership' is what has brought many activists from different unions together over the last decade. We oppose these agreements because we reject the idea that there can be an ongoing and mutually beneficial deal between workers and bosses. This implies combating the very concept of 'partnership'.
The answer to "what happens if we win a no vote" should never be that the negotiators are sent back in to seek better terms for a partnership agreement (as happened in the Campaign Against a Partnership Deal). Indeed, we should be discussing how to deal with the increasing incorporation of the formal union structures into partnership bodies (including the often forgotten local partnership bodies, which usually draw upon activists rather than the bureaucracy).