The Price of Being Reasonable

There were fewer strike days last year than in any year since the 1920s. At the same time the number of disputes referred to the Labour Court was up 21%. Does this mean that 'going through the procedures' and being 'reasonable' is paying dividends of workers?

Well, not for the workers who are getting one euro an hour in Irish Ferries after the Irish crews were dumped and replaced with super-exploited East Europeans and Filipinos. Not for the Aer Lingus workers whose bosses were circulating a document on how to intimidate people into taking redundancy. Not for the vast majority of us who have seen our bosses make huge profits in recent years and at the same time seen our pay rises restricted.

Thirty years ago 77% of national income went on wages & pensions, today it has dropped to 55%. For most of us, living standards have certainly improved but we are getting a smaller proportion of the wealth we help to create.

Many of our union leaders seem to be as opposed to militant action as would be any IBEC representative. Almost two decades of 'social partnership' deals with the employers and government have made them very hostile to anything that might endanger their cosy deals. And the 1991 Industrial Relations Act leaves unions open to legal action if they don't give advance notice of industrial action to the employer or if they support sympathy strikes, legal action that could cost them millions. Most union leaders did not oppose this law. We now have the absurd situation where the largest organisation in the country, one with the power to shut down everything, reduces itself to passively lobbying the government.

SIPTU President Jack O'Connor sees the problem: "This widening gulf between workers' rights on paper and their experience in practice highlights the abysmally inadequate resources allocated to the enforcement of the legislation. There are only 21 labour inspectors to cover 1.6 million workers.

"Even if, against all the odds, an unscrupulous employer happens to fall foul of a labour inspector, the penalties for breaches of the legislation are so paltry as to have absolutely no deterrent effect.

However O'Connor can't see the solution. The best he can do is to call for "a properly resourced labour inspectorate". Does he really believe that polite lobbying will be sufficient?

After all he said (on April 12th) that "the exploitation of workers by Gama and others were not accidents. They were the inevitable consequence of a ruthless institutional policy promoted through the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment".

Our unions, for all their caution and conservatism, are important. People in unionised jobs have better pay and conditions than in non-union ones. We stay in our unions because we know that they are useful.

But, if we don't return to the combative trade unionism of Connolly and Larkin, we will let the bosses think they can get away with almost anything.

Alan MacSimoin

More on Workplace struggles and the unions

The Irish economy - an anarchist analysis

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This edition is No88 published in Sept 2005

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