Broken Unions

With Croke Park II looking set to be introduced in the coming weeks, Sean Finnan examines the reaction of the Trade Union movement to the new deal

One hundred years ago, pre-independence Dublin was caught in the upheaval of industrial dispute. Approximately 20,000 workers sought for the right to unionise. A century later, over 830,000 workers on the island of Ireland are members of a union. Yet, with Croke Park II proposing to further cut public sector worker pay, the fractured nature of certain unions, their varying strengths and influences is becoming clearer to public eye.

The argument of the Labour Relations Commission is that the continued deficit in the government’s day to day spending is inefficient and unmanageable. The proposals in Croke Park II seek to carry on where the previous agreement left off, reducing the Public Service pay bill by one billion euro by 2015. Measures proposed include a reduction in overtime rates, increase of working week, compulsory exits and pay cuts for public sector workers. Unsurprisingly, workers have met these proposals with anger and resistance. Last week, the TUI (Teachers Union of Ireland) became the first union to reject Croke Park II with other unions such as Irish Medical Organisation, Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and UNITE all supporting a No vote amongst their members.

One group that has formed in opposition to the negotiating outcomes of Croke Park II is the Kerry Alliance for Public Sector Workers. Martin O’Grady, spokesperson for the group, spoke to the Observer. “Public sector workers are extremely angry at the impositions on them, the intended impositions on them and the repeated impositions on them,” says O’Grady. “There’s a very positive response to our efforts to unify people in resistance. So yes, we’re able to get something like two hundred people at a protest at short notice in the middle of Tralee the other week and we had 70 or 80 at another protest on Monday and these were all end of work protests in the evening, protesting at the constituency offices of representatives who are part of the government parties.”

The KAPSW is an alliance for all Public Sector workers, regardless of their Trade Union. With SIPTU, Ireland’s largest Trade Union, advocating a Yes vote amongst its members and IMPACT, the largest Public Sector union doing the same, there is more than just a murmuring of discontent among grassroots members of these particular Unions directed towards their leadership.

“Total destruction of the Trade Union movement if they continue to get their way in this respect (advocating a Yes vote) because what will happen of course is, as people realise that being a member of a Trade Union means nothing at all,” syas O’Grady. “The purpose of course of being a member of a trade union is to be in a position to collectively withhold labour if the price of the labour isn’t right or if the deal isn’t perceived as fair and that’s especially essential in the context of a monopoly employer where you have got no opportunity, no labour market, no such thing as being able to shop around for better conditions, or better pay which is of course is the circumstances of all public sector workers. In those circumstances, you absolutely need a trade union and once people realise that the Trade Unions serve no purpose that they don’t organise to protect their members, people will simply abandon the trade union movement.”

However, negotiating with a government healthy in its numbers and severe pressure from outside financial institutions means that the negotiating process was always going to be onerous. On the document released by the Labour Relations Commission, they emphasis that “The Commission is clear that the alternative to a negotiated outcome is a set of measures designed by the Government and delivered through legislation.” This threat of legislation without discussion happened previously in the introduction of the much-hated universal social charge, pension levies back in the 2008 budget.

“The thing that an awful lot of people forget is, when Fianna Fail and the Green Party introduced the wage cuts and the pension levy, they were introduced unilaterally,” says John Geary, Professor of Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the UCD School of Business. “The Croke Park agreement, if you like, was a recognition of that. But essentially what the unions want to do is they want to re-establish collective bargaining, so the danger was, if they hadn’t gone with Croke Park II, the changes would have been imposed unilaterally. Now that to me seems like a very significant threat to the future of collective bargaining in the public sector, which is the bulwark of union power if you like; I think that has gone over a lot of commentators’ heads. It has happened once and they weren’t going to let it happen again. So even though it’s what we call a form of concession bargaining it is still bargaining, and there were some sweeteners, and it was softened around the edges.”

For many however, the close relationship that exists between certain Trade Unions and government parties is a conflict of interest undermining the negotiating drive of the union. Current leader of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor is a long-standing member of the Labour Party, serving on its executive committee. Also funding various electoral campaigns of a number of Labour TDs, division between those in government and those representing workers interests are flirtingly close. For O’Grady; “The main obstacle entirely is the acquiescence of trade union leaders, specific trade union leaders in the whole process. If they hadn’t been captured in effect by the government side, none of this would have arisen. The idea that public servants should pay a special price over and above that paid by the community at large, equivantly paid or far better paid individuals in other sectors of the economy would never have gotten traction but for the fact that we have traitors within the camp and they’re leading trade unions.”

Professor Geary, however, offers an alternative view of the stance being taken by O’ Connor in the recent negotiations. “Jack O’Connor has said no to not taking on the government, it is not, I would imagine in his view, the time to take on the European establishment either. I mean the weight of power that is mounted against the unions is immense. In the past, under social partnership when the government themselves were party to an agreement, we had what we call a form of political exchange. A deal was done, it was brokered. Now the unions are not brokering a deal say with the government. They’re brokering a deal with the Troika which is not beholden to any democratic values, which doesn’t have engage in any form of political exchange, or indeed with the ballot box, or with unions through collective bargaining. So it’s very easy for unions to be marginalised. Their judgement is now is not the time to pick the fight, because the forces amassed against them are overwhelming. There’s also the issue if you like of, if ever they were to take strike action, it would alienate public opinion, it’s already stacked against them. The last thing I think the unions want to do is to further alienate whatever support there might be out there.”

The threat of strike action then in the face of a possible rejection of Croke Park II, could serve to damage and divide the already apparent divide between workers in the public sector and private sector workers. The notion of what belonging to a Union means to individual workers has fundamentally changed since the days of Jim Larkin and with this, comes a problem of active participation of membership. Unions are seen as more about the leadership committee’s decisions on the direction that they take than the members own desired direction. Croke Park II brings this division highly into focus. Has the Social Partnership of the past few decades sterilized the threat of action of a bellicose Trade Union movement through their repeated gains. Conor McCann of UCD’s Department of Social Justice spoke to the Observer on this.

“There is a growing awareness of what partnership really did and that is a change… I don’t think in the trade unions themselves that they quite realised just what happened with partnership. I mean partnership consolidated the whole kind of managerial view that you’re there to manage workers. That’s not really what trade unions are about, I mean, they’re really about trying to represent workers, not to manage them and they kind of fell in to that. That in itself is not a new thing. I mean in the history of the Irish Trade Union movement, that very Corporatist view runs through it, that kind of Catholic social teaching view, that goes back to the 1930’s, the 1920’s even, you know. So partnership was kind of building upon that but it was a new one because it was coming in at a time when the Irish economy was being heavily financialised. That’s the big difference.”

“I think the problem in inverted commas for unions has been, is that increasingly over recent decades the membership has become very passive,” says Geary. “Agreements, wage increases, tax reductions, have been a gift of social partnership, and people find it difficult to see that unions have negotiated this for them. That in turn has engendered a very passive kind of union movement. So, while there might be upset from time to time, as we see now, it tends to be isolated, it tends to be parochial. The majority of union members are passive, the majority of them will acquiesce, the majority of them probably admit that there is no way that a better deal could have been done in the circumstances, and they also have friends and family working in the private sector and they know that things are difficult there.”

The murmuring swells at the grassroots level of many diverse unions around the country suggests small changes are occurring in how people view their union. The open meetings around the country, filling local town halls are suggesting that there is a realisation that membership to a union is more about a yearly subscription. The prospect of further cuts and the continued loss in standards of public services is ensuring that workers are not just fighting for their wage but to preserve a working public service. Trade Unions are not just about fighting for their own members pay packets and when selfishness and division creeps into their search for demands, everyone suffers.

“Any Trade Union is hopefully also a citizen or a participant in this country as well. I mean any Trade Unionists who clocks in and out of a kind of social activity as if it’s their job, doesn’t get Trade Unionism,” says McCann. “It cannot just be about wages and working conditions. This is the centenary of 1913 and the lock out, I mean Larkin understood that completely and Larkin was a lot smarter than he is given credit for… he said if you stick to work, to wages and the working conditions, they will wipe you out.”