From The Socialist (Dublin), July 2008.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Faced with price rises on the one side and pay restraint in the form of below inflation wage rises, workers, more than ever, need unions that are prepared to fight to defend jobs and living standards.
However, with the honourable exception of a number of unions that have shifted to the left and put in place a leadership that is prepared to fight, the majority of the trade union leaders still cling onto the illusion that the way to resolve the problems faced by their members is through cosy relationships with the government and, in some cases, also through cosy deals with employers.
Locally many of the union leaders are too close to the politicians and parties in the Assembly Executive for comfort. Meanwhile the leaders of the biggest unions across the water continue to prop up the Brown government by pouring millions into the coffers of New Labour.
Many workers who move into struggle, whether on pay, in defence of services, or on other issues, will also be forced into a battle to reclaim their unions and put in place a leadership that is prepared and willing to fight.
That is why the lessons of what happened to the sacked Belfast Airport shop stewards during their long struggle for justice are so important. Six years ago, these shop stewards led their members out on strike for a fifty pence an hour pay rise. They were then sacked by their employer, security firm ICTS.
ICTS thought that it could get away with sacking 24 strikers, including four shop stewards, only because the then leadership of the T&GWU obliged them by repudiating the strike.
For six years the shop stewards have been forced to battle the company and the leadership of their own union. They fought a long court battle against ICTS which finally came to an end with a landmark victory at the Court of Appeal on 24 June.
The Court upheld an early Tribunal ruling that their sacking by ICTS was political discrimination on grounds of their trade union and socialist views.
The significance of this decision is that it opens the door to any trade union members who are sacked to similarly claim political discrimination which offers the possibility of substantially more compensation than with an unfair dismissal case.
This victory was achieved without proper assistance from the T&GWU/Unite. A year after the workers were sacked, T&GWU General Secretary, Tony Woodley, told them they had no legal case for discrimination. They fought on for five years without legal backing from the union. Indeed, when the Tribunal found in their favour in 2007, it took eight months of sporadic protests, including a number of hunger strikes, to get the union leadership to pay the legal costs.
A statement attacking the airport workers that was issued by Unite Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, in May did acknowledge the significance of this legal case and promised that Unite would be launching a campaign in the trade union movement for the appeal.
As it turned out these were just empty words. There was no campaign. No one from Unite turned up to the appeal. No one from the union contacted the airport workers before or after the case; not even to offer a word of congratulations on their victory. Instead, on the day before the case, Unite published an slanderous attack on the shop stewards and on the Socialist Party on their website.
The union leaders are now offering the shop stewards £40,000 in return for their complete and permanent silence about all that has happened over the past six years.
The purpose of this offer is to prevent the truth about the role played by the leadership of the union, past and present, from ever being told. Two of the shop stewards feel they have no option but to accept this bribe, but the third, Gordon McNeill, has refused to be silenced.
It is a sad day for trade unionism when the leaders of a major union consider it more important to spend time issuing attacks on their members rather than standing alongside them supporting their case against their employer. It is an even worse day when they offer to spend £120,000 of the union’s funds to prevent them telling the truth about what happened in their dispute.
And it is not only in Unite where this is happening. The right wing leaderships of Unison and some other unions are also busy conducting witchhunts against activists who oppose them.
The airport workers’ dispute has shown the need to thoroughly democratise the unions. All officials should be elected and should be on the wages of the members they represent. A strong shop stewards movement needs also to be built with joint shop stewards committees established where possible in the workplaces.
The unions need to completely break their ties with the parties of the political establishment, whether New Labour in Britain or any of the parties in the Assembly Executive. Instead their resources and energies should be put into building a new party to represent working class interests.
Knowing the truth of what happened to the airport workers will assist every trade union member in the task of reclaiming their union.
Last updated: 28.7.2012