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Ireland: A Special Survey

International Socialism, October 1976


Des Derwin et al.

Ireland: A Special Survey


From International Socialism (1st series), No.92, October 1976, pp.34-36.

THERE IS a massive number of unions in Ireland – over 100, between those affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and those outside. But the chances are that socialists in the working class movement will be meeting, and trying to persuade more members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union than of any other. The ITGWU contains a third of the trade unionists in the 26 counties (and a much smaller proportion in the North). Its key importance within the Irish – particularly Southern Irish – trade union movement and at the same time the domination of that union by the bureaucracy has been well demonstrated by the voting on this year’s proposals for a National Wage Agreement. When the National Executive Council of the union recommended rejection of the June proposals and acceptance of the July draft the membership voted accordingly. And the ITGWU’s 65-vote bloc within the ICTU is usually enough to determine the outcome.

The ITGWU has 155,000 members and it is still growing – by extension into white-collar and craft areas, by amalgamating with smaller unions, and by signing closed shop agreements with the new industries brought into the country with the help of the IDA. The ITGWU negotiates terms and conditions before a worker sets foot in the plant, sometimes even before the foundations have been dug. Membership of the ITGWU becomes a condition of employment.

The 150-plus full-time officials of the ITGWU are appointed, and are as immune to the direction of the membership as is compatible with maintaining a facade of democracy. The ‘holy trinity’ of General President, General Secretary and Vice-President are elected periodically by the annual conference (to which a large proportion of delegates are full-time officials). But the present incumbents – Fintan Kennedy, Michael Mullen, and John Carroll, respectively – hold their positions for life, having been elected for three terms of office.

AS A PART of their commitments to the newly elected coalition government, the ITGWU leadership in 1973 gave its support to the Presidential campaign of Tom O’Higgins, of Fine Gael. Having failed to get him elected, the Coalition government appointed him President of the Supreme Court, where he sits as final arbiter on the constitutionality of the repressive laws they introduce ...

Mullen and Kennedy are also members of the Senate, nominated by the government, and voting with them last June to freeze bank workers’ wages. Michael Mullen has, on occasion, stepped out of line on proposals for repressive legislation. Fintan Kennedy has already declared his intention of standing for the European Parliament in 1978. John Carroll has been appointed to so many committees and boards by the government or by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions that he frequently had to miss their meetings – and his union commitments.

The ITGWU’s connections with the government, through the Labour Party, are many and close. The Minister for Labour, Michael O’Leary, who has the main responsibility for liaison with the unions, is a former officer of the union. The support of the ITGWU bloc at the Labour Party conference has also made him Financial Secretary of the party. Several other Labour ministers and deputies, including the leader of the party and Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste), Brendan Corish, are members of the union and use their nominal membership as a platform to preach restraint and repression. Local ITGWU offices provide many Labour deputies with a convenient permanent base. The union provides the main financial support for the Labour Party as well as paying election expenses for a number of condidates. Many of those candidates, indeed, are full-time officials or long-standing lay officers of the union. However, the ITGWU has no control over the voting record of the sponsored deputies. Michael Mullen had the support of the NEC, for instance in opposing the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Bill, but the union did not try to get other members or officials to take the same stand, and could do nothing to prevent the party whip being withdrawn from him.

That episode at least had the value of waking the ITGWU and other unions to the missed opportunities of the relationship with the Labour Party, but the co-ordinating committee between union executives and deputies has fallen into disuse as quickly as it came into being. Despite the many left-sounding resolutions on unemployment, social welfare and repressive legislation passed by union conferences there is no attempt to mobilise the membership around them. Within the trade union movement itself, the ITGWU, generally a conservative influence, has occasionally started radical initiatives. So, it was the union’s Dublin District Council which proposed to the Trades Council that it organise an anti-unemployment march in June. But the decision once taken, the ITGWU’s effort at mobilising its own members for the march was minimal.

Yet, it is ‘Connolly’s union’ and at least a part of the strong loyalty which many of the older members, in particular, feel to the union is determined by their admiration for that revolutionary workers’ leader. Connolly’s face appears on the Dublin District Council banner. His commitment to the ‘one big union’ is echoed in the initials, OBU, on the widely worn union badge. But the spirit of revolt which gave rise to the union in his time has died.

It was the dissatisfaction of Dublin dockers with the leadership of the National Union of Dock Labourers who had suspended Irish organiser, James Larkin, which provoked them to found the new union in 1908. The ITGWU met two needs of the Irish working class: it organised the unskilled workers and it set up an Irish union, administered in Dublin. It was closely linked to the national resurgence of that period; Connolly, and to a lesser extent Larkin, who both became organisers, were also involved in the independence movement.

Fifty years after its foundation, the ITGWU described its own early days in a passage which present members can only read with irony:

‘From its inception the union was distinguished from its predecessors and contemporaries in trade unionism in Ireland by its militancy in organisation and industrial action ... its use of the transport workers to support other wage-earners in weaker strategic positions, its recourse to the sympathetic strike on the principle that an injury to one is the concern of all ...’ (Fifty Years of Liberty Hall, ITGWU Commemoration Book 1958)

This was written before the ICTU’s two-tier picketing system was introduced with the support of the ITGWU. Under that rule a striking union has to have the approval of Congress before other unions are obliged to respect their picket. (When a move was made at this year’s conference of the ICTU to scrap the system, the ITGWU led the opposition and won the vote by a narrow margin.)

The early militancy of the union was, indeed, remarkable. It grew rapidly in the later war years and after World War I, having survived a tough battle for survival in 1913. Its offices were a target of British forces in 1916 and during the War of Independence because of its radical and anti-imperialist stand. It avoided taking sides in the civil war but through the 1920s it maintained a verbal commitment to socialism and the independent interests of the working class. But a new bureaucracy had taken hold of the union, and was changing and manipulating the rules to its own advantage. When Larkin had returned from the USA in 1923, he was excluded and took most of the Dublin members with him into a new union, the Workers’ Union of Ireland.

William O’Brien was the dominant force in the union during these years. Under his leadership, the union moved to the right and towards an ever more divisive nationalism. In the 1930s it was prey to Fianna Fail wrecking tactics, which set Irish-based and English-based unions against one another. In the 1940s it led to a split from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to form the Congress of Irish Unions, objecting to the ‘communist influence’ within the ICTU. The split, which was paralleled by one in the Labour Party (with ITGWU supporters forming a ‘National Labour Party’) was not healed until 1959. The ITGWU did not re-affiliate to the Labour Party until 1967.

The splits in the Irish trade union movement have deepened Parochial loyalties, so the Workers’ Union of Ireland is still ‘Larkin’s Union’ over 30 years after Big Jim’s death. (Hatred of Larkin was so extreme in the ITGWU at one period that William O’Brien could write an article on The significance of 1913 during the 1940’s without once mentioning his name!) It is very common to hear somebody refer to themselves as ‘a Transport man’ (and usually it is man, too, for in its early history the ITGWU did not admit women). This loyalty is fed by constant references to its size, resources, influence. The antagonism towards an organisation like the National Busmen’s Union, which arose from the breakaway from the ITGWU in 1963, is such that the two unions nearly always end up on opposite sides of any argument, passing each others’ pickets ...

When the conferences of the ICTU are discussing, and voting on, National Wage Agreements, the speakers for the ITGWU (always members of the ‘holy trinity’) never miss a chance to remind the representatives of other unions that theirs has not been a decision of principles, but one made democratically by the membership on the merits of the particular case. One of their democratic trophies is the survey carried out of the membership’s views on the National Wage Agreement in 1974, prior to terms being negotiated. But as with so much else in the union it was the opinions of branch committees and not of the general membership which were surveyed.

Most branches have only one general meeting per year. In itself, this might be enough to alienate all but the most committed from participation in union affairs. The fact that much of the meeting may be taken up with a media-conscious speech from one of the union’s leading figures does little to bring others in more closely. One Dublin branch was persuaded to hold quarterly meetings, after a struggle. The branch delegates to the annual conference – the supreme policy-making body of the union – are picked by the committee on many cases. The union’s calendar often means that rank and file members do not have a chance to propose a conference resolution for that same year’s conference to the general membership of the branch or section. Shop stewards have little discretion in the vast majority of work-places organised by the ITGWU; they are bound much more closely to the branch committee or full-time officials than they are to the membership they represent.

The formality of the voting often hides a situation where there are no alternatives. So, members may be presented with one proposal from the platform to vote on, but no other proposal. And with the full-time official sitting beside the chairman and talking down to the members about the ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unrealistic’ notion that direct action should be used to oppose redundancies, few will stick to their guns in opposing them. This domination from the top, the monopoly of information, is not just a distasteful lack of democracy. It leads to defeat where battles could have been own. A recent strike in Dublin went on for five weeks without the section committee (under rule, automatically the strike committee) having any meeting other than its routine monthly one. For lack of solidarity, the strike and eight jobs were lost. The routine at committee and general meetings makes it difficult to put any of the serious political questions facing the working class movement on the agenda, much less get serious discussions on them.

Every ITGWU activist has a litany of horrors done by the bureaucracy: a branch secretary out early in the morning to herd his flock across another union’s picket line; a branch official going to management before talking to striking members, then returning to convince them they have no case in defending a sacked shop steward; a plea from the Vice-President who had earlier condemned the closure of a factory for workers there to lift an embargo on goods going out as a means of securing higher redundancy pay; a productivity deal involving 24 redundancies being signed by officials before being reported to the section committee.

But the bureaucracy’s inability to provide an effective answer to rising unemployment and falling living standards is all too obvious. The fact that some leaders seem to be getting closer to the helm of the ship of state is no consolation for the worsening job losses. But if the discontent which is undoubtedly felt by many rank and file members – and which wells up in a dispute such as one at a small factory in Waterford which drew in support (in opposition to the local bureaucrat) from half a dozen other ITGWU-organised factories – is not to wither into apathy or despairing, easily defeated revolts, socialists and militants in the ITGWU face an immediate task of loosening the grip of the bureaucracy which stifles the potential strength of the union.

The route to rank and file organisation in the ITGWU. And in the Irish trade union movement generally, is still uncharted. The illusions in the radical gestures of the leadership; the loyalty to ‘the Transport’; the suspicion of ‘unofficial’ organisations; and the lack of any precedent for an internal democratic opposition makes the going tougher than, for example, in Britain. The attempts of the recent past to organise rank and file activity independently of the bureaucracy, or to put pressure on them, has frightened the officials more than it roused the rank and file.

There is an ‘official’ Left in the Union, but it has its nose so close to the grindstone of committee work and/or full-time bureaucratic work that it cannot begin to see the possibilities of more open argument among the general membership. Where that has happened in a very limited way, through activists’ courses run by the union’s Development Services Divisions, it has given a glimpse of the value of the experience of solidarity, untrammelled by bureaucratic interference.

The prospects for effective rank and file organisation within the ITGWU are not short-term. The first and modest task will be that of holding together the activists who have previously taken part in shop stewards’ committees and in campaigns against wage restraint. There are isolated militants who have been plugging away on their own in some committee or other who need to be convinced that an opposition grouping can, and must, work. Scattered sections of the union have from time to time opposed the bureaucracy’s readiness to compromise (even ending up picketing Liberty Hall, the union’s headquarters) or fought for greater democracy.

Different parts of the union have developed different styles and traditions, and the tactics of rank and file work must vary. But a set of demands for greater rank and file control of the union and of all stages of negotiation and dispute, as well as demands to oppose redundancies, unemployment and wage restraint and to defend the independence of the trade union movement, can bind the elements of opposition to the bureaucracy and its class collaboration together. This is not just a hope and prospect for making life for ITGWU members more comfortable, but a major task for Irish socialists aiming to win the working class movement to a perspective for struggle.

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