The race to save the trade unions
The race to save the trade unions Mandate General Secretary and Irish Congress of Trade Unions Vice President, John Douglas, delivers a hard-hitting assessment of the state of the Irish trade union movement, Kevin Brannigan reports.
A t a spritely 55 years of age Mandate General Secretary John Douglas has experienced trade union life in the Republic both inside and outside the social partnership tent. He believes the years from 1987 to 2008 when trade union leaders made regular trips to Government buildings to ‘clinch’ deals for members which in later years amounted to little more than pay rises funded by cheap German credit have done a great disservice to the trade union movement.
Speaking to LookLeft in his offices on Parnell Square, in Dublin’s north inner city, Douglas said the trade unions “didn’t use those 23 years of so called industrial peace to build a movement.”
“The bureaucratic trade unionism that was created at the time has no relevance in the post-partnership situation. Unless workers and the movement involve themselves politically, trade unions will just come to be seen as a service provider. We have to stand for something … We’ve marched the troops to the top of the hill a couple of times since 2008, but beyond that we’ve been very weak.”
Presiding over a union with 45,000 members, many in insecure and short term employment, Douglas is very aware of the human cost of the economic crisis both for those made unemployed and the many others who fear for their livelihoods. That the crisis has not provoked a stronger reaction from Irish society dismays him.
“After one of the biggest economic crashes in living memory, that has had a devastating impact on workers and their families, we came within a whisker of giving a right wing party an overall majority.”
He offers an anecdote from a recent trip to Spain were he saw the central square in Madrid become a scene of a three day long occupation by politically engaged Spanish youth and workers.
“The whole square was occupied and dominated by young people holding political circles. So you sit in a circle and debate politics, not to have disagreements but to explore your ideas and your policies and theories and then you go onto the next circle and the next circle and you’re exposed to a whole range of ideas. And you’re getting enthused by seeing them being enthused and invigorated by it.Jesus,inIrelandthereisnoenthusiasm whatsoever. There needs to be that level of debate. In Ireland, it’s gombeen politics at the end of the day.”
“The Irish electorate over the last number of years was quite prepared to engage in the goody bag stuff. Whoever gives me the most goodies, I’ll vote for. We need to have an educated electorate and we don’t have one as we’ve engaged in goody bag politics for the last 30 to 40 years.”
This criticism is harsh but Douglas does not hold back on the failures of his own movement in allowing such a situation to occur. He believes the lack of education programmes implemented by the trade union movement is one of the reasons why the Irish electorate has failed to adopt a left wing analysis of the situation.
“Trade unions reflect society, so a lot of trade union members share the ‘what’s in it for them’ approach. They don’t join a Trade Union because they have a different vision of society or because they want to be politically motivated. It’s often self interest, personal self interest ‘what can the Union do for me?’ rather than ‘I have a vision of being a member of a trade union because I agree with a different order in society a more left wing egalitarian order’, and that’s a huge problem for trade unions.”
Douglas, who has seen two of his children emigrate since 2008, thinks that now is the time for trade unions to break out of their stupor of being ‘service providers’ and start to become a movement again.
“It’s absolutely certain that we cannot continue as a trade union movement as merely a service provider, we might as well put up ‘Mandate Trade Union Ltd’ outside the door. And you’ll pay for what you get like any firm or solicitors. If that’s what it’s all about that will be the end of the trade union movement. We need to re-generate activism, 23 years of inactivity didn’t help it, and we have a short window to do it in now.”
One key problem Douglas identifies is the perceived irrelevancy for many of union membership since Ireland, nearly alone among European countries, does not legally protect the right to collective bargaining. Douglas likens the fact that a worker who may be in a company with 100% membership cannot be guaranteed Union representation if the employer simply refuses to acknowledge the union to “being in a golf club and not being allowed play golf.”Dealing with a retail industry which has an increasingly casualised workforce, the Mandate General Secretary can see how much time was wasted during the social partnership years by the union movement while the employers made the most of the ‘industrial peace’.
“The employers developed more than trade unions did, they developed theories on how to de-unionise vast areas of the economy and on how to marginalise unions and workers, and how to ensure that there was no growth in workers’ solidarity.”
“The employer controls not only your place of employment but your level of hours and income so he also controls you. If you join a union or say the wrong thing your hours might be cut and that will put you in line, it’s [this casualisation of labour] which is used as a very nasty control mechanism of workers. If you rock the boat you’ll be working weekends.”
If the trade union movement is to revitalise itself, Douglas, feels a major shakeup is needed. One such step would be, he thinks, to have fewer unions in Ireland.
“I think there are far too many Unions, having 47 Unions in an economy the size of Ireland’s is nonsense. I think there’s duplication of resources and there’s a whole range of things we can’t do as we’re all trying to reinvent the wheel. There needs to be no more than half a dozen unions, if that, in Ireland with decent resources, with International perspectives and with political, education, organising and recruitment departments.”
Whilst being critical of the union movement himself, Douglas feels that some of the criticism leveled at Trade Unions from some of the Left since the onset of the economic crash has been unjustified.
“They tend to kick the Trade Union movement as much as they kick property developers and speculators, which is annoying to say the least, and sometimes leads trade union activists and leaders to distance themselves from the broad Left and say; ‘well what’s their real agenda, do they see us as part of the problem rather than part of the solution?’ The broad Left must include the trade union movement.”
Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.12