The fight to empower workers and save the trade union movement

The power of workers in society has been declining consistently since the 1970s. Power, measured by various metrics, such as union membership, union density, and days of industrial action, has been on a steady decline, related to and proportionate to the increased wealth of the rich and the transformation of Ireland into a haven for foreign direct investment and, more recently, a tax haven.

As workers have less power in society, ideology and politics have shifted significantly to the right. Governments have implemented policy after policy that has left Ireland deeply divided and unequal. Liberal moves in recent times should not mask what is an extremely right-wing political establishment and ideology that is accepted within many parties.

In this situation, to many workers the trade union movement is irrelevant. For years, through “partnership,” it was seen as—and actually was—a partner to the Government that didn’t deliver for workers. Now when it tries to engage on broader social or political issues it is often met with confusion or indifference, sometimes even hostility, from within its own ranks. Yet where unions engage and organise in work-places and on work-place issues we see many examples of workers joining, becoming involved and altering the balance of power in their work-place, for example for better pay, hours, or contracts.

Trade union membership has been steadily declining for decades, somewhat masked for a while by the property boom. It’s fair to say that it faces a threat to its very existence. The decline may have slowed recently, thanks to the hard work of organisers and worker activists in some unions and industries; but the movement is essentially in a slow and steady decline.

Union mergers, while sometimes logical, rarely if ever alter this decline. The merged union often becomes little more than one big declining union and often ends up more distant from workers and work-places, more bureaucratic, and prone to bitter internal rows.

This is the challenge we face, and we should face it head on. The solution in fact is amazingly simple—because we know what works. When union activists, organisers and officials engage with workers, listen to the issues in their work-places, and together agree a way forward based on talking to the workers, then we both grow the union and alter the balance of power in the work-place.

Listen and talk to workers. Organise workers in work-places. It won’t always work perfectly well; you won’t always get the same results in different work-places. There are power structures beyond our control or influence; but we can control what we do and what we give priority to.

So, what will empower workers and save the movement? Organise in work-places. And, complementary to this, we should campaign to change the conditions under which we organise and act as unions. A Fair Work Act covering such things as right to access, collective bargaining and better strike laws would make work-place organising more successful.

Taken together, this strategy would alter the balance of power in society back more towards workers and away from the rich and the establishment. This would change the political discourse and provide a material basis for these faint cries for “left unity” and for the failed efforts previously made by unions.

But it must be this way round, otherwise it is doomed to failure and another big mistake. To attempt to build some kind of political unity on disjointed and disconnected political entities or individuals is as likely to fail as the union merger strategy, as it doesn’t sit on top of any material foundations. We urgently need to build the foundations through organising workers and changing the rules on which we act.

The politics will follow then in a much stronger, more real and organic way.