The dispute in Debenham’s has exposed the Industrial Relations Act (1990) for the anti-worker legislation that it is. This act puts the balance of power firmly on the side of employers and leaves workers powerless during industrial disputes and dependent on the judiciary finding in their favour. The judiciary have never been on the side of workers.
The Trade Union Left Forum has been to the forefront of the campaign to have the 1990 act abolished and replaced with a Fair Work Act. This would guarantee all workers the right to union access, the right to union recognition, full collective bargaining rights, and immunity from civil or criminal prosecution for any action during a trade dispute that is in itself not an illegal act. This would tip the balance firmly onto the side of workers, who need to have their rights and conditions protected from exploitative employers.
The Communications Workers Union is the latest in a growing number of trade unions unhappy with the 1990 Industrial Relations act by passing a motion in opposition to it at their recent conference. There are now five unions, comprising 168,000 members, actively pursuing this policy.
The Debenham’s dispute has also revealed the dissatisfaction and mistrust among large sections of the working class towards the trade union movement. Some of this is well founded, as sections of the trade union movement were happy with the “social partnership” model, where a general agreement could be made for all workers, so removing the need to negotiate agreements for individual groups of employees independently of all employers.
This led to thirty years of inactivity, when unions went into a defensive mode, to protect what workers had, rather than an offensive mode, where workers fought for a bigger share of what they produce, with improved rights and conditions of employment. As a result, union density collapsed.
The question is, How will the 1990 act be abolished? Ultimately it will take legislative change by Dáil Éireann.
There are some opportunists pushing the line that if a campaign of disobedience to the rules of the 1990 act was organised by the trade union movement it would lead to the collapse of the act and to its being abolished. This may sound attractive, but it is not credible. Named and unnamed workers have been served injunctions by the High Court; if these workers breach the act they can be fined, or imprisoned. This would certainly get the dispute into the headlines but ultimately is not what’s need for the act to be abolished.
The media are on the side of the employers and the state. While this might grab the headlines for a day, it would be buried very quickly with a search for Fungie the dolphin or some other such nonsense. The media can’t tell you what to think, but they can tell you what to think about.
Other opportunists call on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to call a general strike of workers against the act. This is also disingenuous, for a number of reasons. Most prominent is the fact that the ICTU is not calling for the act to be abolished. Even if it wanted to abolish the act, a majority of the unions affiliated to it would have to be of the same mind. This is not the case.
Furthermore, if the ICTU was to call a general strike it would be illegal under the 1990 act, and they would be liable to criminal prosecution and the seizure of assets. A strike for a political demand is also illegal under the act, as is a general strike: a strike can only be called in a trade dispute with an employer.
Some argue that if all workers were to come out on a general strike the sheer numbers would overwhelm the government and employers and no prosecutions would take place. It is fantasyland to think that huge numbers of workers would come out on a national general strike against the Industrial Relations Act at the present time. Unfortunately, only about a quarter of workers are in trade unions, and of these the majority are not calling for the act to be abolished. Many haven’t even heard of it.
A strategic approach is needed to this imbalance of power. It has to be recognised by workers that large sections of trade union leaderships and members are quite happy with the act; so it will have to be a bottom-up campaign to get unions to adopt it as union policy. Five unions have already adopted this policy, along with the Union of Students in Ireland, representing 367,000 of the next generation of workers.
All unions need to get on board, but it is up to union activists and branches to force the issue and get these motions proposed at union conferences. When a majority of unions affiliated to the ICTU are calling for the act to be abolished this can force the ICTU into adopting it as policy—just as it was forced, against its will, to adopt the right to water as policy a number of years ago by a majority vote of unions at its conference.
The next step will be to put pressure on the Dáil, as inevitably it will be here that the Industrial Relations Act will be abolished. It is not a change that they will adopt easily: they will have to be forced by public outcry and pressure of numbers.
When we get to the stage where the ICTU is calling for the act to be abolished, that is the time to bring people onto the streets in mass demonstrations to abolish the act. To try to mount a “people power” type campaign on the streets against the 1990 act at this stage would be a mistake; it would fizzle out, putting back the demand and demoralising those activists involved.
When the campaign does go onto the streets it must remain there until the act is abolished, otherwise once it goes into the Dáil it will be amended and diluted, just as the Right to Water campaign was.
All union activists must push their unions in a more militant direction, to go on the offensive, get the 1990 act abolished. A pay increase might make life a little bit easier, but it does not empower workers; but abolishing the 1990 act will tip the balance of power firmly in favour of workers, away from employers.
This will give workers the tools to fight, to end precarious work, and to win the right to union access, the right to union recognition, full collective bargaining rights, and much more.