The Assembly and Mobilising Northern Workers 

The Socialist Voice is to be commended for providing the only party medium on the Irish left that supports critical debate. Such debate was evident in the February, March, and April editions on unions in the North. 

These articles reflected on the Assembly and its potential for worker rights. One article (“The Cause of Labour”) argued strongly against the Assembly. The argument had much to commend it but was weakened by a failure to compare like with like. Gerry Carroll’s narrowly rejected bill does not necessarily indicate a lack of union leverage but rather People Before Profit’s lack of clout. Recognising the qualitative differences between the governing bloc enacting anti-union statutes that would take away rights and some of these same politicians voting down astroturfed campaigns for new rights from isolated leftists is a crucial distinction. 

Furthermore, it is beyond doubt that the Assembly rejected the Tory Trade Union Act for fear of upsetting the local unions: the then-relevant Minister for Employment admitted so himself [1]. Sure, the DUP are no friends of organised labour and while political intelligence is not their strongest point, shrewder elements within that party know they need not unnecessarily provoke unrest within segments of their electoral constituency. After all, unionist votes come from somewhere within the Northern labour movement. Ditto Sinn Féin in this respect, albeit for different reasons. As the more successful political forces have long realised, what matters in politics is expediency, not attachment to principle. 

Such expediency could be to the trade unions’ advantage as moments of opportunity arise for exercising leverage. Indeed, unlike the South, there is far more prospect of unions engaging in disruptive action in the North. Union collective bargaining in the North (like the UK as a whole) is less centralised than in the South and there is less of the first port-of-call, get-out-of-jail card reliance on the Labour Court that characterises the instincts of many Southern unions. Hence, in part, the higher industrial dispute frequency in the recent strike wave that afflicted the North, but not the South. The strike had less to do with the “where is our Mick Lynch?” guff that was heard in some quarters and more to do with the different institutional structure of the two jurisdictions and how these shape opportunities and constraints. As pressure on Northern public finances mounts, moments of opportunity and leverage could be significant in the coming period – although how likely the unions will choose to exercise this is less certain. Perhaps Conor Murphy as Minister for the Economy has pre-empted that somewhat by his recent talk of strengthening the unions, employment rights bills and Forums for Engagement. While Sinn Féin policy has always been to make the North more like the South, it is now reaching for social partnership to do the job. 

Finally, let’s not express discomfort at northerners looking to Britain to make pay demands. Alleviate such anxiety, should it exist, by remembering it is not of fundamental importance to scientific Communists with whom striking workers make their pay comparisons. What matters is workers mobilising behind their class interests: the outcome is more important than the process. Comparisons of nominal pay across entirely different economic jurisdictions where surplus value creation and distribution are completely dissimilar is simply no good. It also has the unhelpful implication of suggesting Southern capitalism is “better”. Of course, Southern capitalism is at very blunt levels of measurement – gross national income per capita, say – but  then factor in those food and housing costs that are 46% above the EU average and the picture has to be readjusted somewhat. Perhaps if we pursue more convincing analysis and less sloganeering, we will do a better job of winning trade union-minded people to our otherwise formidable and ultimately correct positions.