We need to develop a new strategy in the unions


Since the start of the economic crisis the trade union movement have produced excellent analysis of government policy warning that the austerity measures being pursued “could turn Ireland into a social and economic wasteland”[1] But our movement has failed to come up with a strategy to resist the government/EU-IMF attacks. We’ve been marched around Dublin on an annual basis and listened to speeches that are more about letting off steam than planning a fightback. Our union leadership do not have either a vision of how resistance can be built or confidence in the membership to develop an alternative economic strategy.

If a new strategy is to emerge it will not come from the failed politics pursued by the leadership who have sold us social partnership and the Croke Park Agreement. It will have to come from us – the ordinary members of the unions. The unions are our organisations, they are the vehicles by which we can organise to show our collective muscle. The government and the EU-IMF are only able to impose their will on us because we allow them to do so.

There is nothing mysterious about a strategy for resistance. It simply boils down to whether we are going to accept what they impose on us. When they come with a programme of cuts to education services, are those of us who work in education willing to allow them do it? When they try cutting health, do we as health workers let it happen?

As they continue to attack our pay and our working conditions, do we let it happen? Similarly with every single cut. Every time we fail to resist it gives them the green light to come for more. On the other hand, every time they meet resistance it will make them reluctant to tackle us again. The manner in which pensioners resisted the attempts to remove their automatic entitlement to medical cards in October 2008 showed that.

To turn our unions from the slumbering giants they currently are needs more than coming up with the right slogans or replacing the current jaded and conservative leadership.

Those who believe that resistance to government policy is not only desirable but needed must begin to claim ownership of our unions. And if we organise, we can actually win the majority of the membership to the strategy. Small victories such as the INTO membership’s recent forcing the union leadership to say No to JobBridge shows what is possible. That change in union policy came about because ordinary members didn’t just complain about the leadership position. They organised, held meetings, passed motions, signed petitions…they organised to win.

It might be a small victory but small victories point the way forward and give members the belief that larger victories are possible. Those larger victories are possible for our movement if we have the ambition and if we put in the work in organising for them.

Ordinary members – that’s you and your workmates – need to take control of our unions and begin to discuss with each other how we can turn them into organisations capable of stopping the social and economic wasting of our society.

[1] ‘Shifting The Burden’ ICTU 2009