The state of the unions - the legacy of 1913 and the trade union movement today


Having spent the early part of this week at the annual conference of my union – the Irish National Teachers Organisation – I’m struck by the view that unions today appear to be a different world entirely from that of 100 years ago.  My talk will focus less on 1913 and more on where the trade union movement finds itself today

In many ways the past does indeed appear to be a different world, and evidence of the fighting spirit shown by Larkin and the workers of Dublin 100 years ago appears to have practically nothing in common with a trade union movement that has spent the past 25 years – a quarter of the time since the events we are commemorating - engaged in so-called ‘social partnership’ and which in the past 4 years have suffered and accepted the effects of 6 austerity budgets, with workers’ incomes and standards of living slashed and public services decimated. 

Young workers, in particular, have had their wages and working conditions savaged.  In 2008 a primary teacher starting out, for example, took home €557 per week after tax and other deductions, in September 2012 a starting teacher’s net take home pay was just €406 – that’s a reduction of almost 28%.

These pay cuts have taken place as a direct result of the first Croke Park agreement – an agreement that claimed it would protect the wages of ‘existing public servants’.  Those of us who opposed the adoption of that agreement appealed to members not to sign up to an agreement that would sacrifice the wages and terms and conditions of young people likely to join the public service in the following years in the hope of protecting our own. 

Pulling up the ladder

And while it might not be the case that trade union leaders who advocated the acceptance of Croke Park 1 were doing the equivalent of deliberately pulling up the ladder behind those of us in employment and sacrificing the rights and conditions of young workers – of those coming after us – in the (vain as it turned out) hope that we could therefore avoid further attacks on our own wages and conditions – as I said maybe it wasn’t deliberate but that was certainly the effect.  The stark figures I’ve given in relation to the effect on the levels of starting teachers’ salaries are to be seen right across the public sector.

What, we might ask, has happened to the trade union slogan of An injury to one being the concern of all. 

And so we moved on to the ‘Croke Park extension’ – and an invitation to talks that would surely have seemed incomprehensible to Larkin or any of those who were forced to take to the streets of Dublin in 1913.  In November a further ‘invitation’ to talks came to the trade union movement from government.  Even in the context of ‘social partnership’ and everything that has happened over the past number of years, these talks were to take place on an extremely bizarre basis - Before the ‘talks’ even began there was a pre-determined outcome – public sector workers would be €1 billion worse off over the course of the next three years.

All that was up for negotiation was where the cuts would fall, whether they would hit younger workers or more established workers, whether more would be taken from nurses or teachers etc… The concept that the threatened cuts were wrong and should not even be countenanced was not on the agenda. 

And trade unionists in the public sector are currently voting on the outcome of those talks – voting to decide whether to accept further pay cuts.  As I said it seems like an incomprehensible position for workers and trade union members to find themselves in.

Bureaucratic nightmare

As I said earlier I spent the first part of this week at the INTO Conference in Cork.  And to say that I spent those days in a bureaucratic nightmare is an understatement.  The INTO leadership has put the Croke Park extension deal to a ballot of members without a recommendation, and they went out of their way to try to prevent the issue being discussed in any real way at the Conference.

This was taken to ridiculous levels when they attempted to block discussion on what we might do in the event of a No vote.  Bureaucratic manoeuvrings that resulted in a number of us taking a motion around to delegates on Tuesday night asking people to sign it to say that they wanted to discuss it, presenting the standing orders committee first thing on Wednesday morning with a motion signed by 228 delegates saying they wanted to discuss it, that motion still being blocked on spurious grounds  and eventually the standing orders committee being forced to allow discussion on a ‘compromise motion’ as to what we might do ‘whatever the outcome of the vote’ – but with any reference to taking industrial action removed from the motion.

As I said this type of bureaucratic manoeuvring, stifling of debate and discussion seems to be a million miles removed from the spirit of trade unionism that we’re talking about when we commemorate 1913 – but then we remember that as far back as 1907 when Larkin first came to Ireland and began to organise workers in Belfast, Newry, Cork and elsewhere  friction quickly developed between the new Irish members and the British leadership of the National Union of Dock Labourers for which Larkin was recruiting. The union officers became alarmed at the combative spirit of the Irish branches and soon they were settling disputes over the heads of the members on strike, sending them back to work on the basis of weak and paltry deals arranged with employers behind the strikers' backs.

So perhaps bureaucratic manoeuvring and denial of members’ right to be heard has always been part of sections of the trade union movement’s leadership role.

What is pretty clear, though, is that things have reached a fairly climatic state in this regard.  And there is a huge sense of irony that many of those – union leaders and members alike – who will participate in events to commemorate the centenary of the lockout have, over the last couple of years, been part of a trade union movement that in many ways has come to stand for the total opposite of the idea of the strongest protecting the weakest. 


In what could be considered a further dose of irony at INTO the conference in its first motion in public session on Tuesday morning discussed and almost unanimously agreed a raft of taxation measures to campaign for as an alternative to imposing cuts on pay – measures based on the ICTU pre-budget submission and on the work of the Nevin Economic Research Unit – a new higher rate of income tax for people earning over €100,000, a wealth tax, greater contribution from profitable corporations, a financial transaction tax etc etc. 

They mightn’t be – they aren’t - revolutionary demands but they are demands around which the trade union movement can unite.  The irony that the same union leaders who advocate these demands also tell union members that they should vote to accept pay cuts is in your face.  It’s as if on the one hand we (the wider trade union movement) have a wishlist of things we’d like to see.  But on the other hand we have no intention of actually campaigning for that wishlist – we’ll leave it as a wishlist and we’ll continue to allow our own pockets to be dipped through paycuts, property tax, water tax and everything else.

So what’s to be done??

How have we got to this place??

What is the relationship between trade union leaders and members that has allowed this situation to develop?

Indeed probably the question to be asked is – how do trade union members see themselves and their union membership, how many union members see the union as ‘their union’??

‘The union’

I don’t think anyone here would deny the fact that huge numbers of union members refer to ‘the union’ as some sort of outside body over which they feel they have no - or very little - control or influence.

How often have you heard someone saying ‘What’s ‘the union’ going to do about that? – as if ‘the union’ is some sort of amorphous body somewhere ‘out there’ over which they have no control.

And the truth is that in most cases, most workers have very little control over what ‘the union’ – their union – does or doesn’t do.  I’ve described the battle that was necessary to even have a motion discussed at my union conference – it’s a battle that most people don’t have the energy for (which is what of course does in power want).

And at least we were there – between 700 and 800 delegates – representing the 39,000 or so members.

Ask any member of SIPTU or IMPACT how to have a motion agreed and sent forward to their union conference, ask them how to be elected as a delegate to the union conference where policy is decided – and see how many of them have any clue as to how things work.

I would always have held that for a worker to join a trade union means having to recognise, to some degree, that he or she has different interests from the boss, that s/he has issues in common with fellow workers that can best be advanced by linking together.  But I don’t know whether that is still true.  Are people now joining unions as a sort of ‘insurance policy’ – they’re getting discount deals and cheaper health insurance and they’re buying the ‘insurance’ of having someone to ask if they have a problem in work.  ‘The union’ is seen as a service rather than as a collective body.

And that’s in the public sector – where people can join the union without any repercussions, where people can pay into that insurance policy without any danger that your boss is going to dislike it.  Even still, it is becoming harder and harder to convince younger workers in the public sector to join the union – and if they see ‘the union’ as an insurance policy of some sort that might protect their income levels, well any sensible person would stop paying that insurance as you see your wages and conditions being savaged…

And obviously in the private sector, in employments where joining a union in many cases involves risking the ire of an anti-union employer, you’d want to be fairly convinced that the collective solidarity that a union is supposed to provide does actually exist before taking that risk.  But look around and there’s very little evidence that joining a union and taking that risk is actually going to improve things for you.  Signs on it – union density in the private sector is probably less than 25%.


So the question for us is, I believe, how to address that deficit – how to convince workers who are not members of unions that they should join one, and how to convince workers who are union members that they need to become active , they need to take responsibility for the direction of the union – move from referring to ‘the union’ as something outside of themselves, begin to see the union as OURS, stop seeing ‘head office’ and the ‘officials’  as anything other than our employees who should be taking their instruction from us, and convince fellow workers that there is a benefit to engaging with the union structures and organising to resist.

Surely there would be no better commemoration of 1913 than to re-ignite the spirit of what trade unions started off as.  Larkin described the potential power of our movement as

“The employers cannot carry on industry nor accumulate profits if they have not got the good will of the workers or their acquiescence in carrying on such industry.”

How do we in 2013 re-ignite in workers - union members and non-members alike – that belief in our collective strength?  How do we convince our fellow-workers that just because they say they’re going to cut our wages doesn’t mean we have to let them – we have the ability to collectively withdraw co-operation, disrupt the system and ultimately withdraw our labour in order to prevent us being bullied and pushed around?

How do we give people the confidence and the resolution to believe in an alternative and to believe in our collective strength as workers to impose our agenda and to resist any threatened paycuts?


Anyone who approaches the question honestly would surely agree that the trade union movement is in crisis, that there is a huge job of work to be done to convince the fearful, the apathetic, the hopeless and the angry that their future lies in standing together in solidarity and that things don’t have to be as they are.

And anyone who approaches the question honestly would have to say that we have all – all of us on the left whatever shade of left opinion we might come from – failed utterly in terms of organising people top resist the savage attacks unleashed on us in recent times and presenting a vision of an alternative society that working class people in general would see as an objective and a vision worth fighting for.

We are, I think, faced with asking ourselves the stark question of whether the current trade union movement is fit for purpose?  Is it possible to reform the unions that currently exist into fighting bodies owned and controlled by the members?  Or have they become monoliths of power too concerned with the maintenance of bureaucratic structures, too tied up in the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘but we can’ts’.  And too unwieldy and far removed from where members are on the ground to ever make it possible for members to take control back into their own hands.

I think if trade unions didn’t exist and we were having a discussion about what type of organisation we should set up to defend our interests and campaign for a better standard of living for ourselves and our fellow workers, it’s fairly unlikely that anyone would suggest that we set up a structure such as what we have.

So that’s the question I’m going to throw out there for discussion – if we want to commemorate the spirit of 1913, how do we re-build that spirit in 2013 – how do we re-build a movement from below, a movement that union members can feel proud of and can be part of, can influence, can own, a movement that has the ambition necessary not just to register our unhappiness but to re-discover the fact that its primary function is to resist and obstruct attacks on our wages and conditions.

New type of union

To do that we need to take control of union structures, dump the current leadership and replace them not with an alternative leadership but with a new type of union which will take control back into the members’ hands. We need to return to the situation where decisions are made at the base of the unions by the mass of members rather than the leaders at the top or even branch committees. 

If we are to fight effectively then we need all of the membership actively involved in organising that fight.  We need local union meetings that are packed out, where there is real debate and where clear decisions are made.  We need co-ordination between local sections that is not reliant on full time officials.  Where there is more than one union in a workplace we need meetings of all the union members of that workplace to build solidarity so that when one union acts all unions act.

If we want to commemorate the anniversary of the 1913 lockout we need to once more build the sort of unions that the government & employers are afraid of.  That means unions that are clearly capable of going beyond protest marches or one day token strikes to conducting the sort of ongoing industrial action that can force defeat on the government.  In the public sector, because there are 300,000 of us and the country depends on us to function on a day to day basis, if we build that sort of organisation there is no way a strike could last more than a few days.  If we build that organisation they will be afraid of the cost of strikes, not us.  The point for us is to build a movement capable of organising people not to strike as an act of protest but to strike in order to win.

And the question for us to debate now is – How the hell are we going to do that??

Words: Gregor Kerr

Text of talk given at Dublin Anarchist Bookfair 2013 at session on 'Exploring the Lessons of 1913' - you can listen to an audio recording of all the presentions at that sessions and the discussion that followed.