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New Union launched in Cork
5th April 2004
The gathering of 80+ delegates and a handful of observers in Cork's Victoria hotel on Saturday 3rd April to launch a new union - the Independent Worker's Union (IWU) should be of significance to all working-class activists in Ireland. The launch was the culmination of a number of intense struggles to build a defence of the most exploited elements of the working class in the Cork area and a convoluted battle with the state to convert a negotiating licence for an older Cork butcher's union into a licence for the new union - an important issue, as it confers immunity from claims by employers in the event of industrial action.
In fact the event was ignored by most of the established left groups, something that tells us more about the politics of the groups and their cosy alliance with the scabs running ICTU than it tells us about the new union.
The significance of the launch should be self-evident. It is one of a limited number of routes through which the Irish working class can break out of the shackles of partnership. It's the method historically most favoured by the class, something that one Galway delegate drew on heavily when he recalled the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI) and the tradition of Jim Larkin.
However the Larkin example shows the difficulties of the 'new union' strategy. It tends to go around a central task - that of defeating the bureaucratic control of the existing leadership and can cut militants off from the mass of the working class who stay in the existing structures and whom the militants need to win to their ranks.
The biggest problem of the conference is that it was not given over to discussing this difficulty or developing a strategy for winning over the mass of workers in the existing unions. The reason for this soon became clear from the debate. An assumed collective strategy was already in existence - one that had a number of serious weaknesses.
The story that the delegates told of the things they stood for was straightforward:
The first element was an uncompromising dismissal of partnership and recognition of the damage that years of such agreements has done to the working class and trade union rights.
The second element was simply the bread and butter of trade unionism - the effective representation of individual workers. This is such a novel idea that the branch has had significant recruitment in the Cork area.
The third element was to represent the most oppressed sections of the class - a passionate speech in defence of the new union was made by a delegate representing local homehelps who had been locked in a long dispute with the council. In addition enthusiastic support was given to defending the rights of émigré workers in Ireland.
The fourth element was to seed branches outside the Cork area. Delegates from Galway, Dublin and the North showed that this had had some success, but it was clear that by itself it would not be enough to build the new union as a national force.
It was the fifth element that showed up a major blind spot in the strategy of the new union - a belief that they could break through to the mass of the working class through the 'left wing' of the trade union bureaucracy. One delegate spoke of the ATGWU being 'downtrodden' by the ICTU. In fact the majority of the ATGWU went to some lengths to punish their former secretary, Mick O'Reilly, for mild criticism of the partnership agreements and Mick went to great lengths, even when fighting for his life, not to step outside the rules and make any direct or open appeal to members.
A six element was syndicalism. Delegates saw very clearly the tasks that faced them, but saw the solution as lying only within the union movment rather than in also building a political movement. This was at its clearest in debates around privatisation, where the scale of the coming offensive was seen in some detail but no clear defensive strategy was at hand.
The strategic weakness was at its clearest at the high point of the conference, when Mick O'Reilly was supposed to appear as guest of honour and offer solidarity to the new union. Mick did not appear and it should be clear that if he were to support the new union he would be stepping far beyond his earlier criticisms of the trade union leadership that almost cost him his extremely well-paid job in the bureaucracy.
All that said, there was much to praise. I have never before been at a trade union conference where role of the standing orders committee was to aid discussion rather than stifle it. A democratic structure allowed rank and file workers to speak from the heart and made it clear that, under the gag of the official movement, there was a real anger and resentment at the wholesale transfer of wealth from poor to rich that is occurring in Irish society.
At least these workers find themselves free to act and to defend themselves. They may play a significant role in the coming struggles, but to a certain extent this depends on the reaction of the vast mass of the working class when it becomes crystal clear that the trade union bureaucracy are in the vanguard of the privatisation offensive against the workers.