Jack O’Connor: A Trade Union Strategy to Win for Working People

Jack O'Connor

Jack O’Connor speaking at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2016. Photo: Niamh O’Flynn.

The 2016 Cork Mother Jones Lecture was delivered by Mr Jack O’Connor, President of SIPTU. Jack presented a paper entitled “A Trade Union Strategy to Win for Working People” on Thursday the 28th July, the opening night of the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones festival at the Firkin Crane in Shandon.

In this challenging paper he concludes “that as we stand today, we have the capacity to ensure that workers can organise to win but that will not remain the case indefinitely. The sands of time are ebbing away. It is time to wake up and smell the roses” 
 
Jack referred to several trade union documents during the course of his talk. He has kindly forwarded the “Report of the Commission on the Irish Trade Union Movement….A call to Action presented at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Delegate Conference in Killarney in July 2011 andFuture Positive – Trade Unions and the Common Good”  also from the ICTU in 2013 and which are available from the links to same at the end of this page.
The Cork Mother Jones Committee wish to thank Jack O’Connor for delivering the 2016 Cork Mother Jones Lecture.

 

Speech at the Mother Jones Festival, Cork by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor.

 

A Trade Union Strategy to Win for Working People

 

Comrades and friends,

This year’s Mother Jones Festival takes place against the background of the continuing trauma of the most serious crisis in global capitalism since the 1930s. It is important to say from the outset that this is a demand side crisis largely attributable to exponentially growing inequality in what we know as the “developed world”.

The phenomenon manifests itself in the world of work or the “labour market” in the form of mass unemployment, increasing precariousness and social insecurity on an unprecedented scale. This is increasingly evident in Ireland, Europe and the West. Precarious work, of course, is not new in the developing world where it has been the order of the day for a long time.

It falls to the trade union movement to step up to the task of reasserting human priorities in the workplace and ultimately in the wider economic and social paradigm. It is important to stress this because in the culture of “business unionism” this tends to be taken for granted or even lost sight of altogether. It is also important to say that trade union organisation is the only way to address the task. More important, it is crucial to assert that the trade union movement in Ireland still has the capacity to meet the challenge and to win for working people. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise of this short paper here this evening.

However, to do so, our movement must transform itself, ideologically, culturally and structurally.

In practical terms, it is a challenge which must be met at an industrial, pedagogical and political level.

In order to approach it, we must disabuse ourselves of a number of deeply held myths and misconceptions. One of these, for example, is that the dramatic growth in the, post- Lockout, Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union between Easter Week 1916 and the end of 1918 was primarily attributable to the resistance offered during the Lockout itself and the subsequent events which occurred throughout the decade of rebellion. The fact of the matter is that what happened had more to do with the Munitions Act. This was because, in 1917, the legislation which had been put in place by the government in the United Kingdom to maintain industrial peace for the duration of the war was extended to Ireland. Agricultural Wages Boards which had been set up across the UK to determine wages and conditions to guarantee the food supply were then put in place in Ireland as well. Virtually immediately, agricultural labourers found that the most effective way to secure improvements was by joining a trade union and they flocked to the ranks of the ITGWU in their thousands. It quickly established itself as the dominant union in the sector, absorbing smaller land and labour unions along the way. Membership, which had fallen to somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 by the time of the Easter Rising, increased to 68,000 by the end of 1918 and 120,000 in 1920. Obviously, the sentiment engendered by the Lockout, the Rising and the War of Independence influenced developments but they were not the primary reason for the growth in union membership. The institutional arrangements put in place for conciliation and arbitration over a whole range of industries also resulted in a very dramatic rise in trade union membership and density across every single region of the UK.

That phenomenon has replicated itself repeatedly in all circumstances in which conditions favourable to the growth of union membership have presented – e.g. during the post war period across Europe, the period following the economically regenerative 1960s and the period following entry into the EEC in Ireland. The purpose of this reference is to debunk the myth that declining union density in the Ireland or indeed throughout the developed world is in some way attributable to some kind of inter-generational or cultural disconnect. It could be argued that such exists but it is consequence rather than the cause of the phenomenon.

The simple fact of the matter is that working people and indeed people generally for that matter will organise in one of two circumstances or better still when a combination of both exist. These are:

  1. When they believe they can win and
  2. When they have no other alternative.

That rule applies throughout the history of industrial societies and in all circumstances irrespective of generational dynamics. It therefore follows that the challenge we must overcome is to instill a belief in people that they can actually win by organising.

Of course, the reality is that the balance has shifted quite dramatically against organised workers and in favour of capital over the past quarter of a century or more. This is attributable to the complex interaction of an array of global factors, each of which merits an entirely separate paper on their own. However, for this evening’s purpose I will simply cite the most significant of them:

  1. The fall of the Soviet Union more than a quarter of a century ago. This immediately virtually quadrupled the global supply of labour available for exploitation by capital (from about 750,000 to two billion when China is included).
  2. The extension of the process of globalisation. This imposed the exploitative employment standards of the developing world in the marketplaces of the West.
  3. The decline of manufacturing in the developed economies.
  4. The expansion of household credit and indebtedness in response to the collapse of real incomes.
  5.  The ultimate global collapse of 2008.
  6.  The decline of social democracy and the shift to the centre right in the political arena.

Lenin wasn’t wrong when he said “the crisis of social democracy is the crisis of capitalism”.

In Europe, in particular, the response which has been employed since 2010 (and earlier in our case) has been one of retrenchment – austerity combined with a “race to the bottom” in the workplace to maximise “competitiveness”. This, as we know, has resulted in the generation of mass unemployment particularly among the young in several European countries which has not been seen since the immediate post war years, accompanied by precariousness and hopelessness which is increasingly evolving into desperation.

We are now entering a new and more dangerous phase in the evolution of the crisis of capitalism and of European and global history. What has happened is that the politics has now caught up with the economics as we always said it inevitably would and it is manifesting itself in a sharp swing in most cases to xenophobic nationalism and the radical right. It is no overstatement to say that we are on the road to catastrophe. This leads through the disorderly collapse of the euro which would inevitably result in levels of deprivation and societal break down beyond anything that can be visualised in our everyday imagination. It would end in a regime of competing nation states and ultimately in regional wars.

I should say at this point that unless the policies of one-sided austerity or even fiscal neutrality as they now call it, combined with the race to the bottom in the world of work, are abandoned immediately the scenario I describe above is not some vague possibility – but is actually inevitable.

I turn then to the question as to “What is to be done?”. After all we are not the EU Commission, the Council of Ministers or the governing board of the ECB. We are not even the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). What can the trade union movement under pressure in a small country in the western periphery of Europe actually do? Well, it remains to be seen – but our obligation is to do everything that we can in our own space.

First and most importantly, we must address the ideological question. Our movement is comprised of an array of organisations founded on the basis of different but not incompatible premises. A number of our unions are vocational organisations formed to promote the interests of those employed in a particular profession, vocation, trade or craft. Others are more general in character formed to promote the interests of members but in the context of a wider historical mission towards an egalitarian society. As long as we function on the basis that, irrespective of the prevailing conditions in the economy and more particularly in society, the cause of a particular vocation or trade or craft can be furthered independently, we cannot make real progress. We have to face up to the challenge of influencing the conditions within which we organise and operate as distinct from simply promoting the cause of a particular group in a context which is determined by others.

The other concept that must be debunked is the notion that it is in some way our role to provide an antagonistic voice against management in those businesses and institutions which recognise their employee’s right to organise and be represented by trade unions. This thinking is fundamentally flawed. Our task is to optimise the quality and the security of our members’ employment in these businesses and institutions. It therefore follows that we must be at the forefront of the thrust to enhance productivity and innovation instead of getting in the way of it as we sometimes do. The fact of the matter is that the security and quality of our members’ employment is entirely dependant on the prosperity of the enterprises in which they work. Moreover, the key to good working conditions and indeed standards of living generally is exponentially increasing productivity. I emphasise, because it will undoubtedly be misrepresented, that this is not about increasing the drudgery or onerousness of work. Actually, it is precisely the opposite.

There is another complementary reason for this approach and that is to minimise employer hostility. We have to reverse the current equation in which we can sometimes find ourselves impeding the prospects for an enterprise that engages in collective bargaining instead of actually enhancing them. Meanwhile, we fail to confront those who do not respect their employee’s right to organise or be represented by trade unions. This equation is graphically evident in any analysis of the deployment of trade union resources as between ‘servicing’ members where we are recognised and organising to confront those who do not afford recognition. It is a fundamentally flawed strategy and it is doomed to failure. The reality of it is that, apart from workers, we should be able to demonstrate that employers who recognise trade unions also enjoy an advantage over those who don’t.

The second criterion I mentioned at the outset arises in the pedagogical arena. This is at least two-dimensional.

In the first instance, we have a responsibility to equip workers to assert their own interests by knowing their rights and understanding how to vindicate them. At a collective level, that extends to developing a greater understanding among our members and workers generally of the nature and character of the forces and influences at work in capitalist society. This applies both in terms of the economics of the companies in which people may work and the wider political arena as well.

In parallel with this, we equally have a responsibility as has been the case with the craft unions of the past to facilitate the education, training and development of our members and workers in the enhancement of their skills. This is particularly applicable in the rapidly changing dynamics of the modern labour market where skills and competencies are becoming redundant almost as rapidly as they are appearing.

The third criterion I mentioned at the outset relates to the political arena.  As long ago as the new unionism of the 1880s, our leaders recognised the necessity to compete for political influence and power in order to overcome the limitations of what could be achieved through workplace collective bargaining. This saw the development of political funds and political affiliations to the labour and social democratic parties. Today, in the light of the crisis of social democracy and the increasing diffusion of political representation on the left, there is a need for a more nuanced approach. However, this is not an argument for the depoliticisation of trade unionism. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. However, our political activity should focus on shifting the entire fulcrum of the debate in society in a manner which prioritises human considerations and egalitarian objectives as distinct from promoting one political party. The aim must be to frame the architecture of the political ‘centre ground’.

On the face of it, this seems an awesome challenge. Yet it is still entirely within the capacity of the trade union movement in Ireland as things stand at present but it cannot be undertaken successfully by any single trade union. Thus, we must have the courage and vision to make the changes that will enable us to accomplish it. The roadmap was outlined in the recommendations of the report of the Commission on Trade Union Organisation to the biennial delegate conferences of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, in Killarney in July 2011 and then in Belfast in July 2013 – the centenary of the Lockout.

These envisaged developing a stronger, more united, more coherent movement, organised in a federal rather than a confederal congress. This, while respecting the autonomy of each individual trade union, would facilitate co-ordination of collective bargaining and organising across each of the individual sectors of the economy in both jurisdictions on the island. Such co-ordination would optimise the prospects for the negotiation of the best possible agreements with employers who respect their employees’ right to organise.  Simultaneously, it would enable the deployment of irresistible force in support of workers seeking to organise where unions are not recognised.

This capacity would be reinforced by the development of a fully resourced research capacity, a new workers college, an independent workers controlled media platform and the opening of trade union centres in every major town on the island.

The elements are actually reflected in the ‘One Cork’ project which is underway on a small scale here in this city.

As we stand today, we have the capacity to ensure that workers can organise to win but that will not remain the case indefinitely. The sands of time are ebbing away. It is time to wake up and smell the roses!

 

Documents referred to in our introduction to Jack O’Connor’s address:

Report of the Commission on the Irish Trade Union Movement – A Call to Action

Jack O Connor A Call to Action Final version 

Future Positive – Trade unions and the Common Good

Jack O’Connor TradeComReport_web

August 1st – Mother Jones Day

Days Posters 2016_Page_5

Today, 1st August, is Mother Jones Day in Cork and it is also the final day of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2016.

There are just three events on today’s programme all of which will be held at the Maldron Hotel, Shandon.  We start at 4.00pm with a showing of Tadhg Barry Remembered – the story of trade unionist, socialist and Irish republican Alderman Tadhg Barry who was shot dead by a sentry at Ballykinlar prison camp in November 1921, just hours before he was due to be released.  The documentary was made by Cork based Frameworks Films.

At 6.00pm we show The Spirit of Mother Jones Festivals Highlights 2012-2015 which features some of the memorable moments of the first four years of the festival. Our thanks to Frameworks Films who have recorded a huge amount of material at the festival since 2012 and who have similarly created a repository of film recording Cork’s present and recent past which we are certain will become a huge resource for this city.

At 7.30pm Bandon born author and award winning journalist Justine McCarthy will deliver a lecture on “Greed is Good for Nothing”.

 

All of today’s events are at the Maldron Hotel, John Redmond Street in the Shandon area of Cork and are completely free.

Day 3 at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival

Days Posters 2016_Page_3

Today is the 3rd day of the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones festival in Cork.  The first two days have been most interesting and have attracted large crowds including a number of international guests.

Today’s events begin at 11.30am with local historian Luke Dineen who will talk about the 1922 Post Office strike which was the first major industrial dispute in the history of the state.

At 2.30pm we have Anne Twomey of Blackpool Historical Society who will tell the story of the Wallace Sisters.

At 4.00pm we will show Yvette Vanson’s documentary The Battle for Orgreave which deals with the disturbing events at Orgreave during the UK Miner’s Strike. Pat Egan of Unite, the Union, himself a former miner will talk about the events.  We will include here a tribute to Dave Hopper, General Secretary of the Durham Miner’s Association who was due to speak again at this year’s festival but died suddenly earlier this month.

At 7.00pm Randall MacLowry’s film The Mine Wars will be shown. This tells the story of the West Virginia mine wars of the early years of the 20th century in which Mother Jones herself championed the rights of the miners and their.

To finish off the day, at 9.00pm a musical treat is in store with John Nyhan, Mick Treacy and Friends who will perform and sing “Songs of the Mining Tradition.

The festival continues until Monday evening, 1st August – Mother Jones Day.

 

Mrs. Catherine McGuinness

Catherine McGuinness

Catherine McGuinness

Mrs. Catherine McGuinness is indisposed and unable to travel to Cork on Friday 29th July. All at the Cork Mother Jones Committee send our best wishes to Catherine for a speedy return to good health. Once recovered, she has promised to come to Cork to address this issue.

The meeting in relation to Direct Provision will go ahead at the Firkin Crane on Friday evening at 7.30. Ms, Fiona Finn, CEO of NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, will speak in relation to the operation of Direct Provision in Ireland. Everyone with an interest in this topic is very welcome to come along to her talk and discussion.
We wish to thank Fiona for agreeing to speak on this important issue.

About Fiona Finn

Fiona holds a Bachelor of Law degree (BCL) and a Master of Law (LLM) from University College Cork. She has a particular interest in International Human Rights Law and Public International Law.

Fiona Finn

Fiona Finn

Fiona has over eighteen years of experience in the fields of social justice, human rights, asylum and immigration. Fiona joined Nasc in 2008 and became CEO in 2010. Prior to that she worked for fifteen years in London, initially with a homeless charity and latterly as a senior officer with in the London Borough of Camden. During her time with the Borough, Fiona worked at a senior level across a number of departments including the Welfare Rights Section and at an Independent Law Centre, dealing with access to social protection for asylum-seekers and refugees. She also headed up a policy unit working to promote social inclusion policies for Irish emigrants in the Borough. Fiona also holds a Diploma in Business Studies and Marketing and is a graduate of the Marketing Institute of Ireland.

Human Rights in a Divided World.

Fergal Keane

Fergal Keane (Photo: Limerick Leader)

The Cork Mother Jones Committee is pleased to announce that Fergal Keane has agreed to speak to the topic “Human Rights in a Divided World”.

He will appear on Sunday evening 31st July at the Maldron Hotel at 7.30pm.

Born in London, his mother Maura Hassett wasfrom Cork city and father Eamonn Keane from Listowel, both actors, who had met in Cork and were married in Ballyphehane church. The family also lived in Dublin for some before he moved to Cork to live with May Hassett, his grandmother.  Fergal Keane spent much of his youth in Cork, attending St Joseph’s National School on the Mardyke and then the Presentation College nearby where he came under the influence of Brother Jerome Kelly, “a man who would change my life”. In 1972, Brother Kelly, founded SHARE – Schoolboys Harness Aid for Relief of the Elderly which was set up to assist the elderly in Cork to obtain a home.

He says of Cork “More than any other place I have lived, it is Cork I regard as my home.”

He became a reporter with the Limerick Leader and later went to Dublin where he worked in The Irish Press. Moving to RTE he gained experience as a foreign correspondent especially in Africa, before joining the BBC.

In his memoir All of these People published in 2005, Fergal describes, while reporting on the Eritrean war, seeing a badly wounded boy Ande Mikail lying in a tent covered in a foil blanket after being wounded from an Ethiopian MiG fighter…

“That moment on the Eritrean hillside was a point of departure for me. I had seen news photographs of war victims and I’d watched documentaries. But they didn’t smell the way that tent did, and the eyes of the dying on the screenhad never caught me the way Ande Mikail’s had. Having looked into the eyes of this child of war I could not look away again.”

He is one of the BBC’s most distinguished foreign correspondents and is a multi-award winning journalist and author. He has reported and borne witness from many of the world’s trouble spots such South Africa, Rwanda, Iraq, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. He describes the conflicts around him from the perspectives of the ordinary people and children who are suffering and dying in circumstances over which they have no control or say.  The recipient of a BAFTA, he has won the George Orwell prize for literature. He was named Amnesty International’s Human Rights reporter of the Year in 1993.

Fergal has made several documentaries such as Forgotten Britain for the BBC and The Story of Ireland (RTE and BBC Northern Ireland)

He is the author of many books including The Bondage of Fear, Road of Bones,and Season of Blood Rwandan Journey, Letter to Daniel and All of These People…a memoir.

Fergal loves to potter by the sea shore at Ardmore in West Waterford.

Luke Dineen to tell little-known story of one Ireland’s 1922 post office strike

Luke Dineen has been a regular contributor to the Mother Jones summer school and we are delighted to welcome him back in 2016. He will address the significance of the Postal Strike of 1922 at the Maldron Hotel on Saturday 30th July at 11.30.

JJ Walsh Countess Markievicz

J.J. Walsh with Countess Markievicz

 

”The Postal Strike of 1922 was the first major industrial dispute the new government of the Irish Free State faced and it occurred right in the middle of the Civil War.

When the dispute began, the government refused to concede the right of public servants to strike. The postal workers were condemned for taking industrial action against wage reductions because, as members of the public service, they enjoyed permanent, pensionable positions.

The government’s handling of the postal strike challenges the narrative that the establishment of the Free State represented the triumph of democracy. Rather, it shows an authoritarian government that was intolerant of dissent and willing to use harsh measures to suppress it.”

(Extract from Cathal Brennan in online article in The Irish Story).

The Cork postal workers had earlier voted to strike in February 1922 due to threatened pay cuts, but action was postponed as a result of union intervention whereby an independent commission was established to examine the issues in relation to pay.

Luke Dineen

Cork historian Luke Dineen

The Postmaster General during the strike was James Joseph Walsh, known as J.J., a TD from Cork. Born near Bandon, Walsh was a former postal worker himself, an active trade unionist and member of Sinn Féin. He had taken part in the 1916 Rising in the GPO and received a ten year sentence.Described by Marcus De Burca author of The GAA…a History as “a dominating Cork personality”, he had also been Chairman (President) of the Cork County Board of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). His Departmental Secretary in 1922 was P. S. O’Hegarty, another Corkman and a former post office worker in London who was friendly with Michael Collins.

The events during this strike in September 1922 and the government’s brutal reaction form a surprising if largely forgotten portrait of the new Irish State at the time and raise a fundamental question….…was the labour movement the biggest casualty of the Irish Civil War and its aftermath?

Luke Dineen will tell the story of the events surrounding this strike on Saturday morning 30th July at 11.30 am. Luke is currently writing his PhD Thesis at University College Cork.

Direct Provision – Not the Solution!

Cork Mother Jones Committee is pleased to confirm that retired judge Mrs Catherine McGuinness will speak at the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones summer school. She will speak to the topic “Direct Provision – Not the solution!” at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Friday 29th July at 7.30 pm.

Catherine McGuinness

Catherine McGuinness

Catherine McGuinness was born in Belfast in 1934. A barrister, she was appointed as a judge in the Circuit Court in 1994, later she served in the High Court and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2000, where she served until 2006. Elected a senator in the Dublin University constituency in 1979 Senator McGuinness remained in  Seanad Éireann (Ireland’s Senate)  until 1987. She has been appointed to the Council of State twice, initially by President Hillery and more recently in 2012 by President Higgins.

Mrs McGuinness was President of the Law Reform Commission from 2005 until 2011 and has served on various Boards and other organisations over many years giving freely of her time and experience. She received a 2010 “People of the Year Award” for her pioneering service and vast contribution to Irish life.In June 2011 she became a patron of the Irish Refugee Council and has consistently campaigned for Children’s Rights.

Direct Provision centre

A Direct Provision centre near Athlone

Direct Provision is the term given to the system for dealing with asylum seekers in Ireland. Initially established as an emergency measure in 1999, it commenced in 2000 and it quickly became permanent with over 30 establishments around the country. While asylum seekers receive full board accommodation, some access to the health and education systems, criticism has grown. Many thousands have been held in the system for years, some for over 5 years. Asylum seekers receive just €19.10 per week, children €9.60. There was a recent increase in the payment for children to €15.60 per week. At the end of April 2016, over 4000 people, including over a thousand children were still living in Direct Provision.

Complaints about lack of privacy, unnecessary restrictions, lack of cooking facilities, long stays, lack of independent complaints procedure, sheer boredom leading to mental health issues have been raised over a long period. NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre had published a damning critique of the system in Cork called “Hidden Cork”.

Direct Provision Cork

Children protest at the Kinsale Road Direct Provision Centre in Cork in 2014.

The Irish Refugee Council launched a national campaign “End Institutional Living” in 2013. An Independent Working Group under Dr Bryan McMahon was established in October 2014 to report to the Government in relation to improving the position. It reported in June 2015 with a series of recommendations.

Mrs Catherine McGuinness will speak on “Direct Provision – Not a Solution!” at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Friday evening 29th July at 7.30. It will be followed by a discussion and all are welcome to come along and participate.