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

Organising in the Shadow of the Law

Tish Gibbons

Tish Gibbons

Tish Gibbons works as a researcher with SIPTU’s Strategic Organising Department and leads up its innovative Educate to Organise programme.

She was a union organiser with SIPTU from 1997 to 2008 and will address the above topic at this year’s summer school.

Tish has worked in the Irish trade union movement for 30 years starting in a clerical capacity with the FWUI before becoming a union organiser with SIPTU in 1997.  A constant part-time student, She holds a Diploma in Industrial Relations and a BA in English & Politics from UCG; a Post-graduate Diploma in Social Research Methods (OU) and MA Industrial Relations (Keele).  After studying for four years at the Working Lives Research Institute in the London Metropolitan University, she was awarded a professional doctorate for her thesis on union recognition and organising.

She is a board member of the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class and has published in labour law, industrial relations and labour history journals. Earlier this year she addressed the annual Jim Connell commemoration weekend at Crossakiel, Co Meath.

Tish has spent many years as a union organiser on the ground, as did Mother Jones in the USA. The Cork Mother Jones Committee is delighted that she has agreed to bring her experiences and her views on organising workers to the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones Summer School.

Ms. Gibbons will speak on Organising in the Shadow of the Law at 4.30 on Friday 30th July at the summer school. All welcome.

Jack O’Connor to deliver the 2016 Cork Mother Jones Lecture.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee is pleased to announce that the Cork Mother Jones Lecture 2016 will be delivered by Mr Jack O’Connor, General President of SIPTU.

Jack O'Connor

Jack O’Connor

The 5th annual lecture will take place at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Thursday 28th July at 8pm, following the 2016 festival and Summer School  opening ceremony at the Mother Jones plaque in Shandon.

Jack O’Connor is probably the most recognised and best known trade union leader in Ireland. A Dubliner, Jack was originally a trade union activist before working for the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland. When the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland (both founded by “Big” Jim Larkin) merged in 1990 to form SIPTU, he became regional organiser for SIPTU.

He was appointed General President of SIPTU in 2003. Jack was also President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) from July 2009 to July 2011.  His declared priorities are combating worker exploitation, promoting people’s rights to participate in collective bargaining. He promotes the principle of “Fairness at Work and Justice in Society. He refuses to serve on any State Board while in his present role in SIPTU. Jack is a member of the Labour Party.

The future of the organised labour and the trade union movement in Ireland and indeed across Europe is being faced with a concerted move by governments in the public sector and multinationals in the private sector to enforce changes in work patterns, forced self-employment, zero hours contracts, reduced pay and conditions and more productivity. Hostile opposition by employers to trade union organising in workplaces has grown. Many young people joining the workforces of multinationals and other enterprises are not allowed the opportunity to become union members.  The huge achievements of the trade union movement over the past century, achievements, which many people today take for granted, are under sustained threat.

Jack O'Connor

Jack O’Connor, General President of SIPTU

These issues require a serious and well thought out response from the organised labour movement. Jack O’Connor has a contribution to make.

He will discuss his views for the future responses of the labour movement to the changing organised labour environment at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Thursday evening 28th July at 8pm in a talk entitled “Organising to win – what is to be done!”

WAPC group who spoke at festival visit SIPTU

Shortly after they appeared at this year’s Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in Cork, representatives of Yorkshire mining communities including Anne Scargill and Betty Cook of Women Against Pit Closures paid a courtesy visit to Liberty Hall, Dublin, national headquarters of the country’s largest trade union, SIPTU.  There they were received by SIPTU’s General President Jack O’Connor.   SIPTU were also generous part sponsors of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.

Betty and Anne with Jack O'Connor

Anne Scargill (right) and Betty Cook of Women Against Pit Closures being presented with a copy of Padraig Yeates’ book on the 1913 Dublin Lockout by SIPTU President Jack O’Connor. Photo: Jimmy Thomson.

 

 

Tadhg Barry Remembered

The extraordinary life and death of Tadhg Barry from Blarney Street.

 

Tadhg Barry

Cover image of Donal O Drisceóil’s pamphlet on Tadhg Barry

Tadhg Barry Remembered produced by Frameworks Films in collaboration with the Cork Council of Trade Unions.

 

The film of Tadhg Barry was first shown in Cork in 2013 and was also shown at the 2013 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. The film has provoked a huge reaction from many people, based not least as to how an extraordinary Irishman could be nearly forgotten. However that is now changing and the film has been shown in Cork, Dublin, and Belfast and also in England and there are plans to show it on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language television station. Recently a new road on the north side of Cork City near Apple Computers has been named the Tadhg Barry Road.

 

This film will be introduced by Trevor Quinn of SIPTU and Jack O’Sullivan of the Cork Council of Trade Unions and will be shown on Friday morning 1st August 2014 at 11am at the Firkin Crane as part of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.

Ann Piggott, President of Cork Council of Trade Unions, speaking at the naming ceremony for Tadhg Barry Road, Cork.

Ann Piggott, President of Cork Council of Trade Unions, speaking at the naming ceremony for Tadhg Barry Road, Cork.

 

Tadhg Barry was born in Cork in 1880. He lived on Blarney Street, went to school in the North Monastery and commenced work at Our Lady’s Asylum in 1899 as an attendant and after a period in England, came back to work as a public servant in the Pensions Board.

From the turn of the century, he became immersed in the growing national, cultural literary and political revival and moved in these circles which were led by Tomás Mac Curtain, Sean O’Hegarty and Terence MacSwiney. Tadhg was a brilliant organiser, keeper of notes and minutes, fine writer, quietly efficient and had wide interests.

Barry was an active member of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) but he and some others grew impatient with an inefficient Cork GAA Board and re organised it over a period of years. He had been involved with a number of GAA Clubs including Eire Og, Sundays Well Hurling Club and Fainne an Lae Camogie Club on Blarney Street. He played hurling, refereed, coached hurling and camogie, and wrote as the columnist Ciotog in the Cork Free Press. He even found time to write a book “Hurling and How to Play it” in 1916 especially for the boys of the North Mon.

He became more active with the Irish Volunteers and organised meetings for Larkin and James Connolly. Following the period of confusion in Cork which accompanied the 1916 Rising, Barry was active in re-establishing the Irish Transport & General Workers Union in the city, following its virtual demise locally after the 1909 Cork Lockout. As he became more prominent, due to mass imprisonments of leaders after 1916, he attracted attention from the authorities and spent much of 1917 in prison.

Barry threw himself into union activities during 1918 onwards as well as being very active in Sinn Fein and the Volunteers. He began to write for the Southern Star, under the heading “Neath Shandon’s Steeple” and contributed articles to various trade union publications.

Following a further period of imprisonment in 1918, he emerged to become a full-time organiser and secretary of the ITGWU No 1 (James Connolly Memorial) Branch. Never one to stay still for very long, Barry led strikes, pursued demands for wages increases and made the branch a model unit. He was selected as a candidate in the local elections of 1920 and Alderman Barry romped home.

He then combined his union activities with his public duties, which was very difficult at a time when two Lord Mayors of Cork died, one murdered and one on hunger strike. With virtual war taking place on the City streets, he managed to organise the Irish Trade Union Congress AGM in the old Connolly Hall in August 1920.

Finally in early February 1921, he was arrested and sent to Ballykinlar Camp in Co. Down, where he organised the camp activities and recreation, many socialist in nature, to keep the hundreds of volunteers active in those months. As the Treaty talks progressed after the Truce, some of the volunteers were being released.

On 15th November 1921, as he joined many others to say goodbye to a departing group, he was suddenly shot dead by a young sentry named Barrett. The cover up started immediately and the inquest was inconclusive as the British military authorities refused to cooperate.

His remains were returned to Cork; thousands of people marched in his funeral procession in Dublin or attended the passing of his remains through various towns.

On arrival in Cork, the body of Tadhg Barry was met by tens of thousands of people representing all shades of union, labour, nationalist and republican opinion as his remains were taken to the North Chapel. Sunday 20th November 1921 saw a huge turnout of people again on the route to his final resting place at St Finbarr’s cemetery.

Tadhg Barry represented a proud socialist republican tradition in the Connolly mould. The British forces regarded him as a serious troublemaker; however his active involvement in trade union, community, sporting and social organisations made him widely respected throughout the city. He operated quietly, had a reputation of a man who got things done effectively. His relatively short lifetime of service in the GAA, trade unions, and politically, so much of it behind the scenes out of the limelight in key pivotal positions, deserves to be more permanently commemorated in his native city.

We wish to thank Dr. Donal O’Drisceoil of U.C.C for his research from which the above account is drawn and which is contained in his pamphlet Tadhg Barry (1880-1921) The Story of an Irish Revolutionary.       

 

.

Interesting films at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2014

Film has beenfilm reel an important part of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival since the beginning.  This year we will be showing five films covering the struggles of  people in extraordinary situations in the fight for justice and rights.  All film showings are free of charge. All welcome.

Tuesday 29th July – Friday 1st August 2014 

Admission is free and all are welcome. Firkin Crane Centre Shandon 6.00: “Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman” a film by Rosemary Feurer and Laura Vazquez.     Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Woman is a documentary about the amazing labor heroine, Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones. Mother Jones’ organising career influenced the history of early 20th century United States. She overcame class and gender limitations to shape an identity that allowed her to become an effective labor organizer in the early 20th century. Mother Jones transformed personal and political grief and rage about class injustices into an effective persona that led workers into battles that changed the course of history. The terrible conditions and labor oppression of the time motivated her to traverse the country, in order to organise against injustices.

Release Date: May 2007 (Canada)Runtime: 24 min

Thursday: 31st July  

(Firkin Crane Centre downstairs)   11am:              Film: The Battle for Orgreave, (A film by Yvette Vanson, Producer/Director. www.yvettevanson).   In this film we witness the violent struggle of miners trying to save their jobs in what became one of the biggest public disturbances Britain has ever seen. The camera focuses on the blood covered face of an angry protester, he looks defiant as he is led away by riot police. This is no criminal but a man trying to protect his livelihood. 55 miners faced long prison terms because of their involvement in the disturbance at Orgreave. This film looks at their fight for justice. Orgreave in the North of England was the focal point for a mass protest by miners in June 1984. At this time miners were angry over proposed pit closures and reacted by striking and pressurising other pits to close. The culmination of these protests was a mass gathering of miners from all over the country at Orgreave. On the morning of 18th June miners were escorted into Orgreave. At this point police tactics already resembled a military campaign. After a push by the miners the police acted with force charging the pickets on horses. The protest soon turned violent with the police using heavy-handed tactics such as dogs and batons in an attempt to suppress the riot. In this film we interview defendants about their experiences of being at Orgreave and the tactics used by police.

Release Date: 1985   Runtime: 52 min   5.30 pm     

 

“Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” a film from Greece by Lamprini    Thoma and Nickos Ventouras. (Irish Premier)   The Ludlow Massacre and the assassination of Greek immigrant and labor leader Louis Tikas (Elias Spantidakis) is one of the decisive moments of the American labor movement, an event that connects, a century later, the United States of 1914 to the labor and immigrant demands of Greece of 2014. Lamprini Thoma and Nikolaos Ventouras examined the memories, the history and the legacy of Louis Tikas and the Ludlow massacre in Colorado, talked with prominent historians, artists and descendants of Ludlow miners, and documented the scars left by this tragedy on the body of working America. Release Date: 2014 Runtime: 92 min http://www.palikari.org/

Friday 1st August. Mother Jones Day. 

(Firkin Crane Centre downstairs)   11am:        The extraordinary life and death of Tadhg Barry from Blarney St.         (Frameworks Films) with Trevor Quinn SIPTU, Jack O’Sullivan CCTU.   This documentary tells the story of Tadhg Barry (1880-1921), a native of Cork city, who has largely been forgotten. It seems hard to believe that a man whose funeral closed shops and factories could be relegated to a footnote in history. And yet this is what has happened to a man who was one of the last people to be killed by British forces during Ireland’s War of Independence, just weeks prior to the signing of the Treaty.

Release Date: 2013

Tadhg Barry Remembered has been produced by Frameworks Films in collaboration with the Cork Council of Trade Unions for broadcast on Cork Community Television. It was first broadcast on Cork Community Television on Sunday 5th May at 8pm. The documentary was funded under the Sound & Vision scheme, an initiative of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

8.00 pm:   “Mother Jones and her Children”.  (Firkin Crane upstairs.) Documentary Premiere by Frameworks Films. Release Date: 2014