Our Class Needs A Strong Labour Movement

Tommy McKearney, writing in Socialist Voice makes the call for a strong labour movement.

Do you recall the old Joe Hill song “The Preacher and the Slave,” which included the great line “Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”? The song was composed over a century ago, and some may believe that harsh working conditions are a thing of the past. For those who think that, we now have a different, more enlightened type of capitalist employer.

Then consider a recent posting in the “situations vacant” columns of a rural newspaper. The advertisement read:

. . . we currently require a pool of casual staff that may be called upon at short notice to work in various roles that arise within our health foods, bakery, dairy, and retail departments. It is important that applicants are flexible in their approach to their hours of work, as these roles will involve weekdays, evenings, weekend and night shifts.

This employer is based in Co. Armagh but advertised for workers in Co. Monaghan—proof, if it were needed, that neo-liberalism and exploitation of the working class transcend partition.
As this advertisement was appearing, workers in the local Tesco branch in Monaghan were preparing to strike for one of the most basic of rights: to have a long-standing contract observed by the management.

Moreover, as Mandate members were getting ready to take action, the media were reporting Bus Éireann’s decision to cut its employees’ terms and conditions while also closing important bus services between rural Ireland and Dublin. And all the while the minister with responsibility, the otherwise stridently verbose Shane Ross, was insisting that public transport in the Republic should be regulated by purely commercial considerations.  

It would appear that Ross’s only contribution to the provision of a public good is to remind us of James Connolly’s observation that governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class. Because, while the actions of Tesco and Bus Éireann are at present in the public eye, they are merely examples of an overarching campaign, backed by the state, to push down workers’ wages and undermine their terms and conditions in the work-place. Similar practices are commonplace throughout the manufacturing, retail and service sectors, while this type of pressure is also being felt by middle-ranking professionals.

In spite of this, the Fine Gael-led coalition continues with its self-congratulatory line that, under the leadership of Enda Kenny and his accomplices, the Republic has experienced an economic recovery. They point to a recent report from the Central Statistics Office showing that the unemployment rate for January 2017 fell to 7.1 per cent from 7.2 per cent in December 2016.

What the government’s spin doctors failed to say, though, is that the CSO also reported that, despite growth in employment, more than 100,000 people are working part-time,¹ because they can’t find full-time jobs. And, ominously, Ireland’s rate of low-paid employment is among the highest in the European Union. Moreover, privatisation in industries such as housing, health and care for the elderly, and the less visible but still onerous costs to parents of educating children, have all undermined the social wage.

Against this backdrop, the balance of power on the shop floor has continued to move towards the employer. A striking member of Mandate told me that the Tesco management had threatened workers on short-term contracts that if they took part in the strike their contracts would not be renewed. Don’t forget either that many employers in the retail trade refuse union recognition altogether.

What we are experiencing in Ireland (and it is happening north and south) is part of a global phenomenon as capital responds to the 2008 financial crisis. As Socialist Voice has repeatedly stated, the ruling class is taking advantage of the situation to strengthen its grip over the economy and society through the imposition of what is euphemistically called “austerity.” Nor should we be so naïve as to believe that this is happening by accident. Well-funded and corporate-supported schools of business studies are everywhere producing management cadres indoctrinated with a philosophy that a writer in the Financial Times recently described as hyena capitalism.

To counteract this continuing offensive on the working class it is essential that organised labour is equipped with countervailing power. However, the capitalist ruling class everywhere has ruthlessly and indeed scientifically employed globalisation and contemporary technology to weaken the labour movement. The ease with which capital and labour can be migrated from country to country has intimidated many working people. As a result, trade union density in Ireland is falling in the private sector, and while it is still significant in the public sector all too often the struggle there is defensive.
Put bluntly, as organised labour is at present structured, it is experiencing increasing difficulty in finding the necessary leverage to hold its own, let alone win intensive industrial disputes; and, worst of all, the bosses know this.

Nevertheless, organised labour does have influence, and demonstrated this through the water tax protests, where it was the key in the mobilising of tens of thousands. Also worth noting is that falling sales in Tesco during the recent strike show that a sizeable section of the public supported the workers’ action and refused to pass the pickets.

The trade union movement has to bring this asset to bear on all situations; and therein lies an avenue that must surely be pursued. The working class needs a strong labour movement, just as organised labour needs the active support of communities outside the work-place. There has to be a recognition within working-class communities that issues such as that of Tesco and Bus Éireann workers are matters of concern to all and must be actively supported by all.

Achieving this will demand effort, and not just by trade union officials but by all left-wing activists. One suggestion would be to encourage a review of organised labour’s relationship with the wider community and how this can be improved and strengthened. There already exists a considerable body of research dealing with this issue and the concept of “community unionism” in general.² Such material could provide a basis for initial discussion, and indeed some of our unions have already made tentative steps in this direction.

However, more must be done to harness people-power in the struggle to ensure that the balance of power swings back towards organised labour; and it’s a responsibility that all on the left must share.

1. Employment Monitor (Social Justice Ireland), no. 3, January 2017, p. 2, at http://bit.ly/2lZXdtu.
2. Just one example among others: Jane Holgate, Trade Union Involvement in Broad-Based Community Organising: A Comparative Study of London, Sydney and Seattle (University of Leeds, Working Paper no. 14), at http://bit.ly/2mDmSVJ.


  1. The example has been set by government collection of corporation tax on big corporations with which they are subservient to.

    Within typical capitalist structure the trickle effect in many of the growing technology industries in particular given they are employment growth sectors in Ireland is to create a culture of feathering your own nest at the expense of others lower in the food chain which is then further exploited by employers and their agents in management to tactically reward some and isolate others in a calculated way and trade Unionism gets demonized such that anyone with such interests is categorized and marked.

    There is a strategic counter organized Labour movement alive and operational within many foreign multi-nationals and it is thriving from the ability to attract educated employees from some of the lower paid European Labour forces entice them to take jobs on lower wages then rewarding some as a template for success to show others that if you play the game you will be looked after.

    Meanwhile with rates and conditions driven down and with the ostracization of Trade Unionists organized Labour is smashed as the individuals often take quiet deals breaking any hope of collective bargaining. This needs to be addressed in order to turn the tide back for the worker.The challenge is how to make inroads in work environments which have evolved in sectors containing such "educated" and international Labour.

  2. The price of public transport in Ireland is shocking compared to other countries, it costs 9 Euro to go from Galway City to Inverin, the equivalent journey in Britain is about 2 Euro, for such an intermittent service, I wondered where this money was going.

    But in terms of trade unions, are there any that prioritise Irish workers?

    Socialists claim the system is structurally amoral, so why would making moral argueents to its engineers against, such an arrangement be expected to gain traction?
    Wouldnt it be better to challenge the system according to its set parameters. Low wages are only possible over a medium term when there is a surplus of labor. But given the people that would represent the workers have been handed terms like 'racism','xenophobia' etc by the same people who benefit most from the system. This type of thinking ensures the movements that propagate those terms build carry the seeds of their own destruction. They are unable to challenge a unlimmeted movement of labor from poor countries. Most richer Western governments 'coincidentally' have a raft of laws to set the allowed parameters of such a discussion should others try.

  3. Daithi, surely if you have a closed shop union agreement then you wouldn't have to prioritise Irish workers or compete with immigrant labour because all workers would be in same agreement. The argument that unions are just as corrupt as the elite and counter productive don't stand up to emperical evidence. America's economy was strongest with strong unionised workforce, Australia does ok with the closed union mentality albeit with different immigration laws. Deregulation ane the defeat of unions has coincided with the biggest drop in standard of living since the world war. Socialism has to make a comeback as capitalist apologists offer no alternative bar it's the best of a bad lot.
    Capitalist class have given us global recession, austerity, the financial bullying of Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy, so on, it gives us bonus culture, attack on the vulnerable, endless conflicts and still the majority believe it to be the best system.

  4. David, nowhere have I used the term corrupt. If you think people whose ideology considers Irish born workers in the top 10% of the worlds rich due to their birth in a Western economy, feel free to support them, and continue to welcome others to share and transfer this excess wealth.

  5. Oh dear Mr Kearney if R2W trade unions have anything to do with controlling class consciousness then we are indeed in for dictatorship. I see you are sucked into the Unite/Mandate, 2 British imperialist unions, propaganda "organised labour does have influence, and demonstrated this through the water tax protests, where it was the key in the mobilising of tens of thousands". I would have put this as 'they demonstrated how to usurp and control a mass movement". Not only that but you also miss how much Sinn Fein were in control of R2W which led to the fiasco of Right2Change, the ousting by manipulation and lies of the left Anti Austerity Alliance.

  6. I would like to add another comment on this article. It is an important subject and one that needs discussed a lot more. First I am not going into it is but 'class' needs elaborated on and indeed the working class need to understand Class Consciousness in the first place. It seems ironical though since the left can not even agree on the concept of Brexit, Europe and neoliberalism. Where do the Unions stand on this?

    Talking about Unions, I would like to point you to a RTE radio interview at the start has Adrian Kane, SIPTU Irish Water official sticking up for said outfit and threatening official action if they try to get rid of IW.

    This is an interesting angle but one, in my view, shows the insular, introverted, narrow minded way trade union work. They are there to protect their workforce not society in general. In this case of course it depends what you think of IW but I could list other similar stories e.g where a factory is spewing shit into air or sea, they don't want to know for fear of closure or jobs. I have experienced this over and over.

    Here's the link which includes other interesting stuff.


    Of course there is a great need for organising labour but organising in such a way that is inclusive and that they have an understanding of class consciousness and the wider society. It is lack of this that has seen the demise of Unions coupled of course with EU legislation and worldwide neoliberal policies.

    Just to finish I have a big suspicion about unions like Unite and Mandate both British unions (I think) What are they doing here. I know our own ones mostly shit but surely control of these one are in England their first priority. I don't know the internals but is it true that people in Ireland can vote in English elections and vice versa?
    I am all for internationalism but only in a federal sense where we have our own control.