To break or not to break?
- new union to be set up?

When Mick O'Reilly and Eugene McGlone were suspended from their positions of Irish regional secretary and Northern Ireland organiser respectively of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU) last June, it was expected that their fightback would be short and sharp.

This proved not to be the case, and - due to a variety of circumstances - their process of appeal is only now (as this article is written in mid-February) coming to a head. It is now emerging that there may be a broad left majority on the incoming general council of the TGWU, and that in this way O'Reilly and McGlone may yet hold on to their jobs.

As a result of these suspensions, an idea has been floated among sections of the left and among activists in the ATGWU that a new union - independent of the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) and strongly anti -'partnership' - be formed. Those behind this idea have come up with a name - Independent Workers Union (IWU) and an outline of what the new union should stand for. They describe the trade union movement in its present form as having become " arm of the state. Its function is now more to control workers rather than to advance their interests." The new union, they say "....will not be part of Congress (ICTU) and our industrial strength will stem from key sections of the economy, who have indicated a willingness to join."

Those behind the IWU see the membership of the new union coming from three distinct sectors ".... entire homogenous units who wish to leave their existing union.... new recruits coming from the vast army of the unorganised workers .... support/solidarity members, many of whom will retain their existing union membership but who will hold a dual mandate, using the IWU as a catalyst to force a more radical agenda within the ICTU union."

It is not the intention here to look at the specifics of the IWU - not enough information is available to allow this. However the general question of 'breakaway' unions raises some interesting points for debate by anarchists, libertarians and by trade union activists in general.

The starting point must be of course an absolute acceptance of the right of any group of workers to join the union of their choice - or indeed to leave if they choose to do so. When the traindrivers of the ILDA left SIPTU and the National Bus and Rail Workers Union to form their own union, the establishment - management, government and trade union bureaucracy - reacted with horror. This incredulity from the establishment at the cheek of a group of workers thinking for themselves was only surpassed when the ILDA joined the ATGWU. As if the members of ILDA were slaves from the days of old, the ATGWU was ordered by Congress to 'hand them back' to unions that they themselves had decided they didn't want to be part of.

While accepting that the ultimate decision by any group of workers as to which union they want to join is theirs and only theirs to make, there are some arguments against the formation of breakaway unions. The first of these is that the principal effect of such a breakaway could well be to take the minority of combative/radical activists out of the old union, thus leaving the rest of the members totally at the mercy of the bureaucrats whose anti-democratic behaviour had initially provoked the split. In theory at least, the radical activists would use their energies much more effectively by staying in the union and fighting to win over the broader membership to their radical ideas.

This is, as I say, good in theory. The practice on the ground however can be very frustrating. Not being personally a member of SIPTU, but knowing activists who have spent more years than they care to remember trying to do just that (fighting to win the membership to more radical ideas) against an increasingly anti-democratic bureaucracy in that union, I can certainly see why the prospect of leaving SIPTU and starting afresh in a new union could have appeal. The relevant question would be of course whether it would be possible to break groups of workers away from the all-smothering embrace of the SIPTU leadership, as opposed to just taking isolated activists out of the union.

The history of breakaway unions in Ireland has not been a good one. Indeed it is ironic that SIPTU's own origins can be traced back to 'left breakaways'. Both the Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU) and the Federated Workers Union of Ireland (FWUI) - which merged to form SIPTU were born as 'left breakaways' - as was the aforementioned NBRU. The lesson from this must be that in the absence of a radical overhaul of the structures any breakaway will soon become a mirror image of its parent.

This raises an interesting challenge for anarchists and libertarians. If a new union is to emerge, it surely provides the opportunity for us to put forward proposals for radical democratic structures which - if accepted - might ensure that such a union would actually provide a real alternative. We haven't heard the last of this issue, let's hope that what has happened in the ATGWU will at least start a debate which will go beyond the personalities and look at the need for real changes to the structures of the existing trade unions if they are to become the organs for change which they could potentially be.

Gregor Kerr (INTO, personal capacity)

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This edition is No69 published in March 2002

Workers Solidarty 69 cover