When issues arise such as the latest round of redundancies in Aer Lingus (as the management prepare for privatisation), we hear the union leadership huffing and puffing, demanding meetings with management not to defend workers' jobs by resisting redundancies but to discuss the terms of the redundancy package. The idea of outrightly opposing the selling of jobs, and ultimately the selling of the airline, seems alien to the thinking at the top of SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
Given this situation, it is not surprising that many people no longer see the relevance of joining a trade union, and that a lot of workers see those 'leading' the trade union movement as part of the problem rather than the solution. When ordinary workers look at the salaries and perks enjoyed by the top union brass, they quite rightly see that in terms of income and lifestyle union leaders have more in common with the bosses with whom they negotiate than they do with the members they are supposed to represent.
BUT what we must remember is that trade unions are OUR organisations. They do not belong to the 'leaders' but to the rank-and-file members. Joining a trade union, and encouraging your fellow workers to do so, strengthens your position in terms of looking for a wage increase, ensuring health and safety regulations are implemented, getting your proper entitlements (holidays, sick pay ...) etc. Joining a union also delivers a very clear message to your boss that you and your co-workers see that you have common interests, and that he/she cannot pick on you individually. The old slogan that there is strength in numbers still holds true.
Despite the overpaid bureaucrats, despite 'social partnership' agreements, despite cosy deals, a union's strength still lies in its grassroots membership. If a group of workers in a particular employment are willing to stand together on an issue of workplace safety, working conditions, wage levels or whatever they still have a very powerful weapon at their disposal - the ability to stop production, to refuse to co-operate with new work practices, to tell the boss that without the workforce there won't be any profit!! Sometimes to use that strength, it will be necessary to either take on or bypass the bureaucracy but remembering where the strength lies - initially with one's co-workers, and more broadly with other rank-and-file trade unionists, this too can be done.
None of this is to minimise the difficulties involved in joining a union - especially given that many companies and employers are viciously anti-union. In such employments, it may initially be difficult to organise openly. It may even be necessary for workers who join a union to do so as secret or 'sleeper' members for a period of time until at least a significant minority of workers have joined. Sometimes, the formation of a loose or informal network of workmates might be the precursor to joining an actual union.
Ultimately joining a union is our way of demonstrating that we have different interests from our bosses and common interests with our fellow workers. And while the current structures and beauracraucy are rotten and need radical reform, we must remember that the trade unions are our organisations, that we have every right as workers to organise in unions of our choice, and that Unity is Strength - and it is from fellow workers and fellow trade unionists that that strength can come.
by Gregor Kerr (Irish National Teachers Organisation Member)
See the WSM Trade Union position paper at www.struggle.ws/wsm/positions/tradeunions.html
This edition is No83 published in November 2004
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