If you are under 30 years of age there is a strong possibility that you have never read, or seen, a positive feature about Trade Unions in the mainstream media. In that environment a climate of suspicion towards, and even hostility to, collective organising is easily fostered. But in essence a union is nothing more than a collective of workers coming together (in ‘union’) in the belief that they have more leverage and influence in improving their terms and conditions acting together than they do on their own. This idea, working together for the collective good, stretches right back to the late 18th century but it is as necessary now as it has ever been, perhaps in many ways more so.
We are living through a perfect example of this in practice now with the Ryanair Pilots. Following decades of individual contracts Ryanair successfully divided its workforce on many fronts. Firstly there are those directly employed and, separately, those indirectly employed. Then there was typical division by job type, Pilots, Cabin Crew, there were once Ryanair Baggage Handlers too, and ground staff. Then they were divided by experience, by their nationality, and even by their base within their own country. And once divided on so many fronts look what happened? The ‘individualisation’ of the work contract led to poorer and poorer working conditions which ended up including workers on precarious contracts having to pay for their own training, food and accommodation while at work. It led to a race to the bottom in terms and conditions of work even for those highly skilled who keep customers safe while travelling at over 600 MPH up to 7 miles up in the air. Profits of course soared as high as a Ryanair jet, and with them the salary of the bosses was added to by the arrogance and lecturing attitude towards their own workers. Eventually, after decades, workers have had enough and have begun to organise and now the company are being forced to deal with the strength of the collective. It’s not over yet, but already by coming together workers are gaining.
Pilots have power, or what used to be called ‘industrial muscle’. When this power is wrapped up in a united negotiating strategy or even a withdrawal of Labour threat this is a powerful combination. Other workers in the electricity sector, or transport and other sectors, have similarly gained in strength by working together – ‘organising’. But even those who don’t have such obvious power should be in a union too. This week I met a retail worker who has worked in a large Dublin retailer for many years. He explained about his terms and conditions, his weekends off, the leave entitlements, the pension, even the ‘respect’ he has. All because his Trade Union fought for it for him, no WITH him, and kept it. But he also explained about the younger people coming into the industry, the ones who don’t get to read or hear positive things about Unions in the media, or even in their schools or from their parents anymore, and he told me how consequently they were on lower pay, longer hours, less certain contracts and have no contributory pension whatever. It’s not hard to figure out why, they aren’t joining and becoming active in their Trade Union in the same way as workers had done in past decades. They are being treated, and acting, as individuals. And they are losing out substantially as a result.
I know it’s not all perfect. I know the Trade Union movement, as with all movements, has problems and complex issues. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is awful. For over 30 years the Irish Trade Union movement was more interested in Government Buildings than shop floor organising as from 1987 to 2008 Social Partnership debilitated what should always been a strong, fighting back, movement. But there were some great people in the movement then too, there always will be, because at heart the movement is a movement that through collectivism is on the side of the underdog working against the excesses of capitalistic greed. It is of course but a reflection of working society, good, bad and ugly, what else could it be? But the simple truth is that even on the bad days workers are stronger organising together than on their own.
This simple truth is an eternal truth and if we want to transform society into a better, fairer place with a redistribution of wealth away from the few and back towards the many then it is workers who will have to do it. Employers will focus on profit (that’s what they do), and Politicians will focus on electoral cycles and legislative change (that’s what they do), but Teachers should organise in a Teachers Union, retail workers in Mandate, Postal and Communications workers in the CWU, Plasterers should join OPATSI, Ryanair workers IMPACT, and many others should join Unions appropriate for their occupation. Alternatively there are general unions like SIPTU and of course, the best of the lot, UNITE THE UNION!
Two further points before I finish.
Even individual workers should join Trade Unions where there is no recognition. Three times in the last week workers who I know but are isolated collectively and not in a union have contacted me because they have individual problems that have arisen and they need individual help, advice and direction. Many Union people get such requests for help regularly, always accompanied with the ‘I know I should be in a union but I didn’t think this problem would arise’ type of explanation. The reality is that we will all, at some point in our working lives, come upon a problem with which we need help and when that day comes the relatively small amount it takes to maintain union membership will seem like a very wise investment indeed. So join. And ORGANISE!
Finally I began by outlining how the issues that affect union members now affect them as much or more outside the workplace as within it. For example, even the best organised workers would need one hell of a pay rise to keep pace with rising property costs, for buying or rental, in Ireland right now. And what sort of job would a young person need to get to have any chance of owning a home now without taking on a lifetime of crippling debt?
These and many related issues will be addressed here in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime join a union and ORGANISE!