1. Thinking about Anarchism

• Revolution by Joe Black

• Class by Alan MacSimóin

2. Anarchism and the trade unions - Be active - Be involved

3. Anarchists and the Trade Unions (2) by Gregor Kerr

4. The Trade Unions

5. Unions - how can the 'democratic deficit' be tackled? By Gregor Kerr

6. SIPTU's rukebook by Alan MacSimóin

7. Syndicalism, its strengths & weaknesses by Alan MacSimóin

8. The Dunnes Strike & Managing Change. The two souls of Irish trade unionism by Des Derwin

9. Industrial Relations Act ... Codes of Practice. Break this Law by Joe King

10. How much change can we acheive within the unions, ... how can we do it?

11. The anarchist origins of May Day by Alan MacSimóin

Thinking about Anarchism

Revolution by Joe Black

ANARCHISTS SAY that capitalism can not be reformed away. We say it must be overthrown through a revolution. Many people however believe that the failure of the Russian revolution of 1917 shows revolutions just replace one set of rulers with another. The failures of the revolutions in Nicaragua, Iran and Cuba to fundamentally change life for the workers of these countries seems to point to the same thing. So why all this talk of revolution?

A revolution essentially is a sudden upheaval in society which fundamentally alters the way that society operates or who that society is run by. It occurs when the mass of the people desire change that their rulers are unwilling or unable to grant. It can not be the result of the action of a small group of plotters.

History is full of revolutions. Capitalism gained dominance over feudalism through revolutions, particularly the French revolution of 1789. Revolutions in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran since the second world war have had major effects on a global scale.

Of course none of these were anarchist revolutions. They all resulted in the substitution of one ruling class for another. They failed to bring about classless societies.


What was missing was an independent working class fighting for its own class interests. Instead working class militancy was harnessed by radical nationalists in a fight for 'national liberation'. In power these radical nationalists crushed the working class at home while seeking terms with imperialism abroad.

In the case of Nicaragua and Cuba at least the radical nationalists in power used socialist jargon as a cover for their policies. Cuba went so far as to nationalise the economy. A successful socialist revolution however involves more than nationalisation and left wing jargon.

In the course of a revolution the working class spontaneously throws up organs through which it tries to re-organise society. These organs however are normally made subservient to the new state within a short period of time. Normally there is some resistance to this but such resistance is brutally crushed. In 1917 the Bolshevik state apparatus crushed the Soviets and factory committees, in Iran the radical nationalists around Khomeini performed the same function.


This could only occur because the vast majority of the workers accepted the necessity of state rule. This is why anarchists emphasise the importance of smashing the state rather then using it's apparatus to introduce socialism. There is no more utopian idea then the idea of a minority introducing socialism through the state apparatus.

Anarchists believe that a successful revolution which introduces socialism must for the first time in history involve a huge subjective factor. This subjective factor is a large proportion of the working class holding anarchist politics. This does not mean the WSM must be the largest faction or even that anarchist groups must be the largest faction. It does mean that workers must see the introduction of socialism as something that is their task, and that the state has only a counter-revolutionary role to play.


This will not just happen spontaneously. Some anarchists make the mistake of thinking politics will become irrelevant once workers seize the factories. They think that the various Leninist and reformist left theories will become instantly irrelevant. In actual fact this is the period when politics will become relevant as never before. It is a period where millions of workers will be looking for a political direction.

In the past revolutions have been led to disaster because the ideas that led the working class were reformist or author-itarian. Once in power such parties brutally crushed working class activity. This is as true of the reformists in the German revolution of 1919 as it is of the Bolsheviks in 1917-21. Anarchist organisation must be capable of debating and defeating such ideas as they arise.


Not being crystal ball gazers we can not predict when the next opportunity for revolution will occur. In Ireland at least it would appear to be many years away. We do know such opportunities will arise however, they are a product of the inability of capitalism to meet the needs of all the people. Capitalism may have changed and developed over the years but this has not changed.

This does not mean we do nothing until such an opportunity arises. Now is the time for us to develop and spread anarchist ideas. We need to build strong anarchist organisation(s), not just in Ireland but internationally. Indeed it is likely that revolution will arrive on the agenda in Ireland due to the success of revolutions elsewhere. We ensure the continued relevancy of our ideas by involvement in the struggles of fellow workers and demonstrating the usefulness of anarchist politics and tactics.

This is the purpose of the WSM. We are in the process of building an organisation capable of asserting anarchist ideas. We are developing these ideas while being involved in struggles at all levels of society. We are building international links with anarchists in other countries. If you too wish to see this rotten system smashed and replaced with anarchism then get in contact and get involved.


Alan MacSimóin

WHY IS THE concept of class so important to anarchists? Why are we constantly talking about classes and class struggle? Some of our opponents accuse us of living in the past, they claim the working class is dying out. After all you don't see too many workers wandering around in donkey jackets, cloth caps and heavy boots. So that settles the question, doesn't it? No, it doesn't, so let us get away from silly caricatures and get down to basics.

The modern world, like the societies that preceded it, does not consist of a single group of people who have more in common than they have dividing them. Sadly there is no single 'humanity', not yet. In every country there is still a division of people into classes which have conflicting interests.

Classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production; their relationship to the factories, machinery, natural resources, etc. with which the wealth of society is created. Although there are groups such as the self-employed and the small farmers, the main classes are the workers and the bosses. It is the labour of the working class that creates the wealth. The bosses, through their ownership and control of the means of production, have legal ownership of this wealth and decide how it is to be distributed.


Only a part of this wealth is returned. Some is paid as wages, some as the "social wage" (hospitals, schools, public services, and so on). The rest is creamed off as profit. But labour creates all wealth. An apple on a tree is worth nothing until someone picks it, coal in the ground has no use until someone mines it. What is known as surplus value or profit is stolen wages.

The working class is the majority in Ireland today. All who work for a wage, salary or commission are in its ranks. It consists of all who have to sell their ability to work to those in control. It makes no difference if you work in a factory, office, school, hospital or shop. It makes no difference if you work with your hands or your brain, whether you wear overalls or a suit, whether you earn 'good' or bad wages.


The unemployed also form part of the working class. Social welfare payments are made to those who have worked and those who may potentially provide some employer with their labour power. It is a condition of payment that a claimant is "available for and actively seeking work". Needless to say, the partners and children of workers are also part of the same class, as are the retired.

The interests of the working class (wages, working conditions, jobs, useful public spending, etc.) are in constant and inevitable conflict with those of the boss class. They seek to maximise their profits and gain an advantage over their competitors at the expense of the workers.


Anyone who talks about 'social partnership', about labour and capital working together for the benefit of all is talking nonsense. What rights we have and gains we have made have been the result of long and often bitter struggles. The bosses only give such rights and concessions as they are forced to. In times of recession, such as now, they try to make workers pay through job losses, cuts in real wages, cuts in public spending, productivity deals, etc. for the crisis that is a periodic and inevitable product of capitalism.

Although capitalism oppresses people on many different levels, race and sex to name but two; it is the exploitation of our labour that is fundamental to the system. It is on this front that the fight for a new society will be won or lost. If we can reclaim that aspect of our lives, the system can be overturned and replaced with something much better.


The working class are brought together in large towns and cities. At work we co-operate with others. Each person has to do their bit so that the person at the next stage of production can do theirs. In the services it is the same; in hospitals, schools and offices. This means that the working class can be a force capable, not only of rebelling against injustice but of taking over and recreating society in its' own interests.

As a class we have to think and act collectively. In a strike you need the support of your workmates and of the workers in supplier firms. Individual action won't get you very far. We have to co-operate. The same applies to the mammoth task of creating a new society. We cannot divide up an office or factory between all the workers there. We act as a group or not at all. This collective nature that is part and parcel of our class provides the basis for the solidarity and mutual aid we will need to scrap the old order and build a truly free and egalitarian society.


However just because someone is a worker it does not always follow that he or she will think of themself as a worker, or realise the potential for change that the working class collectively possesses. We all know of workers who sometimes identify with their boss, or unemployed people who become demoralised and totally isolated from any sense of belonging to the working class. And there are plenty of ignorant academics running around talking rubbish about a new 'sub class' and a 'natural conflict' between those with jobs and those without.

Class consciousness, an awareness of our common interests and the potential we have for real change, needs to be encouraged and strengthened. This is one of the tasks of an anarchist organisation.

The struggle between the classes will only come to an end when the boss class and the state which protects their privileged position are overthrown. Nationalisation or state control of the means of production would not mean an end to class society. It would simply mean the replacement of individual capitalists by a bureaucratic state capitalism. Like their predecessors they would be in control and would have the final say about what happens to the wealth we create. Whether they like it or not this would be the logical outcome of the statist politics of the Workers Party, Sinn Fein and the Labour Left.


Only the direct control and management of production by the working class themselves can end the class division. A classless society is not possible without this.

Everyone affected by a decision should have a say in making that decision. Production in an anarchist society would be managed by an elected workers' council in each workplace. Planning on a higher level would be subject to the agreement of delegates from the councils, delegates who would be subject to a mandate from their members and instantly recallable if they don't do the job they were elected to do. In such a society the wealth would be created and managed for the benefit of all. There would be no elite of bosses or rulers. This is the vital precondition for real freedom.

Anarchism and the trade unions

Be active - Be involved

Anarchists are anarchists because we want to bring about a wholesale change in the way society is administered. For us, therefore, a crucial question is "How can such a change be brought about?" or - to put it more pertinently - "Who can change society?" This question must be posed in a historical context and the lessons of that history transferred to present times.

At every single stage in the development of society - from ancient times through feudalism up to the present day - society has comprised two distinct groups : an oppressed class and a ruling class. These two classes have been allotted very specific roles. The oppressed class has been the one whose labour has created the wealth of society, the ruling class has controlled and exploited that wealth. This social division has not always been readily accepted. At almost every stage in society's development, the oppressed class (or sections of it) have fought back. Examples include the slave revolts of ancient Greece and Rome, the peasant uprisings of the Middle Ages and the social revolutions of the 1600s and 1700s.

These struggles have all been different in nature but they have always had one thing in common. They ended with one set of rulers being replaced by another set of equally parasitic rulers. Whilst a slight realignment in society's make-up often occurred, there was no fundamental change. The new society which emerged was divided along the old familiar lines - rulers and oppressed.

The failure of the oppressed classes to maintain control of the revolutions they fought in can be explained by two principal factors - the generally low level of wealth in society and the fact that the everyday lives of the people did not prepare them to run society. The majority were illiterate peasants who had no idea what life was like outside their own locality. Their everyday lives divided them from each other. Each peasant had to worry about his own plot of land, hoping to enlarge it. Each craftsman had to worry about his own business. To varying degrees each peasant and craftsman was in competition with his fellows, not united with them. There was no thought of "class unity".

Collective Oppression

The emergence of capitalism in the early 19th century changed this. Firstly, under capitalism, the workers began to create enough wealth to feed and clothe the world and still have plenty left for science, culture, leisure activities, etc. Secondly - and more importantly - the everyday lives of the oppressed class under capitalism prepares them to take over the running of society.

Capitalism brings workers together in large workplaces and into large towns and cities - it makes us co-operate every day at work. On the factory floor each person has to do his/her bit so that the person at the next stage of production can continue the process. The services sector requires similar levels of co-operation. From office to hospital to school to fast-food outlet, workers must co-operate with each other to get the job done. This level of co-operation and mutual dependency makes it possible to envisage a revolution which will involve the oppressed class taking over the entire running of society. Workers' many talents will then be used to develop new societal structures which will do away with the need for rulers.

Those who administer and benefit from the capitalist system are only too well aware of this fact. That is why we are told again and again that such co-operation and mutual dependency is not possible. From an early age we are led to believe that the way in which society is currently structured is the only one possible. The need for rulers and ruled goes unquestioned. The fact that people die of hunger in one part of the world while, in another part, farmers are actually paid grants not to produce food; the fact that some people are forced to live in cardboard boxes while others live in mansions; the fact that governments can spend billions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction while at the same time cutting back spending on health, education and welfare...... These are all passed off as natural phenomena. The possibility that the working class would have the wish never mind the ability to run society in all our interests is never considered. This is hardly surprising given that the media - which essentially controls the majority of political debate - is owned and controlled by either governments or big business. It certainly would not be in the interests of either Rupert Murdoch or Tony O'Reilly to question the basis of the society which sees them sitting on top of the pile. Neither are we likely to see Dick Spring, Tony Blair or any other of our wannabe 'leaders' quoting from Proudhon's 1849 writings when he said - among other things

"When left to their own instincts the people almost always see better than when guided by the policy of leaders."(1)

Individuals who might feel that a 'fairer' or 'more just' system would be desirable (doesn't practically everyone you know?) are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. They feel isolated and powerless. This sense of powerlessness can however be turned on its head. When the co-operation or collective power described above which is used to run the factories, shops, schools, offices etc. is used to stop them from functioning, small glimpses of the potential emerge. Workers involved in strikes, whether they involve small numbers (eg, the Early Learning Centre strike in Cork last year), or larger numbers of workers (as in the Liverpool Dockers' strike, or - even more so - the wave of strikes in France in December 1995, for example), get a glimpse of the potential of their own power, their own ability to decide how things should be and to fight for that vision. Similarly the tens of thousands of people who refused to pay the Poll Tax in Britain and who fought the successful battle against service charges in Ireland saw that solidarity is indeed strength.

Collective Power

While both the anti-Poll Tax and anti-service charge campaigns succeeded - for the most part - despite rather than because of the trade union leaderships (an honourable exception being the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union in Dublin), it is fair to say that it is through their trade union that most workers get their first glimpse of collective power in action. From their early beginnings, nearly 300 years ago, one thing is clear - for a worker to join a trade union is a recognition, to some degree at least, that he/she has different interests to the boss. The very survival of trade unions over the centuries is testament to the reality that there are different class interests in a capitalist society. Yes, conservatism, bureaucracy and backwardness are often - in fact nearly always - the hallmark of modern trade unions at their leadership level but even this cannot hide the essential fact that workers understand that to promote their own interests they have to organise along class lines.

This is not to suggest that trade unions are in any sense revolutionary organisations. They may go through periods of intense militancy from time to time (eg, 1913 in Dublin) but at the end of the day trade unions were formed to defend and improve the lot of workers under capitalism, not to challenge the existence of capitalism itself.

Nevertheless, for anarchists, trade union campaigns and activity are extremely important. We view our work within our unions not just as another sphere of activity, but as an absolute necessity. In the course of workplace struggle - whether to improve pay and conditions or to defend existing conditions - workers may begin to identify their potential power. Such struggles also open up the possibility of further radicalisation and the potential for bringing those involved into the revolutionary movement.

After all, when we get down to basics, what is anarchism other than workers, acting collectively, running a free society? What is a strike other than workers acting collectively towards a common goal? This is not to suggest that strikers set out with anarchist goals or even anarchist tactics in mind. They don't. But collective action is indeed the only weapon with which a strike can be successful so the logic of the workers' position - collective action in production, collective action in struggle does lead in an anarchist direction. And once in struggle, the potential for people's ideas to change is enormous. Workers involved in a strike gain confidence in their own abilities, they are also exposed to the naked face of capitalism in action. In many instances, for example, workers going on strike believe in the 'impartiality' of the police force, the judiciary and other arms of the state apparatus only to have this 'impartiality' exposed to them in a brutal manner (eg, the British miners' strike in the 1980s).

Central to anarchist politics is the contention of our forerunners in the First International that "The emancipation of the working class can only be brought about by the working class themselves". It is only the self-activity of the mass of workers that is capable of mounting an effective challenge to the bosses and their State. The trade union movement is the most important mass movement the working class has built. For anarchists, activity within the unions should be one of the most important ongoing activities.

The bureaucracy

As all trade union activists know, the unions are dominated by an all-embracing bureaucracy. This is a collection of (usually unelected) full-time officials with too much power and undue influence. They are only responsible to the members in the most formal sense. They may - when it suits them - take the side of the members, but they do not have to. They are not under the control of the members, they earn much more than those they 'represent' (Billy Attley, general president of SIPTU(2) earns £85,000 per annum, while a SIPTU member in the catering industry can earn as little as £3.50 an hour). Or they may sit alongside the bosses and the government on commissions and on the boards of semi-state companies (Philip Flynn, former general secretary of Impact(3), has been appointed by the government as chairman of the state-owned ICC Bank; David Begg, general secretary of the CWU(4), is a member of the board of directors of the Central Bank). In short, they enjoy a lifestyle quite different to that of the people they are supposed to be working for.

More and more, the job of a trade union official is seen as a career, with many of the newer officials having come through college with a degree in 'industrial relations' and never having worked in an ordinary job. More than a few of them change sides during their careers, taking jobs with employers' or state organisations. For example, the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, Kieran Mulvey, is a former general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI). These officials - especially now in the context of 'social partnership' - see their role as that of conciliator, "fixer", negotiator - the term representative does not seem to appear in the job description. Peter Cassells, ICTU general secretary, is regularly called in to disputes to force a settlement on workers. This was most clearly seen in the TEAM Aer Lingus dispute in 1994.

Members of the bureaucracy rarely lead or initiate strikes but are more often found pulling out all the stops to avoid any action. They will drag groups of workers back and forth to the Labour Court, the Employer-Labour Conference, the Labour Relations Commission, Rights Commisioners and every other talking shop they can find. They will negotiate forever in the hope of finding a 'reasonable' solution. Striking, in their book, is very much a last resort. Indeed Joe O'Toole, general secretary of the INTO(5), is on record as saying that he views it as a defeat to have to resort to the strike weapon. And, of course, unofficial action - action which has not been sanctioned by them - will be condemned out of hand by all bureaucrats.

It is not that the current crop of officials are a nasty bunch of individuals. Rather the old adage comes into play : "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". The structure of the unions gives far too much power to the bureaucrats and it is inevitable that no matter how radical or left-wing they might be when they get the job their role sucks them into the business of conciliation. After all, the officials must be able to prove that they control their members - in other words, stop them fighting the bosses - if they are to have anything to sell at the negotiating table. If such control cannot be promised, why should an employer bother to negotiate?

As a whole, the bureaucracy swings between the position of mediator and that of defender of the status quo. As a grouping they can't obviously go over completely to defending the bosses' interests. To at least some degree they have to respond to the members' demands because they are after all employed by workers' organisations. Likewise, they cannot become totally responsive to their members' demands because that would see the end of their role, their power and their careers. There may be a few individual exceptions to this rule but, as a collective grouping, this remains the case. By its very nature, the bureaucracy has to be opposed to workers' self-activity on most occasions. It is without doubt authoritarian in its very structures.

How to respond

Several different solutions/responses to the problem of bureaucratic strangulation of the trade union movement have been put forward. The most often heard of these is propagated to varying degrees by almost all of the 'left' - from social democrats to Stalinists to Trotskyists. According to this theory what we have to do is to elect and/or appoint 'better' officials. They see the problem primarily in terms of the individuals who hold the posts. This view of the situation stems directly from their conception of socialism. They see socialism as some sort of giant state enterprise bureaucracy where things are done 'for the workers'. They see the role of socialists/socialist organisations as being to organise a revolution/change of society on behalf of the working class. Workers' self-activity occupies no leading role in their scheme of things, just as real workers' control is not part of their plan for a 'socialist' society. According to this theory, if the officials were more 'left-wing' they would be more willing to fight for the demands of their members. The theory ignores however the fundamental core of the problem - it is not the individuals but the structures which are at fault.

Another view which is sometimes put forward is that new 'left-wing' unions should be formed by breakaway groups of radical workers. The principal effect of this, however, would usually be to take the minority of combative/radical workers out of the old union leaving it totally at the mercy of the bureaucrats whose antics had initially provoked the split. Such radical workers would use their energies much more effectively by staying within the union and fighting to win over the broader membership to their radical ideas. At any rate, breakaway unions offer little alternative in the long run with the problems which led to their formation soon appearing in the new union. There are numerous examples of this in Ireland's labour history. The ITGWU(6), the FWUI(7) - both of which merged to form SIPTU(8) - and the NBRU(9) were all born as 'left breakaway' unions. Ultimately, of course, it is the workers themselves who have the right to make the decision on such an issue, but without a radical overhaul of the structures the breakaway will soon become a smaller mirror image of its parent.


Syndicalism, and especially anarcho-syndicalism, has been and remains an important current within the trade union movement, particularly in Southern Europe and Latin America. The basic ideas of syndicalism revolve around the organisation of all workers into 'one big union', the maintenance of control in the hands of the rank-and-file and opposition to all attempts to create a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-timers. The principal difference between anarcho-syndicalist unions and other trade unions is their belief that the union can be used not only to win reforms from the bosses, but also to overthrow the capitalist system. They further believe that the principal reason why most workers are not revolutionaries is because the structures of their unions take the initiative away from the rank-and-file. The alternative, as they see it, is to organise all workers in one big union in preparation for the revolutionary general strike. The biggest problem - according to this analysis - is the structure of the existing unions.

As unions, syndicalist organisations have certainly proved effective. This is why people join them. They have proved themselves to be democratic, radical and combative. In fact there has been a considerable growth in membership of syndicalist unions in recent times. In France, for example, the syndicalist CNT-F witnessed a rapid growth in membership following the December '95 strike.

It is as a form of political organisation that syndicalism fails the acid test. Syndicalism creates industrial unions - not revolutionary organisations. The anarcho-syndicalist union organises all workers regardless of their politics. This obviously leaves open the possibility of the appearance of reformist tendencies within the ranks of the organisation. The weaknesses which anarchist-communists see in syndicalism have been dealt with in detail on many occasions(10) and it is not proposed to outline them again in this article. We do, however, recognise that the syndicalist unions, where they exist, are far more progressive than any other union. Not only do they create democratic unions and establish an atmosphere where anarchist ideas are listened to with respect but they also organise and fight in a way that breaks down the divisions into leaders and led, doers and watchers.

Political levy

In Ireland - and indeed in many other countries - the trade unions have formal links with social democratic parties. The largest general unions in Ireland are affiliated to the Labour Party. In truth however the Labour Party has never enjoyed the electoral support of the majority of trade unionists. Properly speaking it is the party not of trade unionists but of the trade union bureaucracy.

Such political affiliation usually has the effect of aiding and abetting passivity, with the union leaderships unwilling to take action against a government such as the current coalition because of the Labour Party's position in government. During times when the Labour Party is in opposition they can argue against taking up issues outside the workplace on the grounds that 'that is what the Labour Party is for'.

The concept, however, of a political levy is not one with which we would disagree. However, instead of being paid into the coffers of a political party which does nothing to advance the interests of the working class, the money raised by this levy should remain under the control of the rank-and file to be used to fund direct action on political issues. We seek at all times to mobilise the strength of the trade union movement on such issues. This involves the raising of political issues at section and branch level through arguing for sponsorship of/support for specific demonstrations. It also means proposing resolutions on issues such as repressive legislation/Travellers' rights/gay rights, etc. This has the dual effect of raising issues, thus confronting some of those misconceptions/conservative ideas which many trade union members might have on some of these issues, and also raising the profile of particular campaigns. It might prove easier to build support for a particular demonstration/picket, for example, if it has the formal backing of a local Trades Council. It is important however that the raising of such issues does not become a ritualistic game between competing left groups each trying to 'out-radical' the other. Such resolutions should be linked to some action, no matter how minimal it may be.

Building opposition

As I have said earlier in the article, WSM members see trade union activity as one of our most important ongoing activities. Our perspectives for activity within the unions are centred on encouraging workers to take up the fight against the bosses , against state interference and against the trade union bureaucracy. Therefore the most important area of our activity is at rank-and-file level. No member of the WSM would, for example, accept any unelected position which would entail having power over the membership. Members who are elected as shop stewards view that role as that of delegate rather than 'representative' and would look for a mandate from the members on all issues.

Within the current structure of the trade union movement, the most effective way of building an effective opposition to the bureaucrats is through the building of a rank-and-file movement - a movement within the unions of militant workers who are prepared to fight independently of the bureaucracy and against it if necessary. Such a movement cannot however be willed into existence. If it could be so, or if ritualistic calls for its creation were sufficient, a rank-and-file movement capable of taking on the bureaucracy would surely exist in Ireland. Practically all groups/parties on the left have at one time or another issued strident calls for the creation of a rank-and-file movement. However, particularly at times such as this when the level of rank-and-file activity is probably at an all-time low, there is a need to do more than simply issue calls for its creation.

What is needed in the here-and-now is the building of a solidarity network, in essence the laying of the foundation for a rank-and-file movement. A political reality which is often ignored is the fact that a rank-and-file movement - one with real bite and a genuine base - only comes about as a result of rank-and-file activity and confidence, not the other way around.(11)

To sum up, trade unions are not and were never set up to be revolutionary organisations. However, from within trade union struggle will arise the embryo of the workers' councils of the future. Towards this end we push all the time for rank-and-file independence from the bureaucracy.

We see our role in trade union struggle as being working for the unification of the different sectional struggles into an awareness of the overall class struggle. Further tasks are to act as a collective memory for the movement (i.e., learning from and being able to explain the lessons of past struggles), to challenge the politics of reformism and Leninism within the movement and to explain and popularise anarcho-communist ideas. In addition, we extend solidarity to groups of workers in struggles, at all times encouraging self-activity and helping to develop workers' confidence in their own abilities. In short, our role is that of a 'leadership of ideas', as opposed to a leadership of elite individuals.

Anarchists and the Trade Unions (2)1

Gregor Kerr

TRADE UNIONS were founded to defend the interests of workers, but today have become more and more dominated by an unaccountable, and often unelected, bureaucracy. Trade unions - or at least their leadership - have been co-opted into becoming partners with Capital, and see their role as managing their members, controlling difficult situations rather than leading struggles. You are much more likely to see a trade union official selling the management's latest "productivity package" or "re-structuring deal" than to hear him/her calling for an occupation of a plant to avoid its closure, or for industrial action to fight redundancies.

Given this, one might wonder why anarchists spend so much time talking about and working inside the trade unions. To write off trade unions, however, is to ignore the basic fact that for a worker to join a trade union means having to recognise, to some degree, that he or she has different interests to the bosses.

Trade unions are certainly not revolutionary organisations. But if you accept - as anarchists certainly do - that the emancipation of the working class can only be brought about by the working class themselves, then you must also accept that the most important mass movement the working class has ever built cannot be ignored. This is true no matter how progressive or reactionary the attitudes of its members at any given time.

As anyone who has ever been on strike will know, indeed as anyone who has followed the titanic struggles of groups of workers such as the Liverpool dockers or the Dublin building workers will also know, strikes depend on collective action for their success. It is the ability to collectively stand together - either in defence of working conditions or in pursuance of improved pay or conditions - which gives trade unions their strength. When the boss looks for that bit too much sweat, the knowledge that if we all say no together, he/she is relatively powerless is a powerful weapon indeed.

This is not of course to claim that workers taking strike action are only one step away from rallying to the cause of revolution. But the message is there nonetheless - collective action in production, collective action in struggle leads us in an anarchist direction. And once in struggle people's ideas can change - often very rapidly. Those directly involved in the miners' strike in Britain in the 1980s needed no lectures on the partiality of the state's police force. They experienced it directly - usually with the brute force of a baton to beat the lesson in.

On a less dramatic scale, workers in various state and private enterprises the length and breadth of Ireland have seen the true nature of the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission, etc. as restructuring deals, workplace partnerships and whatever other way more exploitation can be dressed up has been rammed down their throats.

Furthermore, workers in struggle gain confidence in their collective strength, and in their own ability to take control of their lives. The establishment of strike committees, explaining their case to passers-by, even arguing with the trade union official for decent backing - as often has to happen - all contribute to this growth in self-confidence. A self-confident worker who realises that 'Unity is Strength' is more than just a slogan will, at the very least, be more open to revolutionary ideas.

This is one of the reasons why anarchists get involved in workers' struggles. It is not the only one however. We also act from a position of solidarity with other members of our class, remembering and putting into practice the maxim that 'an injury to one is an injury to all'. We offer this solidarity, however, from a position of acknowledging that it is the workers in struggle themselves who must retain control of that struggle.

The hand of solidarity is offered in support of the struggle, not with any intention of using it for our own ends. Strike support groups in which we become involved must be just that - support groups, with the strikers themselves retaining a veto over any proposed actions.

Through involvement in struggles, we learn the lessons of the class struggle. We see which tactics are successful and which should not be tried again. After all none of us has all the answers. We also aim to take the lessons of these struggles and apply them in new situations. Too often the victories of groups of workers - and the lessons of those victories for the rest of us - are only known by those directly involved. This is why we aim in this paper and in our other publications to highlight these victories - to be, as it were, a memory bank for our class.

In conclusion, the unions may appear monolithic. Sometimes work in them can be boring and appear to be a waste of time. But if we manage to wrest control from the bureaucrats currently strangling them, they will prove to be one of our best weapons in furthering the battle for a free and equal society.

The Trade Unions


1.1 Anarchists know that "the history of all previously existing societies has been the history of class struggle". At every stage in the development of society - from ancient times through fuedalism to the present day - there has been an oppressed class whose labour has created the wealth of society, and a ruling class which controlled that wealth. At almost every stage the oppressed have not accepted their lot without fighting back. There were the slave revolts of Greece and Rome, the peasant risings of the middle ages, the revolutions of the 1600s and 1700s.

1.2 But all these struggles ended with the old parasitic rulers being replaced with a different gang of parasitic rulers. The failure of the oppresed classes to keep control of the revolutions they fought in can be explained by these main factors: (a) the generally low level of wealth in society, (b) the fact that the everyday life of these people did not prepare them to run society.

The majority were illiterate peasants who had no idea what things were like outside their own locality. Their everyday life divided them from each other. Each peasant had to worry about his own plot of land, and hoped to enlarge it. Each craftsman had to worry about his own business, and hoped to enlarge it. To varrying degrees each peasant and craftsman was in competition with his fellows, not united with them. He couldn't think in terms of class.

1.3 The workers who create the wealth under capitalism differ from all previously oppressed classes. Firstly, they create enough wealth to feed and clothe the world and still have plenty to spare for science, culture, luxeries and so on. Secondly, and more importantly, their everyday life prepares them to take over the running of society. Under capitalism we are brought together in large workplaces, into towns and cities. Capitalism makes us co-operate everyday at work. Each person has to do their bit so that the person at the next stage of production can do theirs. In the services it is the same, from the office to the hospital, workers have to co-operate with each other in order to get their jobs done. This means that the modern working class can be a force capable, not only of rebelling against the existing set-up, but of taking over and recreating society in its own interests - and not as in the past merely help a different section of the ruling class in its battles against the more backward sections of that class.

1.4 Why then don't workers use their numbers, their collective power and take over? Mainly because we are told that we are not able to do just that. It is a message hammered into us, from school to the newspapers to the television. We are being constantly told that workers can only follow orders and that is the natural order of things.

1.5 But there is one point, in particular, at which workers no longer feel powerless and at which they see in a much clearer way the reality of class rule. That is when they use their collective power that runs the factories, offices, schools, transport, etc. - to stop them. They can get a glimpse of the potential of their own power.


2.1 From their early beginings back in the 1600s one thing is very clear - for a worker to join a trade union means having to recognise, to some degree, that he or she has different interests from the boss. There is no way to explain the survival of the unions other than the reality that there are different class interests, and workers have understood that to promote their own interests they have to organise on class lines. No amount of conservatism, bureaucracy or backwardness within the unions can obliterate this essential fact. In recent years the nature of work has, for many people, changed considerably with the growth of contract work, working from home etc. Nevertheless, by joining a union people recognise a class interest (us v. them). While this may be different from a class consciousness (which implies a recognition of collective interests, not just an individual against the bosses), the dynamic of belonging to a collective organisation leads to the creation of some level of basic class consciousness.

2.2 Trade unions are not revolutionary organisations. They were formed to defend and improve the lot of workers under capitalism. Trade union struggle is an absolute necessity. In the course of these struggles workers begin to see their potential power, they can be radicalised and can be brought into the revolutionary movement. At times there will be low levels of struggle - whether due to a lack of confidence or to the temporary dominance of 'national interest'/'social partnership' ideas - but the contradiction between bosses' interests and workers' interests will inevitably lead to a return to higher levels of struggle and grassroots organisation.

2.3 After all, what is anarchism? When we get down to basics, it is workers collectively running a free society. Instead of taking orders from the boss and serving his/her mad rush for profit at any cost, it is about working together for the common good. This doesn't mean that strikers set out with clear anarchist goals in mind. They don't. But collective action is the only way to win a strike - so the logic of the workers' position: collective action in production, collective action in struggle; takes us in an anarchist direction. And once in struggle peoples' ideas can change. They gain confidence, a sense of their ability to take control of their own lives. This is why many workers who go on strike with faith in the "impartiality" of the police or with sexist ideas (to give but two examples) can find these ideas challenged by their experience in struggle. That is why we in the WSM get involved in workers' struggles, though it is not the only reason - we also act from a position of solidarity with other members of our class. It is in struggle that large numbers of people can be won to anarchist politics. As our forerunners in the First International said "the emancipation of the working class can only be brought about by the working class themselves".

2.4 Central to our politics is the position that the working class will lead the fight for anarchism. It is only the self-activity of masses of workers that is capable of mounting an effective challenge to the bosses and their state. The trade union movement is the most important mass movement the working class has built and no matter how progressive or reactionary the attitudes of its members, no matter how conservative they can become, it does not alter the fact that they are the most important mass organisations of the working class. For the WSM, as anarchists, activity within them is an extremely important ongoing activity.


3.1 The unions are dominated by a bureaucracy, a collection of (usually unelected) full-time officials with too much power and undue influence. They are not responsible to the membership except in the most formal way, not in any real sense. They may take the side of their members but the point is that they do not have to. While it may be possible to hold them to account (through motions of censure etc.), they are quite clearly not accountable, they cannot be recalled or removed. Neither can they be forced to act on the instructions of the membership, taking their orders instead from the union executive. They often earn much more than those they represent, sit alongside bosses and the government on commissions, the boards of semi-state companies and other government-appointed committees. . In short they enjoy a lifestyle quite different than that of the people they are supposed to be working for. Most of the newer officials have never even worked in an ordinary job.

They see their union work as a career. More than a few of them change sides and take jobs with the employers' organisations. Their career is that of an arbitrator, a fixer, a concilliator, a negotiator.

3.2 What is important to them is proving their skills as smart negotiators, not pulling out all the stops to win their members' demands. They have narrow sectional interests, they only look after their own patch regardless of the general intertests of workers. These people rarely lead or initiate strikes. Instead they will have you running back and forth to the Labour Relations Commission, Labour Court, Rights Commissioners, the Employer-Labour Conference and every other talking shop they can find. They will negotiate "until the cows come home", and it is all aimed at finding a "reasonable" solution. They see striking as very much a last resort, and condemn - without hesitation - unofficial action (i.e. action that has not been sanctioned by them).

3.3 These people do not usually lead strikes but sometimes will, as when employers are refusing to negotiate or the negotiation procedures are being threatened. Most of the time, however, they will go to almost any length in order to cobble together a deal ....any deal, rather than opt for industrial action.

3.4 These people are not nasty individuals. They behave as they do because they have too much power and are unacountable, in any real way, to their members. Power corrupts, no matter who you are. This behaviour is inevitable, no matter how radical or left-wing they are at the beginning, their role sucks them into the business of concilliation. Furthermore they have to be able to control their members - which usually means stopping them fighting the boss - if they are to have anything to bargain with at the negotiation table. This may sound odd but the point is that the union official has to sell the employer labour discipline and freedom from unofficial strikes as part of its side of the bargain.

3.5 It is self-evident that the more power, initiative and control that lies with the bureaucracy - the less it will lie with the rank & file membership on the shopfloor.

3.6 As a whole, the bureaucracy swings between the position of mediator and that of open defender of the status quo. But as a grouping they can not go over completely to defending the bosses' interests; to some degree they have to respond to their members' demands because they are working in workers' organisations. This is not to imply that all- or even most - trade union officials would necessarily go over to defending the bosses' interests if they could, but the nature of the position inevitably means that they cannot become totally responsive to their members' demands as that would see the end of their role, power and careers. There are individual exceptions to this but, as a collective grouping, this remains the case.

3.7 This bureaucracy, not just because of the individuals in it but because of its objective position in relation to the membership, has to be opposed to workers' self-activity on most occasions. It is, by its nature, authoritarian.


4.1 The response of many on the left is that we have to elect and/or appoint 'better' officials. They see the problem primarily in terms of the individuals who hold the posts. This stems from their conception of "socialism" as some sort of giant state enterprise bureaucracy where things are done "for the workers". Workers' self-activity occupys no leading role in their scheme of things, just as real workers' control is not part of their plan for a "socialist" society. Their ideas are rooted in an authoritarian view of the world.

4.2 A problem which, from time to time, has manifested itself in other countries is the view that workers should leave the unions and destroy them; that no permenant organisation of workers under capitalism can avoid becoming totally integrated into the state and a tool in the hands of the bosses. The people who promote this nonsense claim that the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution ....now! As these people claim to have made a serious and scientific study of the needs of workers under capitalism, the forces required for a revolution and the way in which workers gain the confidence and political will to change society - we are very easy on them when we dismiss their position as childish, infantile and ultra-leftist.

4.3 A third position we come across is that of breaking away and forming new unions. The effect of this is to take the minority of combative and radical workers out of the old union, leaving it totally at the mercy of the bureaucracy whose antics had provoked the split. We urge those workers to remain and fight within the union, to win over the membership - not to leave them without a combative focus.

Breakaway unions offer no alternative in the long run as the problems that led to their formation will develop in the new union. Ireland's labour history is littered with examples of this. The ITGWU and FWUI (which merged to form SIPTU), and the National Bus and Railworkers Union Union, to name but a few of the main unions, were all born as "left" breakaways.

While we refuse to advocate breakaways, except possibly in the most exceptional cases, we ultimately stand for the right of workers to make the decision themselves.


5.1 Syndicalism, and especially anarcho-syndicalism, has been an important current in many countries - particularly in Southern Europe and Latin America. Its basic ideas revolve around organising all workers into the "one big union", keeping control in the hands of the rank & file, and opposing all attempts to create a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. Unlike other unions their belief is that the union can be used not only to win reforms from the bosses but also to overthrow the capitalist system. They hold that most workers are not revolutionaries because the structure of their unions is such that it takes the initiative away from the rank & file. Their alternative is to organise all workers into the "one big union" in preparation for the revolutionary general strike. They see the biggest problem in the structure of the existing unions rather than in the ideas that tie workers to authoritarian, capitalist views of the world.

5.2 Syndicalism in itself does not create a revolutionary political organisation. It creates industrial unions. It is a-political, arguing all that is necessary to make the revolution is for the workers to sieze the factories and the land. After that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the working class must take political power. For them all power has to be immediately abolished on day one of the revolution.

5.3 Because syndicalist organisation is the union, it organises all workers regardless of their politics. Historically many workers have joined, not because they were anarchists, but because the syndicalist union was the most militant and got the best results. Because of this tendencies always appeared that were reformist.

5.4 Syndicalists are quite correct to emphasise the centrality of organising workers in the workplace. Critics who reject syndicalism on the grounds that allegely it cannot organise those outside the workplace are wrong. Taking the example of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain it is clear that they could and did organise throughout the entire working class as was evidenced by the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, the 'Mujeras Libres' (Free Women), and the neighbourhood organisations.

5.5 The limits of syndicalism is rooted in its view of why workers are tied to capitalism, and its view of what is necessary to make the revolution. Spain in 1936/7 represented the highest point in anarcho-syndicalist organisation and achievement. Because of their a-politicism they were unable to develop a programme for workers' power, to wage a political battle against other currents in the workers' movement (such as reformism and Stalinism), and to give a lead to the entire class by fighting for complete workers' power.

Instead they got sucked into support for the Popular Front government, which in turn led to their silence and complicity when the Republican state moved against the collectives and militias. The minority in the CNT, organised around the Friends of Durruti, was expelled when they issued a proclamation calling for the workers to take absolute power (i.e. that they should refuse to share power with the bosses or the authoritarian parties).

5.6 The CNT believed that when the workers took over the means of production and distribution this would lead to "the liquidation of the bourgeois state which would die of asphyxiation". History teaches us different. In a situation of dual power it is very necessary to smash the state.

5.7 In contrast to this the Friends of Durruti were clear that "to beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power depending on rank & file committees. A-political anarchism has failed". The political confusion of the CNT leadership was such that they attacked the idea of the workers siezing power as "evil" and leading to an "anarchist dictatorship".

5.8 The syndicalist movement, organised in the International Workers Association and outside it, refuses to admit the CNT was wrong to "postpone" the revolution and enter the government. They attempt to explain away this whole episode as being due to "exceptional circumstances" that "will not occur again". Because they refuse to admit that a mistake of historic proportions was made, they are doomed to repeat it (should they get a chance).

5.9 We recognise that the syndicalist unions, where they still exist, are far more progressive than any other union. But the anarchist-communist organisation will organise within its ranks and everywhere else workers are organised. We will not liquidate our specific politics and organisation into the a-politicism of syndicalism.

5.10 We recognise that the union structures we argue for are essentially the same as those that syndicalists argue for.  In the context of union structures syndicalism thus provides both historical and current examples that demonstrate to fellow workers that such methods of organisation not only work but bring results


6.1 In Ireland, as in many other countries, there are formal links between social-democratic (in some countries nationalist or liberal) Parties and the unions. The largest general unions in Ireland are affiliated to the Irish Labour Party. Far from providing a "political voice" or "weapon" for workers it helps to disarm them politically. In the unions; where we have real, if unused, strength; the bureaucrats can argue against taking up issues outside the workplace on the grounds that "that is what the Labour Party is there for". Political affiliation attempts to put the political struggles of workers under the control of professional 'representative' politicians. It aids passivity.

6.2 In Ireland the Labour Party does not even enjoy the electoral support of most trade unionists. Properly speaking it is not the Party of the unions - it is the Party of the union bureaucracy, and increasingly seeks to weaken even that connection

6.3 We support the concept of a political levy but urge the unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Instead we seek to mobilise the strength of the unions to take direct action on political issues. The first step towards this is the raising of political issues at section and branch level through arguing for sponsorship of specific demonstrations, for the passing of resolutions on issues such as combating racism and giving support to other workers in struggle. All such resolutions should be linked to some action, no matter how minimal it may be at the beginning.


7.1 Our perspectives for activity within the unions are centred on encouraging workers themselves to take up the fight against the bosses, state interference and the TU bureaucracy. Our most important area of activity is on the shopfloor.

7.2 We encourage 100% union membership and all WSM members are members of their appropriate trade union. When members take up employment in non-union jobs, they are expected to join an appropriate trade union. However, depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary for some considerable time for this person to remain a secret/ "sleeper" member. The process of unionisation of non-union workplaces is extremely varied and complex. In some cases an immediate organising drive can unionise a workplace, in others it is only when a specific issue arises that workers begin to become receptive to unionisation, in yet others it will be the product of slow and undramatic work aimed at convincing people in ones and twos. The WSM members on a particular job are best placed to decide what strategy is most useful in their workplace."

7.3 No WSM member will accept any unelected position that entails having power over the membership.

7.4 Members elected as shop stewards consider their position as that of a delegate rather than that of a 'representative' who can act over the heads of the members.

7.5 When going forward for elective positions we make it clear that we are not accepting the structure as it now exists. We will fight for more accountability, mandation, information for members, etc.

7.6 The following points serve as guidelines for our day-to-day activity and link it to our goal of anarchism, because of the method that lies behind them.


(a) Opposition to centralised wage bargaining. Defence of free collective bargaining.

(b) Encouragement of joint claims and action across union and craft divides.

(c) For cash claims, in preference to percentage ones, on the basic with no strings attached.

(d) For opposition to Îsocial partnershipâ, which not only holds down wages but also reduces membership participation in union affairs and promotes the lie that there can be an equal partnership between workers and their bosses & rulers

(e) For a national minimum wage set as a % of the national average industrial wage..


(a)  Because the economic cycle of capitalism sees each boom followed by a slump, mass unemployment is a recurring threat.  It cannot be eradicated while capitalism exists but we can fight back against the bossesâ desire to make us pay for their crisis.

(b) Opposition to all job losses through strikes and occupations backed up by the greatest possible solidarity action throughout the TU movement.

(c) That all closures be met by the demand for continued employment with no reduction in pay, or worsening of conditions or union rights. We are not concerned whether this is done by bringing in a new owner or by nationalisation.

(d) We point out that nationalisation is not a cure-all, and that state ownership brings us not one inch nearer to socialism.

(e) Opposition to all productivity deals that involve job losses.

(f) Opposition to 'natural wastage' of jobs, forced early retirement.

(g) Full membership rights in the unions for unemployed workers, for unemployed sections within the branches.

(h) Where possible, organisations of the unemployed should be set up. These should keep in close contact with those still in work by helping on picket lines and building links with the unions. They should also aim for closer links with bona-fide tenants' and residents' associations. While unemployed organisations which concentrate on service provision fulfil a useful role, what is needed is a fighting unemployed movement which will take up the political fight for jobs, decent social welfare payments etc.

(i) For trade union support for the demands of the unemployed, e.g. providing facilities, refusing to cut off services such as electricity and gas, etc.

(j) For putting pressure on the state to inject money into industry that is both labour intensive and socially useful. For a programme of public works paying union rates. For a crash programme of housebuilding using direct labour employed by the local authorities.

(k) For unionisation of people on schemes, for TU rates of pay.

(l) We reject the idea that unemployed people should be thankful for any 'job' they are offered. We call for decent jobs - ones that are well paid and socially useful.


(a) Opposition to all laws restricting the right to strike, and all laws which seek to interfere in the internal affairs of the unions. Opposition to "union bashing". For the scrapping of the anti-union provisions of the Industrial Relations Act.

(b) We are opposed to schemes for "worker directors" and "workers participation". They are a confidence trick to deny the reality of class rule by the bosses, as are employee share schemes. Workers' interests are opposed to the interests of the bosses.

(c) When possible, we encourage workers not to use the Labour Court and other supposedly "impartial" institutions. Instead we call for solidarity action.

(d) We argue for the withdrawal of the ICTU representatives from the Employer-Labour Conference, the N.I. Police Authority, state and semi-state boards. We are against participation in all bodies that try to destroy the independance of the unions by involving them in "social partnership".

(e) We are against the "sweetheart deals" negotiated by some unions and the Industrial Development Board/Enterprise Ireland which grant negotiation rights to a single union without the agreement of the workforce. We stand for the right of workers to join the union of their choice.


(a) For positive encouragement of women, younger members and immigrants to participate in the unions, and to take lay office.

(b) We are against the concept of "reserved places" on union committees for women. It is undemocratic and tokenistic. The real alternative for the unions to seriously take up womens' isssues.

(c) For equal rights and benefits for all members regardless of sex, age or whether they are full-time or part-time workers.

(d) For six months paid maternity/paternity leave.

(e) Opposition to the use of maternity leave as a disentitlement to pay related benefit.

(f) In order to enable women to attend union meetings we call for childcare provision at the expense of the union.

(g) To defend womens' right to work we call for childcare provision at the expense of the bosses, and under the supervision of the workers using it.

(h) For 'flexitime' arrangements where workers with children desire it.

(i) To commit the unions to support a woman's right to control her own fertility, including the right to avail of abortion, and to give moral and material support to campaigns seeking to achieve this end.


(a) We fight to change the role of the full-time officials - not to change the individuals who occupy the positions. Their decision-making powers have to be removed and returned to the rank & file membership. They should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the people they represent. They should only serve for a fixed period of no more than five years after which they they return to ordinary work. The unions will have to win the demand for jobs to be kept open in order for this to be realistic.

(b) All officials to be subject to mandation and recall.

(c) We are totally opposed to the ICTU "two tier" picket.

(d) For regular branch and workplace meetings, in working hours where this is possible.

(e) For direct elections to all committees, conference delegations and national officerships, subject to mandation and recall.

(f) All strikes to be automatically made official as long as they do not contradict trade union principles.

(g) Support for all disputes, official or unofficial, in pursuit of higher wages, better conditions, jobs, trade union principles or any issue in the interest of the class.

(h) For the publication of minutes of all union meetings.

(i) Where revolutionaries can gain enough support to win election to national officerships in large unions, or indeed small ones, this support should not be used to merely elect a candidate. Instead it should be used to fundamentally change the structure of the union in such a way as to return power to the membership and turn the officers into administrators and resource people rather than decision makers.


8.1 The rank and file movement is that movement within the unions of militant workers who are prepared to fight independantly of the bureaucracy, and against it when necessary.

8.2 The form it has taken in Ireland has been that of combative shop steward committees, inter-factory committees, and groupings of activists within particular unions and/or trades.

8.3 Such a movement arises when workers go into struggle and are attacked not only by the boss but also by their own union officials. It requires the confidence to fight on both these fronts, and to be generalised to the degree where it can appeal for solidarity action over the heads of the bureaucrats.

8.4 In the case of building around a programme or list of demands, it should be broad enough to attract workers who are militant but would not see themselves as having a particular political outlook. The basis for building is (as a general guide): 1. for union democracy, 2. for equality in the workplace and in the union, 3. against wage restraint, 4. for a fight for jobs, 5. support for strikes.

8.5 Within the rank & file movement we fight for our politics, we never hide them. But we do not want to take over, the movement should be independant of any one political organisation. While we seek to convince as many workers as possible of the need for anarchism, we do not do this in an opportunist manner at the expense of the growth of the movement. It should never be made a front belonging to the revolutionary organisation. Its role is to provide a focus for workers moving to the left and wanting to fight. Point 8.6 "Rank-and-file movements usually come about as a result of struggle - when workers see that the union leadership is an impediment to that struggle. They cannot be willed into existence. The establishment of solidarity networks can in the meantime draw people together on a limited agenda where issues of democracy, strategies for the future etc. can be discussed. We seek to build solidarity networks where possible, as the first step towards the building of rank-and-file movements


9.1 In line with our recognition of the need for solidarity the WSM, within the bounds of its resources, offers to aid workers in dispute. In this we do not seek to "provide a service" but to encourage self-activity among the strikers. We push them to pressurise the union into providing material help. Only when this is not forthcoming do we provide leaflets, etc. We will put our organisation at their disposal in terms of help with fundraising, collections, publicity, contacts for blacking and other solidarity actions - but we do it WITH the strikers, not FOR them.

9.2 Our most immediate aim in any strike is to win a victory. But it is not our sole aim. We are political militants and not just good trade unionists, we argue our politics. We seek to win support for our politics, we seek to win members to our organisation.

9.3 Where groups of workers on strike seek the establishment of a strike support group we will do all we can, given our limited resources, to assist the establishment and success of such a support group. However, within the strike support group, we will insist that the strikers themselves maintain control and we will work to ensure that the strikers' confidence in their ability to act for themselves is increased. We will argue strongly against the support group becoming a substitute for activity within the union concerned - activity which should place demands on the union structures to fight with and for the strikers. We will work to ensure that the support group does not do things "for" the strikers but instead gives advice and assistance in terms of helping the strikers to fight for themselves.

Where possible, at the conclusion to a strike we will encourage the strikers to compile a short article/pamphlet detailing their experiences. Such articles/pamphlets would serve as a "memory bank" and would prove useful to future strikers who find themselves fighting the same battles.


10.1 When we say we are in favour of 100% trade unionism we mean just that. A fighting union will gain the support of the vast majority of workers. But there will be that small minority, from whose ranks hardline parasites and scabs appear, who will refuse to join. As they automatically benefit from every claim the union wins they should not be allowed to opt out of the struggle for it. Where the majority of the workforce decide they want a closed shop agreement we support them. However we do not support single union agreements that are forced on workers from above. The important thing is that everyone is in a bona-fide union, it is less important which union they join.


11.1 Trade unions will not become revolutionary organisations, they were never set up to be that. However from within trade union struggle will arise the embryo of the workers' councils of the future. The early beginnings of this are seen wherever workers create their own rank & file organisation (without mediation or "all-knowing" leaders) to pursue their class interests.

11.2 Towards this end we push as hard as we can for independance from the control of the bureaucracy.

11.3 The role of the WSM within these struggles is to unify the different sectional struggles into an awareness of the overall struggle between the classes; to act as a "collective memory" for the movement (i.e. able to explain the lessons of past struggles); to take on the politics of reformism and Leninism within the movement; to explain and popularise the anarchist-communist idea. Essentially our role is that of a "leadership of ideas" - as opposed to a leadership of elitist individuals.

Amended August 2001

Unions - how can the 'democratic deficit' be tackled?2

Gregor Kerr

At the October general meeting of my union branch, Dublin City North INTO (Irish National Teachers Organisation), the district representative on the CEC (Central Executive Committee) told the members that the union leadership was in the process of lodging a claim for a pay increase to compensate for inflation. However, he said, he couldn't possibly tell us what the amount of that claim was, as this was confidential. The members were effectively being told 'don't worry your heads, your leaders will decide what's best for you.'

This was simply further proof of the 'democratic deficit' within many unions. The leaderships see themselves as a protected elite, and many union members feel powerless to do anything about it. Rulebooks are often written in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible for ordinary members to influence how decisions are arrived at.

When the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) was being discussed earlier in the year, many unions - including the INTO - witnessed huge campaigns of propaganda by the union leaderships in favour of the deal, and attempts to silence opponents of the deal. Many union members no longer feel that the union is theirs, 'the union' is seen as a faceless group of people in 'head office' and many members feel that they are not in a position to influence what goes on.

However, the fact that 100% of the members of the CEC in the INTO campaigned for the PPF and yet it was only passed by less than 50 votes overall (50.5% to 49.5%) shows that there are people willing to take a stand. That vote came about as a result of people going to their meetings and making the arguments against the deal, not allowing themselves to be intimidated by the bullyboy tactics of the leadership.

There are a number of minor reforms which can be won, and which can have a great effect in terms of narrowing the 'democratic deficit' and taking power back into the hands of the members. A campaign across all unions for equal space to be given in union publications to both 'yes' and 'no' sides on any national vote, and a campaign for a five year limit on elected positions - both Executive members and paid officials - would be a start. They're hardly revolutionary or earth-shattering demands but if won they're the issues which can form a base for moving closer to taking back control of our unions.

SIPTU's rukebook3

Alan MacSimóin

Imagine a trade union where you can't put motions to your conference if you want to change the rulebook. That's what happens in Ireland's largest union, SIPTU. A Rules Revision Committee is elected, and then given the power to decide what rule changes conference (allegedly the highest decision making body) can discuss and vote on. Branches can only ask the Committee to consider their suggestions, it's up to that Committee to decide if the proposal goes any further.

When this Committee asked for suggestions the Dublin Electronics & Engineering Branch wrote off saying that Branches should be able to directly put rule changes to the union conference. Other branches are currently debating similar motions. Let's try to get a good shove behind this initiative. We will never turn our unions into anything great if we can't even change the rulebook.

Syndicalism, its strengths & weaknesses4

Alan MacSimóin

SYNDICALISM is the largest organised tendency in the libertarian movement today. It has built large workers' unions, led major struggles, been the popular expression of anarchism in many countries. To understand the anarchist-communist view of syndicalism we have to look at its roots, its core beliefs and its record.

In the 1860s the modern socialist movement was beginning to take shape. The International Working Mens' Association, better known as the First International, was becoming a pole of attraction for militant workers. As the movement grew, points of agreement and of disagreement between the Marxists and the Anarchists about what socialism meant and how to achieve it were becoming clear. This led to the Marxists using less than democratic means to expel the anarchists.

In 1871 the Paris Commune came into being when the workers of Paris seized their city. When they were finally defeated seven thousand Communards were dead or about to be executed. A reign of terror against the Left swept Europe. The anarchists were driven underground in country after country. This did not auger well for a rapid growth of the movement. In response to the terror of the bosses, their shooting down of strikers and protesting peasants and their suppression of the anarchist movement a minority launched an armed campaign, known as propaganda by deed, and killed several kings, queens, aristocrats and senior politicians.

Though very understandable, this drove a further wedge between the bulk of the working class and the movement. Clandestine work became the norm in many countries. Mass work became increasingly difficult. The image of the madman with a bomb under his arm was born. The movement was making no significant gains.

By the turn of the century many anarchists were convinced that a new approach was needed. They called for a return to open and public militant activity among workers. The strategy they developed was syndicalism.


Its basic ideas revolve around organising all workers into the one big union, keeping control in the hands of the rank & file, and opposing all attempts to create a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. Unlike other unions their belief is that the union can be used not only to win reforms from the bosses but also to overthrow the capitalist system. They hold that most workers are not revolutionaries because the structure of their unions is such that it takes the initiative away from the rank & file. Their alternative is to organise all workers into the one big union in preparation for a revolutionary general strike.

They established their own international organisation with the founding of the International Workers Association in Berlin in 1922. Present at that conference were the Argentine Workers Regional Organisation FORA representing 200,000 members, the Industrial Workers of the World in Chile representing 20,000, the Union for Syndicalist Propaganda in Denmark with 600, the Free Workers Union of Germany FAUD with 120,000, National Workers Secretariat of the Netherlands representing 22,500, the Italian Syndicalist Union with 500,000, the General Confederation of Workers in Portugal with 150,000, the Swedish Workers Central Organisation SAC with 32,000, the Committee for the Defence of Revolutionary Syndicalism in France [a breakaway from the CGT] with 100,000, the Federation du Battiment from Paris representing 32,000. The Spanish CNT was unable to send delegates due to the fierce class struggle being waged in their country under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. They did, however, join the following year.

During the 1920s the IWA expanded. More unions and propaganda groups entered into dialogue with the IWA secretariat. They were from Mexico, Uruguay, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Paraguay and North Africa.

Syndicalist unions outside the IWA also existed in many countries such as the Brazilian Workers Regional Organisation and the Industrial Workers of the World in the USA (which soon spread to Canada, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, and Britain(1) ). The influence of its methods, if not necessarily of its anarchist origins, was even seen in Ireland where the ITGWU throughout its existence, until it merged into SIPTU a few years ago, carried the letters OBU on its badge. This OBU refers to the IWW slogan of One Big Union. And let us not forget that both Connolly and Larkin were influenced by the IWW. Connolly was an organiser for their building workers union in New York state and Larkin delivered the oration at Joe Hill's funeral.


The success of the Bolsheviks did great harm to the workers movement outside Russia. Many were impressed by what was happening in Russia, Communist Parties sprang up almost everywhere. The Bolshevik model appeared successful. Many sought to copy it. This was before the reality of the Soviet dictatorship became widely known.

Nevertheless the syndicalist movement still held on to most of its support. The real danger was the rise of fascism. With the rule of Mussolini, the Italian USI, the largest syndicalist union in the world, was driven underground and then out of existence. The German FAUD, Portuguese CGT, Dutch NSV, French CDSR and many more in Eastern Europe and Latin America were not able to survive the fascism and military dictatorships of the 1930s and 40s.(2)

It was at the same time that the Spanish revolution unfolded, which was to represent both the highest and lowest points of syndicalism(3). More about this below.

The Polish syndicalist union with 130,000 workers, the ZZZ, was on the verge of applying for membership of the IWA when it was crushed by the Nazi invasion. But, as with syndicalists elsewhere, they did not go down without a fight. The Polish ZZZ along with the Polish Syndicalist Association took up arms against the nazis and in 1944 even managed to publish a paper called Syndicalista. In 1938, despite their country being under the Salazar dictatorship since the 1920s, the Portuguese CGT could still claim 50,000 members in their now completely illegal and underground union. In Germany, trials for high treason were carried out against militants of the FAUD. There were mass trials of members, many of whom didn't survive the concentration camps.

One point worthy of mention about the Spanish CNT shows the hypocrisy of the British government which called itself anti-fascist. Not only were Italian anti-fascist exiles interned on the Isle of Man but CNT members whose underground movement assisted British airmen, Jews and anti-fascists to escape through Spain to Britain were repaid at the end of the war when their names were handed over to Franco's secret police.


By the end of WWII, the European syndicalist movement and the IWA was almost destroyed. The CNT was now an exile organisation. In 1951 the IWA held their first post-war congress in Toulouse. This time they were a much smaller organisation than the great movement which existed at their first congress. Nevertheless they still represented something. Delegates attended, though mostly representing very small organisations, from Cuba, Argentina, Spain, Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Britain, Bulgaria and Portugal. A message of support was received from Uruguay.

Things were not looking good for the re-emergence of anarcho-syndicalism. In Eastern Europe the Stalinists allowed no free discussion, strikes or free trade unions. Certainly not anarchist ones! In the West massive subsidies from the US and the Catholic church went to tame unions controlled by Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Meanwhile Russia did the same for their allies who controlled the French CGT, the Italian CGIL and others. The IWA, in its weakened state couldn't compete for influence. In the late 1950s the Swedish SAC withdrew from the IWA. There was now not a single functioning union in its ranks.

It staggered on as a collection of small propaganda groups and exile organisations like the Spanish and Bulgarian CNTs. Some wondered would it live much longer. But suddenly in 1977 Franco died and his regime fell. The CNT blossomed. Within a matter of months its membership leaped from a few hundred activists to 150,000. [Problems later developed within the CNT and a split occurred which left us with two unions whose combined membership today probably does not reach 30,000, though this is still a significant number.] The growth of the CNT put syndicalism back on the anarchist agenda. The IWA now claims organisations which function at least partly as unions (in Italy, France and Spain) and propaganda groups in about another dozen countries.

Outside the IWA are syndicalist unions and organisations like the 16,000 strong SAC in Sweden, the OVB in the Netherlands, the Spanish CGT, the Solidarity-Unity-Democracy(4) union in the French post office, the CRT in Switzerland, and others. Some are less anarchist and more reformist than others. Say what we will about them we must recognise that syndicalism is today the largest organised current in the international anarchist movement. This means it is especially important to understand them.


Anarchist-Communists do have criticisms of their politics, or more accurately lack of politics. Judging from their own statements, methods and propaganda the syndicalists see the biggest problem in the structure of the existing unions rather than in the ideas that tie workers to authoritarian, capitalist views of the world.

Syndicalists do not create revolutionary political organisations. They want to create industrial unions. Their strategy is apolitical, in the sense that they argue that all that's essential to make the revolution is for workers to seize the factories and the land. After that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the working class must take political power. For them all power has to be immediately abolished on day one of the revolution.

Because the syndicalist organisation is the union, it organises all workers regardless of their politics. Historically many workers have joined, not because they were anarchists, but because the syndicalist union was the most militant and got the best results. Because of this tendencies always appeared that were reformist. This raises the question of the conflict between being a trade union or a revolutionary anarchist organisation.

Syndicalists are quite correct to emphasise the centrality of organising workers in the workplace. Critics who reject syndicalism on the grounds that it cannot organise those outside the workplace are wrong. Taking the example of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain it is clear that they could and did organise throughout the entire working class as was evidenced by the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, the 'Mujeras Libres' (Free Women), and the neighbourhood organisations.


The weakness of syndicalism is rooted in its view of why workers are tied to capitalism, and its view of what is necessary to make the revolution. Spain in 1936/7 represented the highest point in anarcho-syndicalist organisation and achievement. Because of their a-politicism they were unable to develop a programme for workers' power, to wage a political battle against other currents in the workers' movement (such as reformism and Stalinism). Indeed syndicalists seem to ignore other ideas more often than combating them. In Spain they were unable to give a lead to the entire class by fighting for complete workers' power.

Instead they got sucked into support for the Popular Front government, which in turn led to their silence and complicity when the Republican state moved against the collectives and militias. The minority in the CNT, organised around the Friends of Durruti, was expelled when they issued a proclamation calling for the workers to take absolute power (ie that they should refuse to share power with the bosses or the authoritarian parties).

The CNT believed that when the workers took over the means of production and distribution this would lead to "the liquidation of the bourgeois state which would die of asphyxiation." History teaches us a different lesson. In a situation of dual power it is very necessary to smash the state. No ruling class ever leaves the stage of history voluntarily.

In contrast to this the Friends of Durruti were clear that, and this is a quote from their programme 'Towards a Fresh Revolution', "to beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power depending on rank & file committees. Apolitical anarchism has failed." The political confusion of the CNT leadership was such that they attacked the idea of the workers siezing power as "evil" and leading to an "anarchist dictatorship."

The syndicalist movement, organised in the International Workers Association and outside it, still refuses to admit the CNT was wrong to postpone the revolution and enter the government. They attempt to explain away this whole episode as being due to "exceptional circumstances " that "will not occur again.". Because they refuse to admit that a mistake of historic proportions was made, there is no reason to suppose that they would not repeat it (should they get a chance).

Despite our criticisms we should recognise that the syndicalist unions, where they still exist, are far more progressive than any other union. Not only do they create democratic unions and create an atmosphere where anarchist ideas are listened to with respect but they also organise and fight in a way that breaks down the divisions into leaders and led, doers and watchers. On its own this is very good but not good enough. The missing element is an organisation winning support for anarchist ideas and anarchist methods both within revolutionary unions and everywhere else workers are brought together. That is the task of the anarchist-communists.


1 It was known as the Industrial Workers of Great Britain.

2 Some, like the Italian USI and German FAU, have been refounded but exist only as relatively small propaganda groups. Sometimes they are able to take on union functions in particular localities.

3 A good introduction to this period is Eddie Conlon's The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action.

4 In workplace elections in Spring 1994 their vote in the post office rose from 4% to 18%, and in Telecom from 2.5% to 7.5%.

The Dunnes Strike & Managing Change

The two souls of Irish trade unionism

Des Derwin

For three weeks, in June-July, nearly 6,000 mostly young and part-time workers struck against Ireland's largest private sector employer, the firmly anti-union Dunnes Stores, over Sunday trading, zero-hours contracts, the proportion of full-time jobs and other issues. But the principal, and unstated, issues were probably union recognition and the organisation of the newly emergent semi-casual, part-time, young (and mainly female) section of the labour force. The result, while disappointing on the concrete 'economic' issues, was generally greeted as something of a breakthrough on the latter 'political' issues.

Power in the darkness

The Dunnes Stores strike came upon a sickly, scared and handcuffed trade union movement with the healing touch of restoration. It stood in sharp contrast to the grim series of industrial disputes that preceded it. Previous disputes at Packard, TEAM Aer Lingus, Irish Steel, Pat the Baker, Nolans resulted in demoralising defeats which seemed to deliver further body blows to a downwardly debilitating movement.

Everybody in the labour movement seems to agree on the positive significance of the Dunnes strike. The Biennial Conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in Tralee, which overlapped last July with the final week of the strike, was reportedly overjoyed at the outcome. Peter Cassels, ICTU General Secretary, congratulated the Labour Court on its recommendation.

At the other end of the spectrum responses were even more enthusiastic if with a different focus. The Dunnes strike was a turning point, said Socialist Worker [1]. Militant declared: The Dunnes strike can be the start of a general fight back by the working class and In many ways it has an historic significance. [2]

The Dunnes strike revealed to all that not alone was there still fight left in the trade union movement, but it was present where it was widely unexpected, among young, unorganised, part-time workers. It provided almost the first example in the last three years of a sucessful strike. Furthermore the Dunnes workers received the almost universal support of the general public, the media, the political parties, the Church, the state (which paid them the dole!), celebrities (even Boyzone!) and the trade union leadership. What refreshment, after the pillorying of the Irish Steel and TEAM craftworkers, the isolation of the Pat the Baker and Nolans Transport strikers, the (varying) sympathy for, but apparent helplessness of the Packard Electric workers.

Preceding elation was relief, on all sides of the movement. The left dreaded another defeat.[3] Even the Congress leaders could see that a defeat for MANDATE [4] in Dunnes would be a devastating blow to trade union strength and what place have generals without an army? On top of that Dunnes would have scored this triumph outside of the carefully built-up industrial relations machinery to which officialdom is so committed.[5]

Why the Dunnes strike won

Different sectors interpreted the victory in different ways. Two remarkable features of the strike were the professional public relations campaign of MANDATE and the overwhelming support of shoppers in refusing to enter the stores. Michael Foley, the Media Corespondent of the Irish Times, under a sub-heading stating,

the Dunnes Stores strike was fought and won on television, radio and in the newspapers, wrote: The picket line in the Dunnes Stores dispute was not a way of ensuring that the stores remained closed or a method of convincing others not to trade with the company, but a media event, a photo opportunity and an opportunity for sound bites.6

On the same page it was reported, in relation to the success of the strike, that senior members of the ICTU took the opportunity of the organisation's biennial conference in Tralee this week to hammer home repeatedly to members the importance of using industrial relations procedures to the maximum and the necessity of mobilising public support, as well as industrial muscle, if disputes were going to be fought and won. [7]

Here the accidental is emphasised over the essential. The Dunnes strike revolved around two issues. The first is that MANDATE had the numbers and used them, not least in legally dodgy mass pickets. The second is that the refusal of the company to use the industrial relations procedures underlined the irrelevance of any mediating machinery to the workers without industrial action.

A more satisfying analysis was given by Dermot Connolly writing in Militant as follows:

In contrast (to the half-hearted conduct of previous disputes by the unions) the Dunnes strike was superbly organised. They (MANDATE's officials and executive) knew that Dunnes were out to break the union and worked non-stop for six weeks to prepare the membership and counter every attempt by management to sow confusion and split the ranks. A national shop stewards committee was formed along with strike committees in the shops, mass picketing was encouraged. ICTU was pressurised into calling for a boycott of Dunnes and urging workers with their suppliers not to pass pickets. They didn't hide behind the need to call ballots before doing this as they have claimed to be the case in other disputes. A glimpse of the real potential power of the trade union movement was shown, and at the same time the fact that all the weaknesses of the unions to-day, the so-called decline in solidarity,8the inability to organise serious struggles comes from the top. [9]

The emphasis here is on shop floor organisation, militancy, industrial solidarity and the mass activity of the members themselves (rather than token picketlines) as the key essentials to the success of the strike.

Managing Change

If the Dunnes strike was a 'turning point', there was also another turning point (or rather, another turn of the screw) at the same time. The Biennial Conference of the ICTU showed the second of the two souls of Irish trade unionism. The ICTU planted yet another milestone in the road of 'partnership' and 'consensus' with the adoption of the document Managing Change and Motion 19.

Managing Change is the latest development of what Peter Cassels, ICTU General Secretary, refers to as the trade union agenda for a new century. [10] It follows a long line of Congress documents including New Forms of Work Organisation from the 1993 Conference.

The 1993 paper advised a new co-operative or participatory approach to such things as human resource management, world class manufacturing and total quality control: precisely the kind of new management techniques that lay-activists had hitherto been warned about as undermining trade union organisation. Commenting on the paper Peter Cassels said,

to innovate effectively... requires a high trust environment with workers and their unions accepted by companies as partners in the enterprises. [11]

Local consensus was taken some steps further at this year's conference, where 1995's theme paper was Managing Change. The Irish Times précised its contents thus:

Accepting that global markets and the speed of technological change now make company restructuring an almost constant process, Congress wants member-unions to become pro-active in this situation. Traditionally unions have resisted change and have focused on defending members' rights. ICTU wants to reverse that role. [12]

Plainly Congress has no problem with the logic of redundancies and worsened conditions. As the trade union leadership entered into a joint economic, social and (on many issues) political strategy with the government and the employers through the National Programmes, embracing austerity in the '80s, it has now accepted a consensus approach to new management techniques and 'rationalisation', in the individual firm, embracing competitiveness in the '90s. At both levels the same strategy is applied: accommodation rather than resistance. At both levels the same justification is given: let us get in on it, in order to influence it!

Myth and Reality

The reality of the workplace is remote from the myth of cosy partnership. Relentlessly employers have continued to 'rationalise' and 'restructure' with redundancies, natural wastage, conversion to contract labour, new 'yellowpack' starting rates, flexibility and new work practices often gained by threats of closure. It's not just at Packard that things thought long-buried, like straight wage cuts or longer working weeks, have returned from labour history. The very unions themselves are being undermined by their 'social partners' through the dismantling of shop floor organisation, 'no-strike' clauses, generosity to non-union people and, of course, 'human resource' techniques.

Matt Merrigan, former President of Congress, says it in his own inimitable style: Trade unionists in the workplace see no evidence of the shared duties, responsibilities and decision-making that are inferred in the texts of these programmes. Consensus and partnership are not in the lexicon of individual employers at plant level, rather it is: comply or else. [13] Perhaps the current President of Congress might give us a lexicon of the companies with a high trust environment. Aer Lingus, Allied Irish Banks....Zoe Developments?

This year's model, Managing Change develops workplace partnership from the general operation and development of the firm into the specific area of 'change'. Thus Congress addresses a current concern of the pundits of capital: the globalisation of capital and the consequent 'need' for rationalisation and 'downsizing' as general and constant features rather than just in the odd ailing company. It also addresses the continuing restructuring, part privatisation and exposure to competition of the semi-state sector - as seen in the past at An Post, Irish Steel, TEAM and in the coming year at the ESB [14] and Telecom Eireann.

A new world?

The motif of 'competitiveness' running through workplace partnership and the current union-employer-government agreement (the Programme for Competitiveness and Work) does not make a good match with trade unionism, which one was led to believe arose as an antidote to competition between companies and between workers themselves.[15] It blends well though with a revamped world-view placing the trade union eggs in the basket of the EU, the Maastricht Treaty, a strong currency and the European Social Charter. A world view that sees itself getting behind the perceived dawn of new technology. A world views that seeks to sail with a restructuring capitalism and the ascendancy of new right ideology. One which compensates for the decline in labour militancy by seeking to place trade union relevance elsewhere than in the class struggle. This results in a half- belief in the end of the working class as an entity and the transformation of its members into consumers.

It is a political economy based on the OECD, the ESRI and the NESC [16]. Once, and not so long ago, the economic policies of trade union leaders was based largely on state enterprise and the public sector. This underlying doctrine has been replaced without acknowledgement. A discredited statism has been replaced by a fatalistic adoption of the market; a loss of belief in any kind of 'socialist' alternative replaced with a 'new realism' that contends there is no basic alternative.

This creeping conversion has to some extent been fuelled latterly by the collapse of the 'Soviet' bloc, towards which many union leaders and backroom gurus sidewardly looked. [17]

Just how far into the business ethos things have gone is illustrated in the ICTU 1995 Pre-Budget Submission, which declares: Improved competitiveness is crucial for economic growth and job creation and must be protected from upward pressure on pay and inflation. Once it was the employers and government ministers who said that wage rises cause inflation and unemployment. John O'Dowd, General Secretary of the Civil and Public Services Union (CPSU), writing in the Sunday Tribune in August about the need for confidence in the change process in Telecom Eireann (i.e. the cutting of several thousand jobs) said, competition is here to stay and Telecom staff depend on achieving, and sustaining competitive advantage within this new environment. [18]

As with much of the unions' thinking over the past decade Managing Change is a legislation of existing practice. There is nothing new about union officials arguing for an employer's proposals - or a compromise version of them - on the job. Congress brought this to a high point in 1994, the centenary of its foundation, by becoming the 'persuader' in Irish Steel and TEAM Aer Lingus alongside employers, politicians and the media. Actually, Managing Change and Motion 19 arose directly out of a review group established by Congress to investigate 'what went wrong' in these two cases (where some workers were hard to persuade).

Managing change - never had a policy a more apt title. The system requires regular change, to ensure competitiveness and profitability. There's a need for an apparatus - complete with apparatchiks - for its smooth operation. The rough edges of the employers' proposals may have to be trimmed. The workforce will be delivered up to accept the essence of the changes all systematised through a prepared procedure. No more cliff-side ballots, no more embarrassing blockades on the Airport Road, no more 'workers vote for sucide' newspaper articles, no (perish the thought) importation of Air France-type direct action resistance.

In the new schema, of course, it is the rank and file who live with the changes, while the leaders enter the corridors of power and increase their salaries. (The three General Officers of SIPTU receive £7O,OOO per annum, according to the Sunday Independent. [19] That's before car and expenses.)

Bureaucrats as policemen

Managing Change extends the domain of the persuader and of the police officer within the industrial relations process. Peter Cassels, answering criticism20 that the ICTU might

whip the trade unions into line, said: And if that requires us telling a trade union they're off-side we'll say they're off-side. And if it requires telling union members they're off-side, then we'll tell them they're off-side. [21]

In defending the proposal for 'a pro-active approach to changes in work-practices' he said:

We have a choice, we can leave it to the employers to set the agenda and do what trade unionists have been doing in other countries and react. Or we can try and shape the future. The Irish Times report continues: He cited the fight to save jobs at Waterford Crystal and the Cost and Competitiveness Review in the ESB and Telecom Eireann as situations in which unions have seized the initiative in shaping change. [22]

These citations were unfortunate and upon them any 'traditionalist' can rest his or her case. The instance at Waterford Crystal was a signal defeat, the breaking of arguably the strongest and most class conscious group of Irish workers at the time. The ESB and Telecom reviews are all about the loss of thousands of the best (and best-unionised) jobs in the country and the unions' happy cooperation with same!

Motion 19 puts Managing Change into specific points of policy. And here alarm bells ring as Congress once again ties the hands of its members. Motion 19 proposed the conclusion of a Framework Document with employer bodies on how change in the workplace should be negotiated. [23] Congress not only want to lead the charge for change (Peter Cassels again) but it wants a centralised agreement to govern how it is approached. The local element as a feature of workplace partnership didn't get very far, did it?

This codified procedure would, without doubt, lay down how, when and where to negotiate and, above all, what to negotiate. Any pre-cooked negotiation schedule would have to give an assurance to the employers that the unions would not rule out negotiation, at least, on any proposal from local employers. Then the matter would go to the Labour Relations Commission (as specified in Motion 19) after which workers would be expected to ballot (or the Editorials would want to know why not) on a 'compromise' third-party recommendation.

As the National Programmes have, since 1987, removed the (offensive) power of workers to put claims to their own employers, this new centralised departure would remove, or severely undermine, the (defensive) power of workers to reject adverse changes in their own employment. Any 'framework agreement' that emerges should go to a ballot and be campaigned against.

Furthermore Motion 19 calls for a measure that you might, if you were not up to speed with the charge to the right of the ICTU, have expected union leaders to denounce if IBEC, the employers' organisation, proposed it. This is the introduction of mandatory use of third party machinery in procedures and disputes24. The first consideration is the fatal delay and sidetracking that can be involved in processing urgently needed industrial action through the labyrinth. The second is the bias and the malleability of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court.

Compulsory conciliation is, of course, well established in Irish industrial relations: in SIPTU (in practice), in the public service and legally for 'individual' disputes under the 1990 Industrial Relations Act. What Motion 19 would do is to extend and copperfasten it into (here it comes again) national arrangements with government and employer organisations.

Finally, the Motion establishes aggregate ballots where in certain situations Congress can insist on a single vote on a change package. This is Congress' response to the Irish Steel crisis in which the craftworkers rejected the company's 'survival' plan which the majority (mainly SIPTU) general workers accepted. Congress and SIPTU supported the plan and will support similar plans in future situations. So Managing Change infers that the rejection of worsened conditions by an independent section is perceived, not as an opportunity upon which to build stronger opposition, but as a problem to be overcome by the majority votes of the already persuaded. This pseudodemocracy takes no account of valid craft demarcations or cases where one section are asked to take more odious changes than another.

Two Souls

Overlapping as it was with the ICTU Conference, the Dunnes Stores strike (and its resolution) provided a special occasion to view the two souls of Irish trade unionism together. Connections between the two were real enough, and some others were made by Congress leaders adopting the Dunnes experience and by journalists juxtaposing two major industrial events.

The Dunnes dispute was used specifically by Phil Flynn as an example of the need for mandatory third-party reference of disputes. [25] Through Dunnes-and their refusal to even attend the LRC - the 'innovators' have been able to portray mandatory mediation as a constraint upon the employers while overlooking its suffocating effect on workers' action. This portrayal is easily achieved because third-party referral is now almost automatic on the union side, because of the unions' own dispute procedures and because of the prevalent lack of confidence among workers about having a straight fight. It's the employers who are perceived to be beyond this due process and who need to be tied into it through a tripartheid commitment.

Commentators painted the strike as a watershed to which the ICTU's Tralee agenda corresponded. Padraig Yeates, Industry and Employment Correspondent of the Irish Times first appeared to acknowledge the differences between them:

ln many ways the Dunnes Stores strike is a very traditional one, about defending basic workers' rights rather than mediating change to meet the needs of 'global' competition. This perception notwithstanding he goes on, yet delegates are keenly aware that the Dunnes Stores dispute is just as relevant to the ICTU's modern agenda. By way of explanation for this relevance he continues: It is the first national strike involving a new generation of part-time workers who are only just begining to join unions. [26]

This was precisely the strike's significance, but not its relevance to the modern agenda.

Perhaps Padraig Yeates was reflecting the connection which Congress thinkers make to justify the modern agenda, as an adaption to the emergent generation of casualised and unorganised young workers - through consensus rather than struggle! In Towards A New Century, a veritable manifesto of new unionism, Peter Cassels writes:

Labour market changes are also producing a 'new' and growing workforce of part-time, temporary, casual, contract and home workers...The changing composition of the workforce is changing the content of the trade union agenda which in turn is changing how we process that agenda. [27]

The Dunnes strike has demonstrated that the road ahead, in trade union terms, for this new generation is not the 'new agenda'. A good old fashioned strike has more claim to that (more but not all - some real tactical head-scratching is needed, for example, in relation to struggle at mobile multinationals).

The start of a general fightback it could be, yet even its own resolution was a steadying reminder that the other soul (the consensus loving one) envelopes even the great Dunnes strike with its deadening presence. An outsider might conclude that MANDATE halted the march just when they had Dunnes on the run. One insider described it as,

Let's not lose, rather than win. [28]

Of course the recommendation to call off the strike after three weeks may have been prudent, rather than weak-kneed, leadership: avoiding a long industrial campaign with raw recruits. The same insider claims, however, that the general feeling of the activist layer in MANDATE was against the Labour Court recommendation [29] The Sunday Tribune quotes one shop steward as saying, we've been sold out. [30] The reccommendation was accepted by nearly four to one in MANDATE.

One way or the other, a great triumph of the strike was that a powerful and determinedly anti-union employer, employing a 'new' and casualised workforce, was forced to grant de facto recognition to the union. But the settlements on the particular issues upon which the strike was fought represent rather modest gains and, in some cases, could set unfavourable precedents in the retail industry.

The settlement

Compulsory Sunday working was accepted and extended to the previously exempt pre-October 1994 workers. It seems a kind of mockery that European law and practice is continually used to get workers to take changes and comply with the norm while Ireland is the only state in the EU where Sunday trading is permitted without any regulation.

The elimination of 'zero-hour' (on-call) contracts was a major achievement. Under the settlement there's a minimum of fifteen hours a week work for part-timers and split shifts are abolished.

Although the Labour Court recommend time-and-a-half for Sunday working (as against Dunnes' demand for flat-rate working for new workers) this sets up two pay rates for the same work (senior workers keep double time) and is below rates enjoyed in some other union stores. On the ratio of full-time to part-time posts the settlement (two hundred extra full-time posts) makes no qualitative difference in a workforce of 6,000.

Our 'insider' reflects as follows:

In drawing up a balance sheet of the strike it would be wrong to say that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, or even that the outcome was a draw. From where this dispute started, the gains won were greater than the concessions made. Dunnes set out to break the union, and achieved the opposite. The union is stronger than at any time in the past. The members are more confident and a new layer of militants will come into activity. [31]

Perhaps the main achievement was the 'political' one of the moderately successful arrival of this large sector of atomised young workers - feared by some to be beyond the pale of trade unionism - on the stage of organised working class struggle. Plus, perhaps, the uplifting impact of the strike on the consciousness of workers in general.

It might have been expected that in the aftermath of the strike the official trade union milieu arrived at some new conclusions on how to organise industrial struggle. This certainly didn't happen immediately. At the end of the same month, at another retail giant, the Marks and Spencer stores in Dublin, there was another three-week strike, this time by SIPTU warehouse workers centring on changes in shift patterns. On approaching the (Mary St) store it was evident that while the usual amount of shoppers was down there was still a good number inside. Where had the remarkable support of shoppers gone in three weeks? A large part of the answer was surely that the vast majority of the workers, including the shop assistants who are MANDATE members, were still working away! It seemed that the Dunnes strike had made little impact on the official world of SIPTU (who were absurdly asking shoppers not to patronise Marks and Spencer where their fellow trade unionists were quite clearly waiting to serve them). Neither had MANDATE been greatly effected as they seemed to have developed a sudden attack of forgetfulness, thereby enabling the very thing they'd feared a month earlier - the public passing the picket and a staff there to meet them.

A SIPTU picketer offered the information that they didn't want to ask the MANDATE members to come out at that stage. Some of the picketers did not maintain this relaxed view of the picketline throughout, expressing strong disagreement with large vehicles, insisting on a relaxed approach of their own. Part of the settlement of this strike was, incidentally, the establishment of a joint participative review of the warehouse operation which sounds awfully like an early application of Managing Change.

Padraig Yeates finished his thoughtful Irish Times commentary with: The Dunnes Stores dispute highlights the crisis facing the trade union movement. It will be up to the delegates (to the ICTU Conference) this week to decide if Congress is coming up with the right solutions.32 At the end of that week it would seem to be confirmed that the (at least) moderate success of the Dunnes strike, and the methods it employed, militant, organised and imaginative, met the crisis, and highlighted that Congress is coming up not with solutions but with problems.


1 Socialist Worker, 8-21 Jul. '95.

2 Militant, Jul.-Aug. '95.

3 Sporadic victories such as Blooms Hotel (Dublin), the Eastern Health Board (IMPACT) and Knightingales (Dublin store) had been stars too remote to lighten the darkness.

4 MANDATE, the main striking union, representing most Dunnes workers.

5 The ICTU's public intervention emphasised Dunnes' refusal to co-operate with the Labour Relations Commission.

6 Irish Times, 8-7-95.

7 Ibid.

8 The desert that was Dunnes answered, belatedly but baldly, the comment of the General Secretary of SIPTU (Ireland's largest union), Billy Attley, at a Union conference, that the Pat the Baker strikers (1993) had been beaten not by anything the unions did or didn't do but by the lack of solidarity (by which he meant, people bought the bread).

9 Militant, op.cit.

10 P. Cassels, Towards A New Century in Trade Union

Century, ed. D.Nevin (Mercier Press, 1994) p.427.

11 Sunday Tribune, 1-8-93 (my emphasis).

12 Padraig Yeates, Industrial and Employment

Corespondent, Irish Times, 3-7-95.

13 Matt Merrigan, Co-operation is a capitalist asset,

Irish Reporter No.17 (1995).

14 Electricity Supply Board.

15 Peter Cassels was this year appointed to the Competitiveness Advisory Group of the European Union (EU).

16 The last two are Irish economic think tanks.

17 Democratic Left are ex-stalinists currently in the Irish governing coalition. An article in their magazine Times Change (don't they just) on The Future of Work by Sean Kelly ends: In the global competitive trade wars that are now being witnessed it appears that the only source of job security for workers is satisfied customers.

(Times Change, Autumn/Winter 1994.).

18 Sunday Tribune, 13-8-95.

19 Sunday Independent, 20-8-95. SIPTU (Services Industrial Professional Technical Union)

20 from TEEU delegate Tim Lawless at Tralee

21 Irish Times 6-7-95.

22 Ibid. 6-7-95.

23 Ibid. 3-7-95.

24 The reporting of this clause as proposing compulsory arbitration has sown confusion. Compulsory arbitration is the compulsory acceptance of a third-party decision while compulsory conciliation (the Motion 19 proposal) is the compulsory referral to a third party for recommendation. There's one hell of a difference, and even I would not expect Congress to suddenly call a complete ceasefire in the class war. Apparently, it was 'clarified' at the Conference that this section was not 'prescriptive' and there would be 'consultation' with unions further on.

25 Irish Times, 3-7-95. Phil Flynn, ICTU President, in the same interview, says that Dunnes Stores is not anti-union, but non-union.

26 Ibid., 4-7-95

27 Towards a new Century, P.Cassels, op.cit. p.425.

28 A 'prominent Mandate activist' (anonymous), Militant


29 Ibid..

30 Sunday Tribune, 9-7-95.

31 Militant, op. cit.

32 Irish Times, 4-7-95.

Industrial Relations Act ... Codes of Practice

Break this Law

Joe King

A BAN on strikes in 'essential services'. That was the call from the bosses and conservative politicians in the wake of the ESB workers dispute. The PDs and the Greens made reference to treating the ESB workers 'like the army', TDs from the main parties talked of a ban on strikes in 'essential services', making them more difficult to have, or compensating workers who lost their right to strike.

The union leaders, far from telling these characters where to get off, offered to restrain their own members through a 'voluntary' code of practice. Phil Flynn, joint General Secretary of the white collar union IMPACT, told his conference that he welcomed the fact that codes were being prepared by the Labour Relations Commission.


To back up this 'voluntary' code the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) is considering removing the immunity from prosecution enjoyed under the 1906 Trades Disputes Act. This would allow bosses, or others, to sue unions or individual strikers for loss of income or service caused by a strike if the "correct procedures" had not been complied with.

These procedures are probably the extension of the 'cooling-off' period to one month (i.e. plenty of time for management to arrange strike breaking), compulsory arbitration before a strike can legally take place and enforcement of a 'minimum level of service' - decided by the boss and politically appointed agencies like the LRC - during a strike.


The essential services that are being talked about by the government and the ICTU include the ESB, hospitals, buses, trains, fire brigade, water pumping, sewage, refuse collection, An Post and Telecom. If they get away with this attack on the hard fought for right to strike, the list will grow.

Workers in every job, not just the essential services, do not strike for the hell of it. They go without wages and often get into debt. It is insulting to talk of 'cooling-off'. It would be a lot more honest to admit this is a way for the boss to buy more time for plans to beat the workers.


To talk of a statutory level of cover during a dispute is even worse. It suggests that nurses would leave patients to die, ESB workers would cut the power to hospitals or ambulance drivers refuse to attend an accident scene. Trade unionists have a very noble record of providing a high level of emergency cover during strikes in truly essential services. They do it without being asked and they do it without pay.

These proposals to further muzzle workers are in addition to last year's Industrial Relations Act. This was voted in by the Dáil without even a whimper from the ICTU. They had given a commitment to new legislation in the Programme for National Recovery.


The biggest changes are in respect of secret ballots, secondary picketing and cases involving individual workers. The first is almost a word for word copy of the anti-union laws passed in Britain when Thatcher ruled the roost.

Section 14 forces a secret ballot to be held for all forms of industrial action, including overtime bans and working to (the bosses') rule. Every person who may be effected by the action has to be given an 'equal entitlement' to vote. Seven days notice of any action has to be given to the boss. If these rules are not followed the boss will be free to get an injunction and the union could even have its negotiation licence taken away.


The point is to delay action for as long as possible, widen the grounds upon which an injunction can be obtained and discourage workers from taking the most effective action. In most situations quick action brings the best results. Now it is not legal to stage an immediate walk out even in a unsafe work situation.

Not only must you give a weeks notice but the balloting regulations are such that it is made harder to take a vote at a meeting. This is where it is best done. Everyone can hear both sides of the case and ask questions before voting whether to strike. Now an injunction could be granted on the basis that anyone not present did not have an 'equal entitlement'. Another step towards compulsory postal ballots.


If you decide to go out on strike, you will want the strike to be effective. This means hitting the employer hard, making sure that all business is halted. To do this it is necessary to stop your employer moving production or distribution elsewhere.

There were always restrictions on secondary picketing, these have been extended under the new law. Pickets will only be allowed at the "place where another employer who has directly assisted yours carries on his business".

It is not stated what 'directly assisted' means in law. Knowing the record of Irish judges we can say with certainty that they will take a very narrow view of this clause. Recently an injunction was granted in the River Valley dispute to prevent the SIPTU strikers calling on other workers to black the company's products because such a call interfered with River Valley's commercial contracts. (Yet one more example of the impartiality of the law!).


No industrial action involving one worker is permitted unless long drawn out procedures have been complied with. Even in a case of unfair dismissal workers still have to go though all the procedures before taking action. This can take up to six months.

Speedy action is the way to get a fellow worker reinstated. Waiting half a year is a great way to ensure that nothing happens.

No legal definition of an individual case is given in the Act, so once again it will be up to judges to decide. However, as trade unionists we should not be concerned with definitions. We have always held the "an injury to one is the concern of all". So-called individual cases can be used to change conditions, set precedents and victimise shop stewards.


The unions have been given two years to change their rule books to comply with the new law. Failure to do so could result in the loss of legal immunity. If the union membership decide they want to keep their rules the way they are and reject the new ones, the union Executive is given the power to change the rules anyway.

If they decide to respect the democratic wishes of their members and keep the old rule book, the union's negotiation licence can be withdrawn. This is blatant interference by the state in the internal affairs of our unions.


The Industrial Relations Act is an anti-union law. If we don't put up a fight against both it and the proposed 'codes of practice' the bosses will walk all over us. The British trade union leaders did nothing to stop the Thatcher laws. Now anti-union legislation is well established there. We don't want that to happen here.

Speakers should be invited into section and branch meetings to put the case against the Industrial Relations Act, motions against it should be passed at all levels of the union movement. We should oppose the attempts to change the rule books. When workers come into conflict with the Act we must build real support for them. We should make the law unworkable.

How much change can we acheive within the unions, ... how can we do it?

STRONG workforces like Aer Lingus stand to be decimated. Strong unions like SIPTU are humbled by a minor union busting boss like Pat the Baker. Job losses mount while top union officials earn top salaries. Cynicism and demoralisation are found among trade unionists in almost every job and union branch. Everyone knows that big changes are needed in our unions, but what changes?

There is a great potential power in the trade union movement. According to the Department of Industrial Relations in University College Dublin (DUES Data Series on Trade Unions in Ireland) 54.6% of employees in Ireland are trade union members. This means that throughout the public sector and in most private sector employments which are not just small family businesses most workers are in a union. Of course this potential is not being used.


To join a trade union implies, although it may not be clearly thought out, that we have different interests to those of the boss. It further recognises that to look after our own interests we have to get together with other workers. This is the beginning of class consciousness, an understanding that our interests are different to to those of our employers.

In 1990 over 350 shop stewards and union Activists sponsored the unofficial Trade Unionists & Unemployed Against the Programme grouping which campaigned for a NO vote to the PESP. Over 100 regularly attended TUUAP meetings in the main towns and cities. Many of these had long records as militants fighting against centralised bargaining, for more democracy in our unions and for solidarity with workers n struggle.

Given the small numbers involved in taking the anti-PESP arguments into jobs where there was no TUUAP contact, leafleting, postering and organising public meetings, TUUAP did very well. Where there were TUUAP contacts explaining the case against the PESP the vote almost inevitably went against it.

Even in SIPTU 33,244 'NO' votes were won against the 57,103 in favour. Unions that turned in majority 'NO' votes included the ATGWU, MSF, IDATU, IMETU (now part of IMPACT) and the FUGE. While TUUAP can not claim the credit for all of this, it is indisputable that it made a significant contribution.


After the ballot TUUAP became a lot less visible but did not disappear. It had organised almost solely on the single issue of the PESP. Once the vote was in most supporters did not much point in going to meetings. With another PESP-type deal being put forward TUUAP has relaunched itself as Trade Union Fightback. It is continuing to make the case against 'social partnership' between government, employers and unions.

It is also taking up the issue of the lack of democracy and membership involvement in our unions, and is hoping to be able to do a lot more solidarity work with workers who are in struggle. Although the number of activists in most unions is declining, due to most decisions being taken at a national level and a bureaucratic control that takes the initiative away from the rank & file, there is still a layer of people who are prepared to fight against both the bosses and bureaucracy. The question is how do we organise? What are we up against in our unions and what can we do about it?

Anarchists have always said that workers organised on the job have tremendous power. This is a power that can and should be used to win day-to-day improvements. It is also the power that can overthrow capitalism, replacing it with genuine socialism and liberty.


Anarchists have also said that even a small amount of direct action is better than a lot of conciliation, arbitration and mediation. This is action that is taken collectively by workers and which remains under their direct control. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a grave shortage of direct action at the moment!

Trade unions were set up to defend workers under capitalism, to stop he bosses having a completely free hand in setting wages and conditions. They organise workers to get the best possible deal (at least that's the idea) under the present system. Their goal is to get the best price for heir members' ability to work, the highest possible wages. It is not to get rid of exploitation and the wages system.

Their preferred method is negotiation rather than struggle. This is not to say that trade unionists are naturally conservative or meek. It merely shows how the ideas of capitalism are reflected inside our unions. Part of this is that here must a division into leaders and led, order-givers and order-takers.

The initiative is very much with the full-time officials, many of whom are not even elected but enjoy considerable power and influence. Most of these see their union work s a career.


Most of them have jobs for life. They are paid more than people they are supposed to represent. SIPTU's Billy Atley gets about £90,000 per year in salary and expenses, the exact figure is kept a secret from the members. The vast majority are unresponsive to the needs of their members.

They live a different lifestyle, often being found alongside employers and senior civil servants on commissions and the boards of semi-state companies. Quite a number never even had an ordinary job but came straight from student politics.

A few worth mentioning are Kieran Mulvey, ex-General Secretary of ASTI and now head of the Labour Relations Commission; Pat Rabbitte and Eamonn Gilmore, ex-SIPTU officials now Democratic Left TDs. Another is SIPTUs National Nursing Officer, Pat Brady. All of these went straight from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to full-time jobs as union officials. A problem with this is that they have no direct experience of the daily realities experienced by their members.

No matter what ideas they have at the beginning they quickly have to accept that their career is that of an arbitrator, a smart talker, a fixer. What is important to them is proving their skill as smart negotiators, not helping their members to fight for their demands.


They have narrow sectoral interests, only looking after their own sector regardless of the general interests of workers. That is why we saw SIPTU officials telling their members to pass the NBRU pickets in the rail strike last April

These people rarely lead strikes. Instead they will have you 'making submissions' to the Labour Relations Commission, to 'impartial mediators', and to every other other talking shop they can find. They seem thrive on almost endless negotiation, aimed at finding a 'reasonable settlement. Some negotiations go on, literally, for years.

They see taking any form of industrial action as very much a last resort and are very quick to condemn unofficial action (i.e. action that hasn't been sanctioned by them). The 'correct procedures' and negotiation machinery are vitally important to them. Confidence among the members at workplace level rarely merits even a second thought. The official believes it is his or her negotiation skill that wins concessions from the boss. The activity of the rank & file is seen, at best, as secondary.


Once a deal has been struck the official has to see that the members stick to it. The continued existence of the negotiation machinery depend on an element of trust. If the employer can't be sure that the union official can ensure that the members adhere to the deal, why should any boss enter negotiations? The union official's career depends on being able to make the members comply with agreements.

The result is a cautious, conservative bureaucracy at the top of the unions that seeks more and more control over the members, and opposes any independent organisation among the rank & file. This does not mean that these people will never give a lot of support to struggles. While they don't exactly make a habit of it they are capable of leading and supporting strikes when the negotiation machinery is brought into question. This is why, for instance, SIPTU's leaders were prepared to spend a small fortune explaining the case of the "Pat the Baker" strikers who very bravely fought for union recognition.

However, in many strikes even verbal support is slow in coming, if it comes at all. With the PESP and the anti-strike provisions of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act (which was agreed as part of the PNR and hailed by ICTU's Kevin Duffy as leaving us "better off") we are seeing even less support for strikers.


So, how can activists inside the unions organise to combat the authority of the officials and bring together workers who take their trade unionism seriously? Three options can be put forward. Let's take a look at them.

1. Building Broad Lefts. These are groups within individual unions whose main purpose is to elect a "left wing" leadership, though as part of this thy will also try to generate support for workers in struggle. Sometimes they also argue for officials to get no more than the average wage of their members and to have to stand for regular re-election.

It is correct to raise demands like these and it can be useful to support candidates who are more responsive to the needs of the membership. In circumstances where we feel there is a value in this anarchists can and do support such candidates. A problem arises, however, when electing leaders becomes more important than winning support for rule changes which wold allow for more participation and democracy.


As the Broad Left idea concentrates on leadership we must start off by asking if leaders are a good thing, and are they necessary. These are not two separate questions since if leaders are necessary they must also be good. Here we are not talking of a 'leadership of ideas', of those whose ideas are accepted because they make sense to the rest of us. We are talking about the leadership which divides us into leaders and led, the leader being the man or woman who - as a representative - has acquired combined administrative and decision making powers.

As such he or she sees no need for any high level of debate or activity among the rank & file. Indeed, from the point of view of the average official, such thought and action - by encouraging questioning and criticism - is an obstacle to 'normal' trade unionism. Leadership implies almost absolute power held by the leader. All leaders become corrupt to some degree despite their own good intentions. Nobody was ever good enough, brave enough or strong enough to have such power as real leadership implies.

The power of initiative, the sense of collective responsibility, the self-respect that comes from making decisions is taken from the members and given to the leader. Most of the members are reduced to inactivity and passivity. Attendance at meetings, participation in internal union life, and even basic identification with the union, declines as power shifts from the workplace and the branch.

Of course not all advocates of the Broad Left strategy see things this way. Though constantly proclaiming the need for a "fighting leadership" they also look for more internal democracy and activity. In reality, however, the main task is still seen as getting Broad Left supporters elected to positions of influence. The rank & file are to elect a new leadership who will then bring about change from the top. That's he theory anyway.


2. The Rank & File Movement. This is a strategy for organising within the union to win more democracy, more struggle against the bosses and more involvement by the membership. Its attitude is best summed up by the slogan "with the officials when possible, without them when necessary". Where there have been large rank & file movements they have always been based on combative workers who find the union bureaucracy is an obstacle in their way. They are hen forced to ignore the instructions of the bureaucracy and disobey them if their struggle is to be won.

This can start with problems about spreading strikes, refusing to get sucked into endless rounds of mediation, or being denied official sanction for a strike. The point is that large rank & file groupings are created when workers are fighting the bosses, are confident, and then find the union officials are trying to sabotage their struggle. The need for independent organisation within the union is then posed. Struggle creates genuine rank & file movements, not the other way around.

At a time when most workers are on the defensive and lacking in confidence, any attempt to create such groups will attract only small numbers of activists. This is not to decry such attempts (where they arise from a genuine desire to take on the bosses and bureaucrats) but to warn against setting any unrealistic goals at this time.


3. Building a Solidarity Network. We have to face the fact that mass unemployment, growing poverty and two decades of centralised wage bargaining have left many good union activists demoralised. They are doubtful about the possibility of fighting back against the Larry Goodmans and Billy Atleys. Another PESP certainly won't improve matters.

But all is not doom and gloom. They are militants who want to fight back. The 1990 TUUAP campaign and, more recently, the support for the "Pat the Baker" and Nolans strikers are signs of this. There is a need for a structure to bring these people together, a visible network that can attract other activists. Trade Union Fightback, which is not under the control of any political party, could become this.

It wants to break down the isolation that makes us weak, to combat 'social partnership' deals, to support all resistance to job losses and cutbacks, to fight for more democracy in our unions, and to organise solidarity with workers in struggle. It could, if it gets enough support, produce a magazine with factual information on disputes, wage deals, the behaviour of union leaders. It could also be a forum for debating different ideas for changing our unions.

A network such as this would allow us to pool our efforts while at the same time discussing the different strategies for putting trade union power where it should be - in the workplace. It is a moderate proposal but one which could provide a springboard for real rank & file organisation. The conditions for it will reappear, now is as good a time as any to start making preparations.

The anarchist origins of May Day

Alan MacSimóin

TODAY IT IS just another bank holiday. Not many people know why May Day became International Workers Day and why we should still celebrate it. One more piece of our history which has been hidden from us.

It all began over a century ago when the American Federation of Labour adopted an historic resolution which asserted that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after May 1st, 1886".

In the months prior to this date workers in their thousands were drawn into the struggle for the shorter day. Skilled and unskilled, black and white, men and women, native and immigrant were all becoming involved.


In Chicago alone 400,000 were out on strike. A newspaper of that city reported that "no smoke curled up from the tall chimneys of the factories and mills, and things had assumed a Sabbath-like appearance". This was the main centre of the agitation, and here the anarchists were in the forefront of the labour movement. It was to no small extent due to their activities that Chicago became an outstanding trade union centre and made the biggest contribution to the eight-hour movement.

When on May 1st 1886, the eight hour strikes convulsed that city, one half of the workforce at the McCormick Harvester Co. came out. Two days later a mass meeting was held by 6,000 members of the 'lumber shovers' union who had also come out. The meeting was held only a block from the McCormick plant and was joined by some 500 of the strikers from there.

The workers listened to a speech by the anarchist August Spies, who has been asked to address the meeting by the Central Labour Union. While Spies was speaking, urging the workers to stand together and not give in to the bosses, the strikebreakers were beginning to leave the nearby McCormick plant.

The strikers, aided by the 'lumber shovers' marched down the street and forced the scabs back into the factory. Suddenly a force of 200 police arrived and, without any warning, attacked the crowd with clubs and revolvers. They killed at least one striker, seriously wounded five or six others and injured an indeterminate number.

Outraged by the brutal assaults he had witnessed, Spies went to the office of the Arbeiter-Zeitung (a daily anarchist newspaper for German immigrant workers) and composed a circular calling on the workers of Chicago to attend a protest meeting the following night.

The protest meeting took place in the Haymarket Square and was addressed by Spies and two other anarchists active in the trade union movement, Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden.

The police attack

Throughout the speeches the crowd was orderly. Mayor Carter Harrison, who was present from the beginning of the meeting, concluded that "nothing looked likely to happen to require police interference". He advised police captain John Bonfield of this and suggested that the large force of police reservists waiting at the station house be sent home.

It was close to ten in the evening when Fielden was closing the meeting. It was raining heavily and only about 200 people remained in the square. Suddenly a police column of 180 men, headed by Bonfield, moved in and ordered the people to disperse immediately. Fielden protested "we are peaceable".


At this moment a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police. It killed one, fatally wounded six more and injured about seventy others. The police opened fire on the spectators. How many were wounded or killed by the police bullets was never exactly ascertained.

A reign of terror swept over Chicago. The press and the pulpit called for revenge, insisting the bomb was the work of socialists and anarchists. Meeting halls, union offices, printing works and private homes were raided. All known socialists and anarchists were rounded up. Even many individuals ignorant of the meaning of socialism and anarchism were arrested and tortured. "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards" was the public statement of Julius Grinnell, the state's attorney.


Eventually eight men stood trial for being "accessories to murder". They were Spies, Fielden, Parsons, and five other anarchists who were influential in the labour movement, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe.

The trial opened on June 21st 1886 in the criminal court of Cooke County. The candidates for the jury were not chosen in the usual manner of drawing names from a box. In this case a special bailiff, nominated by state's attorney Grinnell, was appointed by the court to select the candidates. The defence was not allowed to present evidence that the special bailiff had publicly claimed "I am managing this case and I know what I am about. These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death".

Rigged jury

The eventual composition of the jury was farcical; being made up of businessmen, their clerks and a relative of one of the dead policemen. No proof was offered by the state that any of the eight men before the court had thrown the bomb, had been connected with its throwing, or had even approved of such acts. In fact, only three of the eight had been in Haymarket Square that evening.

No evidence was offered that any of the speakers had incited violence, indeed in his evidence at the trial Mayor Harrison described the speeches as "tame". No proof was offered that any violence had been contemplated. In fact, Parsons had brought his two small children to the meeting.


That the eight were on trial for their anarchist beliefs and trade union activities was made clear from the outset. The trial closed as it had opened, as was witnessed by the final words of Attorney Grinnell's summation speech to the jury. "Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury, and indicted because they were leaders. There are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society."

On August 19th seven of the defendants were sentenced to death, and Neebe to 15 years in prison. After a massive international campaign for their release, the state 'compromised' and commuted the sentences of Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment. Lingg cheated the hangman by committing suicide in his cell the day before the executions. On November 11th 1887 Parsons, Engel, Spies and Fischer were hanged.


600,000 working people turned out for their funeral. The campaign to free Neebe, Schwab and Fielden continued.

On June 26th 1893 Governor Altgeld set them free. He made it clear he was not granting the pardon because he thought the men had suffered enough, but because they were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried. They and the hanged men had ben the victims of "hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge".

The authorities has believed at the time of the trial that such persecution would break the back of the eight-hour movement. Indeed, evidence later came to light that the bomb may have been thrown by a police agent working for Captain Bonfield, as part of a conspiracy involving certain steel bosses to discredit the labour movement.

When Spies addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die, he was confident that this conspiracy would not succeed. "If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labour movement... the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation - if this os your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you - and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out".

Revolutionary politics

One hundred and nine years after years after that first May Day demonstration in Chicago, where are we? We stroll though town with our union banners - about the only day of the year we can get them out of head office. Then we stand around listening to boring (and usually pretty meaningless) speeches by equally boring union bureaucrats. You have to keep reminding yourself that May Day was once a day when workers all over the world displayed their strength, proclaimed their ideals and celebrated their successes.

It is important that "once upon a time" it was like that. We can do it again. We need independent working class politics. No collaboration with government and bosses, no more PCWs. Defiance of the Industrial Relations Act, not passively giving up like SIPTU did at Nolans. Real solidarity with fellow workers in struggle, not a blinkered sectional outlook. We still need a further reduction in working hours, without loss of pay, to make work for the unemployed.

We need revolutionary politics. That means politics that can lead us towards a genuine socialism where freedom knows no limit other than not interfering with the freedom of others. A socialism that is based on real democracy - not the present charade where we can choose some of our rulers, but may not choose to do without rulers. A real democracy where everyone effected by a decision will have the opportunity to have their say in making that decision. A democracy of efficiently co-ordinated workplace and community councils. A society where production is to satisfy needs, not to make profits for a privileged few. Anarchism.

1 A Workers Solidarity Movement position paper.

2 Dublin City North branch INTO (personal capacity).

3 SIPTU Education Branch (personal capacity).

4 This article was accompanied by a box on the change in name from the British DAM to Solidarity Federation.