It was with some trepidation and excitement that I attend my first ICTU conference. I have been involved in trade unions in various shapes and guises since entering the workforce in 1987. I have stepped up this involvement in recent years and have been on the edge of the ICTU family. This was my maiden voyage to the biennial event that is their policy making and shaping event.
I read the documentation with great interest and my first impressions is that nothing was too contentious. It gave a chance for the membership to rubber stamp their feelings on austerity but also helped get some ideas out there between the rhetoric and enable rank and file union members to organise within their trade union.
As Paddy Mackell – Belfast Trades Council stated in his opening address to the packed Assembly Rooms.
“Current Economic Situation has completely failed working people”. He then went on to make some interesting statements including quoting Dr Conor McCabe “We don’t need an onshore tax haven”.
And that set the tone for Day One. ICTU outgoing President Eugene McGlone explained that ICTU has a combined membership of nearly 800,000 people.
“It is our responsibility to ensure 3/4 million people (ICTU membership) are listened to”, we need to “Create a climate for change” and “Create a fuller understanding of the need to organise” and that we should ensure that “Solidarity works to our benefit”
As the Trade Union movement in an integral part of our social fabric we should engage with it however “the movement must always be responsive to our class, we’re manifestations of our communities.”
The reference to class is very interesting. The trade union movement came from a class structure and the need to ensure that the working class were dealt fairly by their employer. It is arguable in Irish Society today that class structure is still there. Where is the line between Working and Middle Class? Do the working class aspire to break from their structure to be part of a middle class? Are workers there to be represented no matter what their standing is in society? It is one that I don’t know the answer to and no doubt has many academics scratching their middle class heads.
Anyway this conference isn’t gonna provide the answers to class in Ireland. However ICTU General Secretary David Begg did try and provide some answers to the route that society is heading. He told the audience that we are at a “critical juncture in the economic situation…this is a crisis which could have been avoided….there is irrefutable evidence that austerity isn’t working.” David pointed out that personal expenditure is down by 3% in the last 12 months and many other facts relating to the austere policies spreading through society. He asked “how can policy makers deny this” and stated that “Solidarity is the cement that binds us together”. As the trade union movement has been stating since 2008 there is a better fairer way and “Now is the opportunity to press our case for alternatives way forward.”
SIPTU President Jack O’Connor also spoke eloquently of austerity “One sided austerity has utterly failed, there is no disguising this matter.”
Mick O’Reilly from Dublin Council of Trade Unions was as vociferous and emotive as Jack when he called on members to “have the courage to resist Austerity”. DCTU are trying to involve Community Groups and in a candid speech Mick stated that “we don’t have all the answers” but “we have to explain to our members what is happening. We can use policies as a weapon”. Mick called on the “trade union movement to be transformative and develop our own media.” He called on government to “Repudiate the debt and start organising.” In a statement of fact he recognised that “Our members are not clammering at the door looking for industrial action but we have to show them the confidence to do this.”
There were calls for workers to be more involved in running society, socialise the economy with the creation of worker led businesses. The obvious was stated many times “Huge despair and disillusionment amongst trade union membership. We need to give our members the information”
From a Public Sector perspective it was noted that due to the ban on recruitment there has been very little employment of the Disabled in society as the Public Sector is the only real employers of people with disabilities. Eugene Mc Glone said in relation to Haddington Road Agreement “No Govt should have the power to legislate away our terms and conditions” . The reality is however that they do and no proposal was put forward to counteract this.
There was a closed session on the future of trade unions in Ireland which will eventually lead to some change in structures and there was recognition that working members can be educated in their roles by retired workers. Value needs to be put on the knowledge and work of retired workers, they are today what our future is tomorrow.
All in all an interesting day. You can’t but be moved by some of the rousing talk given at the podium. What that will equate to in the coalface of the workplace is the burning question. However the direction of the trade union movement is that austerity isn’t working and the family that is ICTU will continue to try and press this home at every opportunity (verbally at least). I took from the day that we need to engage the union membership with our work, they are the union and they need to know this, we are the media and we are the conduit for this information.