How the strike can save the trade union movement

“The strike is like any other muscle, you have to keep it in good shape or it will atrophy.” Jerry Browne

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While no worker wants to go on strike, it is the most powerful and necessary tool in achieving the best possible pay and conditions at work. Even the threat of industrial action tends to lead to better collective bargaining outcomes for union members.

The first historical example of a strike took place 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt when artisans constructing the Valley of Kings walked off the job after they weren’t paid, leading to a pay increase. The modern strike, however, was developed on the back of the industrial revolution and has won major achievements, not least of which was the legislated eight hour day, first won on 21 April 1856 in Melbourne by construction workers, many of whom were Irish emigrants.

In recent years, Ireland has seen a resurgence in strikes with high profile disputes in Greyhound Waste, Bus Éireann, LUAS, Dunnes Stores and Tesco, to name but a few, though the level of action is still nowhere near where it once was. By comparison, 2011 had the lowest number of days lost to industrial disputes in the history of the state with only 3,695 days lost compared to 1,464,952 days lost in 1979.

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Since 2011 the number of days lost to industrial action has increased with 8,486 lost in 2012, 14,965 in 2013, 44,015 in 2014, 32,964 in 2015 and 71,647 in 2016 — an increase of 1,838 percent on the 2011 figure. Does this mean workers are getting their voices back? If they are, it’s long overdue.

Inequality in Ireland has grown enormously in recent decades. Ireland has the second highest prevalence of low pay in the OECD behind the United States. We also have the second highest level of involuntary part-time workers — or ‘underemployed’ as they’re often referred to. Our pay is so low that, for a retail worker in Ireland to achieve an equal income with their peers in the EU15, they would need an immediate 20 percent pay increase.[1]

Wages as a proportion of GDP in Ireland has reduced since it peaked at 69 percent in 1975 and is now down at 44 percent. This marks the second highest drop in wage share out of 37 OECD countries, behind only Romania.[2] Now only Mexico and Turkey have lower wages to GDP ratios than Ireland out of 39 OECD countries. During this time, a number of countries have actually increased their wage share — notably Sweden and Denmark, both of whom have much higher trade union density levels than Ireland.

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Furthermore, eating into the wage share pie is senior management who have enjoyed much higher wage increases than their workers. Albert Manifold,[3] Chief Executive of building materials giant CRH,[4] the largest company on Ireland’s Iseq 20 index in 2015, had a total remuneration of €5.53 million that year. It marked a 32 percent rise on the previous year. Manifold’s compensation — including pensions and bonuses — was 87 times greater than the average €63,516 cost of the company’s 78,106 employees. Had Manifold maintained his very generous €3.76 million salary and the difference been shared between all workers, they would have achieved a €22 pay increase each, but instead it all went to one individual — the CEO.

Then there are profits and dividends. In the banking sector, an average employee in Ireland generated €409,000 in profits in 2015, more than nine times the average for employees worldwide.[5] One major retail outlet in Ireland paid out €96m in dividends to shareholders at the height of the economic crisis (2010–11),[6] but had that dividend not been paid to people who have never worked a single day for the company, and instead been awarded to those who generate the profits, all of their workers in Ireland would have received a €71,000 bonus on top of their pay.

All of the above — low pay, insecure employment, reduced wages as a percentage of GDP, higher pay for managers and larger dividends for owners — has occurred while trade union density levels have been falling drastically. In 1978 Ireland had a trade union density level of 57.5 percent. That figure is now lower than it has ever been at 27.4 percent.

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It’s not hard to identify the correlation: the two decades when we had the highest wages to GDP ratio — the 1960s and 1970s — are also the two decades with the highest trade union density level and the highest amount of days lost to industrial disputes. It’s obvious that trade union membership and militancy leads to higher incomes and better conditions at work.

If this is the case, why does trade union membership continue to decline? The answer to this is complex but no doubt the ‘social partnership’ era played its part. Strikes tend to increase not only wages, but also trade union membership and activity; social partnership had the dual effect of discouraging industrial action and shifting power from the trade union base to the leadership.

Most trade unionists are familiar with the concept of the freeloader: someone who is happy to accept the wage increases, annual leave, redundancy agreements and all of the other benefits achieved by trade unions, without contributing to the costs. When a strike is called, however, they can no longer operate as freeloaders. They have to make a choice. Do they join their union, and the battle for improved conditions for everyone, or do they scab and pass the pickets. They cannot legally participate in the industrial action without being a member, and could be dismissed if they do so. Only union members are protected from dismissal, therefore many workers tend to join the union at this point or in the period leading up to the strike, when trade union activity intensifies.

When workers join a picket line, there is a sense of camaraderie that was manifest during the Tesco dispute. Workers who had never socialised together before went on strike for the very first time and ended up spending eleven days together on the picket lines — time spent away from management and getting to know one another. Within a matter of weeks those workers had a new found trust in their union and their place within their union, and in some instances were organising social events together. It was an educational experience, and not only for the workers.

When Tesco customers approached the picket lines, the workers readied themselves to explain why they were on strike: ‘Our employer is trying to cut wages for some of our colleagues. It doesn’t affect me, yet, but it will in the future if they get away with this. Please don’t pass the pickets and show some support for the Tesco workers.’

For a generation of people, this was the first strike they’d ever encountered. Whether they were workers or customers, this was the first time they had heard about people withdrawing labour. And the support was tremendous, not only from customers refusing to pass the pickets — 80 percent of customers at striking stores didn’t pass — but also from the 30 percent of customers in non-striking stores who refused to spend their money with the company while it was in dispute with the union.

Furthermore, partly as a result of Mandate Trade Union’s role in the Right2Water and Right2Change campaigns and other political campaigning against homelessness and zero hour contracts, for example, a number of local anti-water charges groups decided to organise solidarity rallies whereby hundreds of members of the public marched on their local Tesco store. All of this leads to a higher level of class-consciousness for workers and the communities in which they live.

Challenges

Some of the main reasons workers in Ireland will not take action is because they cannot afford to strike and they worry about the impact the strike will have on their employment in the future.

Employers and governments know how damaging industrial action can be and they adapt to minimise the impact, going so far as to ensure that workers cannot take action in the first place.

For instance, since 2008, we have seen extraordinary growth in precarious part-time contracts. Workers are now receiving 10 or 15 hour contracts, sometimes less, even if they regularly work 35 hours per week. Employers argue that these contracts are about flexibility. However, 85 percent of Dunnes Stores workers have reported that allocation of hours is being used as a mechanism of control.

With such low hour contracts, an employer can reduce a worker’s hours to the bare minimum as a punishment for failing to toe the line. This, obviously, has a major impact on income with most retail workers on between €10–13 per hour. That means an employer can reduce a worker’s earnings from €350 per week to €150 per week at the drop of a hat, and there’s nothing illegal in it. This tactic was adopted by Dunnes Stores immediately after its workers went on strike against precarious employment practices on 2 April 2014.

Furthermore, an employer can spread a worker’s 10 or 15 hours per week over four or five days thereby denying access to supplementary social welfare such as Family Income Supplement (which requires a minimum of 19 hours per week for 3 months), or part-time social welfare (allocated on a day-by-day basis), which many low-paid workers depend on. Effectively, an employer has the capacity to reduce worker’s income to a level so low that they cannot feed or clothe their family.

Another tactic employed by Dunnes Stores after the strike was to change workers’ shift patterns around so they had difficulty managing childcare and other family responsibilities. They also decided not to renew contracts for any workers who participated in the strike but had less than twelve months’ service — and did so without impunity because unfair dismissal does not apply in this case.

In the 1960s and 1970s, social/public housing could be regarded as ‘asset based welfare’. Tens of thousands of workers were living in local authority housing and as a result had little or no debt hanging over their heads. This permitted them to take industrial action without fear of losing their homes. Now with our dependence on the private sector to provide housing (home ownership and private rental accommodation), along with the surge in private and personal debt, and the tripling of foreclosures over the past five years, there is more at stake for a worker considering industrial action, especially an indefinite strike.

Opportunities

If strike action is the most powerful and necessary tool in achieving the best possible pay and conditions at work, then we need to examine why workers are so reluctant to participate in industrial action in recent years, and address those issues.

Firstly, and obviously, we need to ensure workers have security of incomes and guaranteed working hours. Mandate Trade Union has been negotiating ‘banded-hours contracts’ in recent years — contracts ensuring that workers receive a minimum number of hours per week. This arrangement would also provide that, after a set period of time of working above their existing hourly band, workers receive new contracts reflecting the hours they actually work.

Secondly, we need to ensure that when a worker decides to ‘struggle’ and take industrial action, the financial impact is minimised. This was seen during the Tesco dispute (and others including Greyhound, for example) when the ICTU established a strike fund to which all unions would contribute in order to keep the workers out as long as necessary. Still, what’s really needed is a more solid commitment to permanently increase strike fund contributions and strike pay if we are to encourage workers to take action.

None of this is new. The concept is simple. There are ten factories; one goes on strike for a pay increase while the other nine factories support those workers during the dispute. When that factory wins, another factory strikes for an increase, and the other nine support them. And so on, and so on.

The political campaigning Mandate has been involved in has helped its members to connect with other local groups campaigning against austerity and for a more egalitarian country. In many areas, Mandate members are at the heart of the anti-water charges campaign — holding media events, public actions and running local Facebook pages. They’re involved in organising fundraisers for charities and many are campaigning against the government’s free-market housing plans. All of this helps to organise union members collectively and prepare them for action. We have seen them apply the methods lessons of this political campaigning to their working lives and, through social media in particular, connect with their fellow workers across their business and all employment sectors.

Incidentally, it is increased competition across almost all markets — retail in particular — that makes every company vulnerable to industrial action, as customers can move their spending elsewhere and may not return very easily. Many companies spend millions of euros establishing a brand, promoting that brand and protecting it from negative media and social media attention. We must utilise this vulnerability to our advantage, both during disputes and as a tool for organising workers.

Failure to prepare, prepare to fail

When the economic crisis hit in 2008 and the onslaught of austerity came, arguably one of the biggest challenges facing workers was the inability to strike back. This was a result of decades of relative inactivity on the industrial front from trade unions. Put simply, many workers didn’t have any experience of, or know how to take, effective strike action.

During the same period, ICTU, along with most other civil society groups, regularly put forward alternative economic proposals that would have protected living standards and conditions at work. They were, for the most part, ignored by successive governments. Had we a strong, vibrant and effective trade union movement to back such proposals with the threat of collective action, it would have been difficult for governments to ignore us.

Arguments were (and still are) put forward for a national strike. However, winning ballots for industrial action in Tesco and Dunnes Stores was difficult, even though the issues directly affected the workers and they could participate in protected industrial action. Asking workers to ballot in favour of a strike when their employer could legally and swiftly dismiss them without any compensation adds a new dimension to the problem. That is why we have to prepare thoroughly — both politically and industrially.

Without question, industrial action and the threat of action increases trade union activity. That increased activity tends to swell union membership levels, which in turn generates greater incomes and better conditions at work. While trade unions must take account of changes to the industrial environment, including the anti-union tactics of many employers, legislative restrictions, online activity, the ‘gig economy’, indebtedness as a form of discipline, and a whole range of challenges, they must be brave in their approach to industrial action. They must prepare for an era of increased strikes and the negative media attention that will attract.

If workers are to win a larger share of the profits they generate, then we have to ensure workers are given the tools and the capacity to take action when necessary. Alternatively, unions and workers can face the prospect of continued low pay and deteriorated conditions of employment, with a corresponding decrease in trade union membership levels. Dare to struggle, dare to win.

[1] Michael Taft, ‘Victory to all Retail Workers’, Notes on the Front, 19 April 2016, http://notesonthefront.typepad.com/politicaleconomy/2016/04/victory-to-all-retail-workers.html (accessed 10 May 2017).

[2] Tom Healy, ‘A worrying trend in wages’, NERI blog, 1 April 2016, http://www.nerinstitute.net/blog/2016/04/01/a-worrying-trend-in-wages/ (accessed 10 May 2017).

[3] http://www.irishtimes.com/search/search-7.1213540?tag_person=Albert+Manifold&article=true.

[4] http://www.irishtimes.com/search/search-7.1213540?tag_company=CRH&article=true.

[5] Robert McHugh, ‘Strong evidence that Ireland facilitates significant tax avoidance’, Business World, 28 March 2017, https://www.businessworld.ie/news-from-ireland/Strong-evidence-that-Ireland-facilitates-significant-tax-avoidance-567942.html (accessed 10 May 2017).

[6] Gordon Deegan, ‘Profits at Boots Ireland up 44%’, Irish Examiner, 7 January 2012, http://www.irishexaminer.com/business/profits-at-boots-ireland-up-44-179349.html (accessed 10 May 2017).

Originally published at https://ruarepublic.wordpress.com on September 12, 2017.

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