Even before the COVID-19 crisis, precarity in Ireland’s service industry was a daily reality for workers. Diarmuid Ó Seanacháin Dálaigh argues that strong unions will be necessary to fight for workers during this crisis, and after.
As the COVID-19 crisis rips through the service industry, leaving workers strewn to the side with no jobs, no income and not enough aid from the state, it is important that our unions are fighting to keep workers safely at home, and preparing to fight back for different working conditions after this crisis.
After all, working precariously and the ability to lose one’s service job quite suddenly was a reality before coronavirus. Indeed, precarious work is by no means a burden of recent history for the Irish working class to bear.
When the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) was established in 1909, it set out to organise both skilled and unskilled workers alike, in a city where precarity reigned supreme.
The class warfare between the ITGWU and the bosses over organising Dublin’s precarious workers was fought using highly militant tactics. Their struggle kindled hope in a society where deprivation, poverty and exploitation could be challenged by organised workers through political strikes, sympathy strikes, and would eventually escalate into the Great Lockout of 1913, over the right of transport workers to unionise.
In Dublin today, the precarious and unorganised are once again one of the most prevalent demographics in the workforce. And bosses hope that a return to such a norm will come around as soon as possible.
With such a sizable workforce and dire conditions, it could be envisioned that the service industry would present a bastion of organised workers’ struggle. However Mandate, the retail and bar union, currently only represents about a tenth of these workers, and has been found relegated to defensive struggles against union-busting campaigns by companies such as Tesco and Paddy Power, as the wider fight for worker’s conditions goes largely unaided.
A once hegemonic union movement has all but disappeared, and unless there is a serious attempt at organisation of service workers, our conditions will undoubtedly continue to deteriorate when we are returned to work.
This was highlighted in the media during the current pandemic, as publicans laid off all of their staff without pay, with few exceptions. The violations of workers’ rights went far beyond what the journalists chose to publish, but little was challenged.
Despite the lack of official union organising, however, there is some level of militancy among Irish rank and file service workers. The mass walk-out is currently the main expression of discontent, where bar workers jointly quit at once from a particular workplace.
The desired effect is to create a headache for bosses who have refused to concede on difficult conditions, and often it does, but this kind of unorganised defiance which can be solved by replacing staff with a new bunch of workers on the same poor conditions will not automatically improve things in the long term.
Neither are service workers necessarily hostile to trade unionism. An Irish pub I worked in which fired workers on a whim sparked a struggle involving all staff who were incensed that job security, even for long time workers, was clearly non-existent.
We considered a mass walkout, but past experience taught that we would be replaced. Instead all staff decided to unionise, to strengthen our hand before demanding a re-negotiation of our contracts. The beginnings of a branch was quickly organised with next to no prior experience.
Beyond my own experience, bar workers, in Dublin at least, have consistently been receptive to the idea of unionising their workplace. The question remains, then: why have Irish unions failed thus far to successfully organise industrial action among precarious service workers?
This question carries more weight than ever, as a rejuvenated feeling of discontent rises among service workers who have been mistreated during COVID-19.
Organising the fightback
There is a well-trodden answer from the union bureaucracy: “We can’t because of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act!”.
Indeed, anti-trade union legislation exists north and south in Ireland. Thatcher’s union smashing laws have never been repealed, though Stormont has that power. People Before Profit’s Eamonn McCann made the first attempt before the Stormont collapse in 2016, and Gerry Carroll has submitted a fresh bill to this effect but whether it even reaches the floor of the Assembly in this shortened mandate is unlikely.
With similar clauses, the Industrial Relations Act in the south bans actions such as political strikes as well as sympathy strikes, which were a key tactic in the era of Larkin and the IGTWU. This legislation would have made the 1984-87 Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid strike illegal.
While this is hugely frustrating for militant workers, the Unions themselves are in a bind; their infrastructure is in decline because the legislation criminalises the most militant (and therefore effective) forms of workplace activity, but they cannot risk that infrastructure by breaking the law through the kind of militant workplace activity which could reinvigorate it.
There is a way out of this bind. Fighting to repeal the anti-Union laws imposed by the Irish state in the south and by Westminster in the north should be one of the main campaigns of the left, and could be driven from the bottom upwards by radical rank and file trade unionists.
Crucially, this must be accompanied by patiently building grassroots branches of workers to fight on their own terms. The English Language Teachers branch of UNITE is a fantastic example of organised precarious workers that needs to be replicated in the service industry.
Workers’ rights have come a long way from the tenements and the casualised labour that precipitated the 1913 Lockout, but the reality today is that an entire generation of young workers are locked out from the futures their parents enjoyed: a guarantee of a roof over our heads and wages that allow us to do more than just about put food on the table.
Organising this locked-out generation of workers against the precarity that dominates our working lives will undoubtedly be the foremost task of Trade Unionists in the coming years.
And we can do that more effectively by taking up social issues in our unions and striking in solidarity, if we toss anti-trade union legislation in the dustbin of Ireland’s history.
The campaign in England to unionise Wetherspoons, a massive chain of nearly 900 pubs is an example of this struggle already starting. Offshoots can be found too, in Unite Hospitality in the North. Though clearly, a much more widespread effort is required across Ireland. .
In the meantime, it will be crucially important to see unions taking up the specific issues created by the COVID-19 crisis, in a way which frankly they have not done strongly enough. That includes fighting to keep the €350 payment in the south and the furlough scheme in the north, via Westminster. These issues keep workers safe at home and are therefore fundamentally, workers’ issues.
Unions should be to the fore of championing a maintenance of lockdown measures until the end of the crisis, and organising campaigns to pressure the state into providing the financial aid we need to do that – or the space.
Workers can only stay safely at home if they are safe at home and have the ability to socially distance. Thus, the call to provide free accomodation for victims of domestic abuse, the homeless in hostels and those in Direct Provision are important and should be taken up on behalf of those unions who represent them and claim to want a better Ireland.
Finally, if we are forced back to work, unions should engage actively in organising their members to walk out of work if the conditions are unsafe. This is a legal right of ours and should be used where necessary.
Our lives are worth more than profits.