• Fight for every job, resist every attack
  • Link up the struggles – coordinate action across the public & private sectors
  • Build a united movement against austerity & for democratic public ownership
  • For fighting, democratic trade unions with a political voice

by Daniel Waldron

There are signs of an upturn in workers’ struggles in Northern Ireland, taking place through the trade unions. We have seen the successful battles to save industrial jobs at Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus. Civil servants are striking against poverty pay and attacks on terms and conditions, and are likely to soon be joined by health workers and staff in Royal Mail and Parcelforce. This is not an isolated phenomenon, but reflective of a rising tide of struggle in many countries provoked by the ongoing crisis of capitalism.

Trade unions are the basic organisation through which workers can fight to defend their rights, first and foremost in the workplace, through their collective power. They were born out of workers’ life-and-death struggles for dignity and security, in opposition to the bosses’ incessant drive for profit. Limited working hours, sick pay, maternity leave, holidays, health and safety legislation – all our basic rights were won through struggle, not handed down from above.

Many commentators have written off the workers’ movement as a relic of the past. Undoubtedly, the trade union movement has retreated considerably since the late 1980s, both in terms of its numerical weight but also ideologically. Significant defeats and the pro-capitalist offensive after the collapse of Stalinism saw most union leaderships shift to the right, seeking ‘partnership’ with bosses and capitalist politicians rather than using workers’ industrial power to win victories. A generally low level of activism and the grip of conservative bureaucracies tend to reinforce each other.

However, the trade union movement still has huge potential power. For example, almost 250,000 workers in Northern Ireland are members of trade unions. Both historically and recently – for example, in the aftermath of the killing of Lyra McKee – they have been the key vehicle for workers from all backgrounds to mobilise against sectarianism, through protests and strikes. Although ultimately sold out, the public sector strike against austerity in 2011 and 2015 brought society here to a standstill and showed the power workers have.

A key challenge facing the trade union movement today is the need to demonstrate its relevance to young workers in unorganised industries like hospitality and services, as well as agency workers. Socialist Party members are at the forefront of these efforts in Northern Ireland through Unite. If these low-paid workers on precarious conditions can be organised, it could have an explosive impact and inject new confidence and militancy into the wider movement.

Socialists fight for a class-struggle approach within the trade unions, in opposition to social partnership, while also fighting to democratise the structures and combat bureaucracy. These tasks go hand in hand. We fight for real membership control and the election of officials on a worker’s wage and subject to recall. Crucially, we also call for the union movement to act politically as well as industrially, to give workers a voice. Ultimately, this means building an anti-sectarian, working-class party. These measures would turn the workers’ movement from an often slumbering giant into a force which, combined with a socialist programme, would have the power to change society.