(Originally written for The Left Tribune 1 August 2014, the Greyhound section was updated 31 October 2014)
It’s an exciting time to be part of the trade union movement in Ireland. In the last year or so, we’ve seen a notable increase in trade union activism: strikes, sit-ins and, most recently, a lock-out. Labour Youth too has become more active in the labour movement, largely thanks to the efforts of Ciarán, Jeni, and others. The following article is a round-up of just some of the ways we’ve gotten more involved this year.
Zero hour contracts
Perhaps most notably, we’ve campaigned with comrades in the trade union movement to end zero hour contracts, holding one particularly memorable protest outside a certain fast-food restaurant on O’Connell street. The “End Zero Hour contracts campaign” page has, at the time of writing, 595 likes on Facebook. We also took to the colleges with a postcard campaign, collecting hundreds of signatures. But perhaps most significantly, our newly appointed Minister for State Ged Nash will be commissioning a study into the prevalence of zero hour contracts in Ireland. This may not sound like much, but a lack of data is the main reason they haven’t been stopped to date. I have no doubt that we will keep campaigning on this issue until zero hour contracts are abolished.
(Zero hour contracts, in case you are not familiar with the term, are where a worker has no fixed hours. They might arrive on a Monday to find they only have 8 hours work one week, and the next have 20, 30 or 40 hours. This uncertainty makes it very hard to plan your life – will you be able to afford your rent, for example, or how many hours of childcare will your kids need? Zero hour contracts also affect more women and young people than other workers, which is why we’re determined to bring them to an end.
They would most probably be replaced with banded hours contracts where the worker is guaranteed a minimum number of hours every week in different ‘bands’ like 15-25 hours, 25-30, 30 and over.)
Paris Bakery workers action
Labour Youth also supported the Paris Bakery workers in their sit-in to be paid their wages. Four of our members travelled (with the Migrant Rights Centre and others) to protest outside the owners’ mansion when the owners Ruth Savil and Yannick Forel flatly refused to engage with, well, anyone. After 19 days occupying their former workplace, the Paris Bakery workers won their wages and, additionally, new legislation is on the table to prevent future abuse of the loophole which allows/ed employers to withhold payment .
Ramping up the activism
We marched with our comrades on May Day this year – with a better turnout than last year – and brought the banner out again at the Rally for Greyhound Workers. Our activists have been out in support of the Greyhound workers on numerous occasions since, helping hand out leaflets to commuters in Dublin, and spreading the word virtually through Twitter and Facebook. A recent thunderclap reached 129,923 people – hopefully a lot of those are Greyhound customers.
The Greyhound workers are binmen who were locked out of their workplace unless they accepted what amounted to a 35% pay cut. They were replaced with strikebreakers from agencies. Shockingly, this cut would still put them at 10% above the refuse collection industry average, which goes to show that increased competition really is used to drive down wages. The lock-out ended on September 22nd 2014, when the workers voted by a substantial majority to accept a deal brokered between the workers, their union SIPTU, and Greyhound.
The Greyhound workers campaign was one of the most interesting campaigns the trade union movement has run recently. Justice for Greyhound Workers posters popped up in windows and on bins all over the place, solidarity funds for €400, €5000, everything up to €10000 were sent to the workers by unions such as Unite, the Civil Public and Services Union, the Communications Workers Union, Mandate, and from other branches of SIPTU. There was a Christy Moore and Don Baker concert in aid of the workers, and we saw further solidarity actions in Cork and Belfast.
All this in a year which has seen high-profile strikes (or averted strike action) by bus drivers, ESB workers, junior doctors, aer lingus workers, retail workers in Marks and Spencers and now railway workers. Strike action is generally the last resort for trade unions, but many workers (difficult to find figures so this is anecdotal, apologies) have been able to secure pay increases in the last while with the assistance of their trade unions, without having to resort to striking.
On the international front, we’ve also seen statements of solidarity from our unions on the ongoing onslaught in Gaza, and Labour Youth has supported the exciting Fight for 15 campaign in the US, which has the potential to change how fast-food workers are treated by their employers, there and here.
Twitter and Facebook have played significant roles in all of the above. There’s been a marked increase of trade union activism on social media in the last 2 years or so, with many trade unions setting up general or campaign pages, attracting thousands of likes. A number of unions have also developed apps for your phone. Admittedly, it’s easy to overstate the significance of social media activism – it only represents a fraction of what unions do – but it’s still an interesting and welcome trend to see unions reaching out to underrepresented young people. It’s also much easier to keep up with developments in the Trade Unions when they appear in your news feed everyday (particularly developments which otherwise go unreported in the mainstream media). Here are a few Facebook pages you might like to like if you haven’t already:
Justice for Greyhound workers (2,894 likes)
Decency for Dunnes workers (2,581 likes)
Support the M&S workers (5,312 likes)
End Zero Hour Contracts campaign (595 likes)
Fight for 15 – Lucha por 15 WOCC (14,042 likes)
Labour Youth Trade Unions (…168 likes)
Yes, you should definitely like and share the last one… *cough*
To conclude, it’s been a really interesting year for the labour movement, with more visible campaigns, and strong shows of solidarity between unions nationally and internationally. We in Labour Youth have also stepped up our game on workers rights and the appointment of Ged Nash TD as “Minister for Labour Youth Concerns” (!) is particularly welcome.
Over the next weeks and months there’s going to be a lot of interesting developments in and for the trade union movement. We may see a union-led boycott of Israeli goods. Workers will (finally) have the legal right to organise when the collective bargaining bill is enacted in the Dáil. If the economy continues to improve, we’re likely to see increased pay claims by workers – private and public sector. There are also growing calls by parts of the union movement (and even, I hear, by some employers) to centralise negotiations over wages. It seems unlikely this will lead a return to Social Partnership, and more likely that there will be some kind of agreement brokered between the government and public sector unions, and possibly employers groups as well.
All this bodes well for the recovery of both Ireland, and the trade union movement, which seemed to struggle to find its feet for a while when social partnership ended.