In action that began on Monday [July 6], pickets have been placed and maintained on companies and building sites across the Twenty-Six Counties in strike action involving 10,500 electricians who are members of the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union [TEEU].
The membership of the TEEU has taken the action of confronting wealthy electrical contractors to ensure that their terms and conditions of employment and their wider rights as workers are upheld.
Electrical contractors, who made huge sums of money during the Celtic Tiger era by exploiting the labour of electricians, are now pleading that they are unable to pay workers for services rendered. Having pocketed their share of the spoils of the construction boom, the organisations representing electrical contractors, the Electrical Contractors Association [ECA] and the Association of Electrical Contractors [AECI], have been demanding not only that monies owed by them to their workers not be paid, but that electricians take a 10 per cent pay cut.
The monies owed to electricians amount to an 11 per cent wage increase, and are owed since April 2007, inclusive of another wage rise due since April 2008. This, as yet unpaid, back-pay stems from the outworking of a wage calculation mechanism contained in what is known as a Registered Employment Agreement [REA].
The TEEU, the ECA and AECI are all signatories to the REA mechanism, which outlines terms and conditions of employment for, in this case, electricians. The electrical contractors’ organisations, as part of their contribution to the ‘race to the bottom’, have been anxious to put an end to the use of REAs for the past number of years and are cynically using the current economic recession as a means to achieve this. The bosses decided not to pay ‘when times were good’, and now seek to use the default position of demanding that workers bear the burden of urgently required economic ‘adjustments’ as a means to pocket what are the rightfully earned wages of workers.
The particulars of the dispute notwithstanding, the actions of the TEEU are significant in that they are reflective of the glaring need for workers right across Ireland to organise and struggle for their rights without delay.
The actions of sections of the trade union leadership in reining in working class militancy has long been noted by those most affected by it. That they have, in effect, agreed to live with the savage measures introduced by the Twenty-Six County government to save Irish capitalism – such as the pension levy – confirms the notion that the interests of sections of this leadership are the same as those of big business and government.
It is to be hoped that the TEEU strike marks a turning point, however belated, in how the trade union movement responds to the latest manifestation of the periodic crises that are endemic to the capitalist system of production and social organisation. The statement by the TEEU’s secretary general-designate, Eamon Devoy, to the effect that an all-out picket of the whole construction industry will occur if the dispute is not resolved, plus the fact that ICTU approved this measure on Tuesday [July 7], are potentially very significant.
These developments and a declaration on the issue by SIPTU president Jack O’ Connor all indicate that the mood amongst trade union rank-and-file and sections of the union leadership is indeed changing.
On Tuesday, O'Connor stated: “Ultimately the electricians must be supported by all workers because the employers’ objective of cutting pay and tearing up agreements reflects the primary aim of the wealthy elite in our society, which is, above all else, to preserve their own assets and privileged position. Their shallow analysis of the crisis therefore sees attacks on workers living standards as the best way of repairing the damage done to our economy by the array of speculators, developers and their cronies.”
The announcement on Thursday [July 9] by the bosses’ organisations that their demand for a 10 per cent pay cut has been dropped from negotiations at the Labour Relations Commission is a clear indication that the strike action mounted by the TEEU is having the desired effect; strike action hurts the capitalist class where it really hurts – in the pocket.
It is éirígí’s belief that the interests of working people will only be realised when the trade union movement establishes itself as a militant force for the advancement of the working class. The type of militancy required at this juncture must involve the use of strike action.
The membership of the TEEU has shown the way in this regard. The striking electricians have demonstrated the truth of the statement that ‘not a light-bulb or switch goes on without the say so of the working class’.
They have demonstrated something of the attitude that the working class generally will need to adopt if its role as perennial servant to the interests of capital is to ever change.