By Mick Barry TD
When Irish Ryanair pilots tried to strike in August they were blocked by the courts which granted an injunction under the Industrial Relations Act 1990.When Ryanair pilots in the UK took strike action around the same time they faced no such impediment in the courts.
The Industrial Relations Act was supported by the leaders of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in 1990 as an alternative to the harsh anti-union laws implemented by Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s.
Ironically, that same Act is being used in such a way now to put obstacles in the way of strike action by workers here which rival the obstacles faced by workers in the UK trying to operate in the post-Thatcher industrial relations era.
Trade Union Bill 2019
For this reason, Solidarity and the Socialist Party have published the Trade Union Bill 2019 which seeks to amend the Industrial Relations Act 1990. The Bill was moved at first stage in Dáil Éireann by myself on 12 December.
The Bill seeks to end the ban on political strikes, to remove grounds on which anti-strike injunctions can be sought and to remove state interference in trade union balloting arrangements.Political strikes are effectively banned in this country. Strikes are only legal in the case of a trade dispute between workers and their employer. The massive PAYE tax protests of the late 1970s would not be legal under the Industrial Relations Act. The Dunnes Stores Anti-apartheid Strike of the mid-1980s might not be legal today either.
Workers should have the right to strike to demand action to end climate catastrophe facing our planet and the building of public homes on public land to end the housing crisis. In fact, mobilising power of the organised working class is critical to winning real change in our society. The first general strike to take place in Ireland in April 1918 successfully prevented the attempt to implement conscription by the British ruling class in the First World War. Our bill would end the ban on all forms “political strikes”.
Restricting solidarity action
Solidarity strikes are also illegal. Industrial action taken in solidarity with another group of workers falls outside the definition of a dispute with your own employer. The sympathetic strikes pioneered by Connolly and Larkin on the basis that “an injury to one is an injury to all” would not be legal in Ireland today. The Trade Union Bill 2019 would also change this.
The bosses can apply for court injunctions against a range of legitimate trade union practices. When Tesco workers wanted to picket directly outside Tesco shops injunctions were used to force them to picket outside of shopping centres instead which not only made the pickets less effective but hit other businesses not involved in the dispute as well.
When other trade unionists planned to visit ambulance paramedic pickets lines mounted by the Psychiatric Nurses Association injunctions were threatened because the law said that only the workers directly involved in the dispute and their trade union official could be legally present.
The Trade Union Bill 2019 seeks to prevent bosses from having recourse to injunctions in situations such as these.
The capitalist state
The Ryanair case last August witnessed a drastic interpretation of the Industrial Relations Act when a judge refused to accept a sworn affidavit by a trade union official to the effect that the strike ballot had been conducted within the law and effectively asked the union involved to give the names of their members to the representatives of a company which is notorious for its hostility to trade unions.
Our Bill would end state interference in trade union balloting arrangements and give trade unions immunity on legal costs so long as the union’s own rules are followed.Workers in this country need trade unions which fight for their interests. Precarity, low pay and a looming economic crisis and its consequences means we have no choice but to do so.
This can only be done effectively if unions stand up to all the restrictions placed upon them by the capitalist state. In this sense the Trade Union Bill 2019 is a contribution towards building a fighting trade union movement and we would encourage workers and trade unionists to follow the examples of the Psychiatric Nurses Association and the UNITE construction branch in actively supporting it and its provisions.