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NERI Seminar: Whither Industrial Democracy? Irish Trade Unionism and the Cooperative Commonwealth


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Dr Cian McMahon, Postdoctoral research position, Saint Mary's University, Nova Scotia presented at a NERI Seminar on 5th June, 2019 on the subject of Cooperative Commonwealth

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NERI Seminar: Whither Industrial Democracy? Irish Trade Unionism and the Cooperative Commonwealth

  1. 1. Whither Industrial Democracy? Irish Trade Unionism and the Cooperative Commonwealth
  2. 2. Workplace democracy revisited  Resurgence of interest in worker cooperatives  Political-economic and social-ecological instability
  3. 3. The cooperative path not taken  Reflections on cooperativism and Irish independence
  4. 4. A forgotten cooperative history  Irish worker cooperative development experience  “Phoenix” cooperatives of 1970s/80s  Worker coop development infrastructure
  5. 5. Rising from the ashes?  Recent worker coop development initiatives  Centred on Belfast  Worker Cooperative Network
  6. 6. Long waves of cooperation  Worker coop development rises and falls relative to strength of labour movement (Ramsay 1977; Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2019) ‘[Workers’ control] is an extension of strong trade union organisation’
  7. 7. Thatcherism delayed?  Social partnership and the peace process  Temporarily stalled Irish neoliberal turn (McDonough and Dundon 2010; McCabe 2013) ‘[The 1980s were] different times, and you find yourself now having to fight differently than we used to have to fight . . . Partnership is gone’
  8. 8. Doomed to failure?  Irish worker coop wave  1980: 4 in South, 1 in North  1998: 82 in South (591 workers)  2014: circa 20 in South (135 workers) ‘[In Ireland] they tended to be in low-productivity, labour-intensive type industries – furniture and printing and . . . fuel [etc.] . . . which ran into, you know, globalisation . . . They were never likely to thrive [after the 1980s], because of cheap competition’
  9. 9. Against all odds  First wave case studies  Quay Co-op  Tullamore Meats Co-op  Bord na Móna AEUs  Attymon Peat Co-op  Second wave (?) case studies  Belfast Cleaning Society  Union Taxis  Evidence of sustainability potentials and practices  Suggestive of hierarchy of cooperative needs
  10. 10. Lessons of cooperative history CC External stakeholder participation Radical internal workplace democracy Continuous internal education and training Supportive external institutional environment Suitable internal governance structure Sense of collective identity among workers Essential business skills Viable business idea
  11. 11. A new Irish worker coop wave?  Signs of life  Growing interest and activism  Search for alternatives  Pendulum swinging back?  Ongoing revival of working class struggle (Silver 2013) ‘[T]hese actions might be a first step in a process that transforms today’s precarious workers into tomorrow’s stable working class’ (Silver 2013, p. 63)
  12. 12. Strategic priorities  Trade union education  Political economy emphasis  Cooperative alternative
  13. 13. Cooperative organising Aims ‘to facilitate a multi-directional, interactive relationship among leaders, local officials, activists and ordinary members . . . If it is impossible to involve and empower workers within their own trade unions, it is scarcely plausible to suggest that work itself can be democratized, and the legitimacy of unions as a voice for democratization is itself undermined’ (Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2019, p. 104, 105)