Government and employers can be defeated by struggle & solidarity

The Fianna Fail/Green Party government, along with the employers, have signalled their intention to shift the burden of the economic crisis onto the shoulders of PAYE workers. STEPHEN BOYD argues that militant industrial action linked to a campaign to reclaim the unions for the members, is the only way these attacks can be resisted.

We have all been deluded, the banking and financial crisis, the recession, it wasn’t caused by the banks, the property developers and the government. No, apparently it is all the fault of public sector workers. And the only way that the economy can be turned around is if the government slash public sector workers wages and pensions. 

The victim of the crime has now become the perpetrator. And 20,000 of these “evil” public servants, teachers, nurses, doctors, and administration staff – the workers who keep this country and its public services functioning, must be sacked. Public sector workers and public services are “bleeding the country dry” – that is what Fianna Fail, the Greens, Fine Gael and also Labour would like you to believe. They claim the country is broke and spending on public services is too high so it must be cut. Yet few have highlighted the 111 tax breaks worth €8 billion a year which facilitate big business and the wealthy to pay less tax. Scrapping them instead of making €4 billion in cuts of course isn’t an option for the establishment. 

Many public sector workers are paid better than the private sector. A major reason for this is the higher level of trade union membership in the public sector. During the boom when the labour force in the South nearly doubled the trade union leaders failed to organise an effective campaign to recruit new members in the private sector and this has assisted the bosses to drive down wages and conditions. The recession has exploded the myth that you don’t need to be a member of a trade union anymore and it is under the barrage of attacks from the capitalist class that a major recruitment campaign should be waged.

Fintan O’Toole outlined the government and IBEC’s agenda when he wrote: “If we’re serious about bringing public sector wages into line with those in private firms, we need to allow more exploitation of women and of the low-paid…This may be an absurd conclusion, but it is the logic of an argument that suggests that public sector workers be penalised because so many in the private sector suffer from gender discrimination, exploitation and rotten pensions”, Irish Times (6 October 2009). The demands for cuts in public sector pay and pensions are simply about protecting profits and maintaining a low tax regime for big business.
Workers in the private sector have been hit hard by the recession. The vast majority of those who have lost their jobs have been in the private sector and pay cuts are being imposed. However, the right-wing politicians, the economists and the media would have us believe that wages across the whole of the private sector have been savaged. This simply isn’t true.

Even the pro-big business ESRI has said there is no evidence to back up these claims. Surveys into pay in the private sector have estimated that between 9 – 21% of workers have suffered pay cuts whereas 100% of public sector workers have had their pay cut. Also despite the recession, upwards of 30% of private sector workers have had pay increases.
The union leaders have been ineffectual in opposing the witch-hunt of public sector workers and the campaign of divide and rule to split the working class. The calling off of the 30 March “national one day strike” to enter “social partnership” talks yielded nothing for the working class.  However the government and the employers got a breathing space to implement further attacks on workers including the new levies in the last budget and the 7.5% pension levy on public sector workers.
Faced with a groundswell of anger amongst their members against the governments’ plans for €4 billion in public spending cuts, plus a major assault on public sector workers and the return of mass unemployment the union leaders have been forced into organising some offensive action.

ICTU’s campaign

THE ICTU day of action on 6 November has the potential to be the biggest workers demonstrations in thirty years. These protests are part of ICTU’s “Get Up Stand Up” campaign which is “centred on the idea that there is a better, fairer way to tackle the crisis facing the country”. ICTU are advocating that instead of implementing the public spending cuts between now and 2013 the government should extend the timeframe for the cuts i.e. spread them out until 2017. This is a scandalous position. It is an acceptance that the cuts are needed and it is in reality an acceptance of all of the arguments of the right-wing parties and big business with a disagreement only over implementation. It is an acceptance by ICTU leaders that the working class must pay for the economic crisis and not big business and the rich. This is a logical step for them to take after 22 years of helping successive governments and big business manage the market economy through “social partnership”.

Most union leaders accept the arguments for cuts but they call it “retrenchment and reform”, or the need to “improve cost competitiveness”. Jack O’Connor, SIPTU president, said it is time the employers “made a contribution to economic recovery” and “IBEC does not seem to have copped on that the game has changed”. But O’Connor also said he would support a new agreement with the so-called “social partners” and that the key to this agreement was the lengthening of the government’s current timeframe for fiscal adjustment – the same amount of cuts but only over a longer period of time.

This gets to the heart of the crisis facing working class people. The union leaders are not organising the 6 November protests or the 24 November one-day public sector strike to defeat the government’s plans. They are doing it in order to force the government to allow the union leaders to have their say in how the cuts and attacks will be implemented. The crisis in the economy is compounded for the working class by the absence of a fighting leadership in the trade union movement.

Union leaders sell out?

UP TO 300,000 workers could participate in the 24-hour public sector strike on the 24 November. Public sector workers are not just angry and demoralised by the propaganda war against them. There is a real material basis to the growing militancy amongst these workers. They can’t afford the pay cuts. If, as is being speculated, the government cuts public sector pay by a further 7% this would be cumulative pay cuts from three budgets in 12 months of over 15%. The Irish Nurses Organisation pointed out that a staff nurse on €45,000 has already had their pay cut by €4,100 this year because of the pension levy and the other levies in the last budget. Take away a further 7% and you are looking at a pay cut this year of nearly €7,000! This scale of pay cuts will have a devastating impact on public sector workers and their families.

The pro-partnership union leaders have been forced to ballot for strike action. But Peter McLoone, Jack O’Connor and other senior union leaders are preparing the ground for a “compromise” with the government and the employers – for a sell out of their members.

IMPACT is spending €450,000 on an advertising campaign which promotes a “better way” to make savings through public sector reform. Under the slogan “Public services: Transformation Not Cuts”, it says, “This would include identifying and cutting waste, changes in work practices, and vastly increased productivity and mobility to ensure that services are maintained as resources decline and staff numbers fall”. And that it will deliver this to the government if there are no further pay cuts or compulsory redundancies or cuts to pensions. Brian Cowen has said he is open to discussing the options of lower pay cuts in return for such change.

If adopted, this strategy would result in the loss if tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector and has the potential to devastate services, opening up the door to further outsourcing and privatisation. It is a “strategy” that should be rejected by public sector workers in favour of industrial action and a mass movement to defeat this weak government’s plans.

24 general strike

THOUSANDS  HAVE attended the regional meetings of the 24/7 Frontline Service Alliance around the country. Comprising of nurses, Gardai, firefighters, and until recently the army – this alliance will be participating in the 24 hour public sector strike but is also balloting its members to engage in further industrial action.

The Gardai are discussing taking industrial action – forbidden by law from going on strike they are looking at options and we might see a repeat of the “blue flu” when the Gardai previously took strike action when they all took sick leave on the same day. The army ranks represented by PDFORRA have been barred from participating in the 24/7 Frontline Alliance. Earlier in the year PDFORRA told the government that they would not be used as strike breakers in industrial disputes. At the PDFORRA conference Gerry Rooney (general secretary), criticised the Minister of Defence’s decision to bar them from the alliance. He said, “we do not accept that we can be silenced on the issue of our pay or indeed cuts to our pay. The insistence of the Department that we should not question or campaign on this issue is not one that we can comply with. If PDFORRA cannot question or campaign on this issue then it might as well not exist – and, accordingly, we will bear any actions that it is intended to take against us.” He made these remarks as the Minister for Defence sat on the podium beside him.

The Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Lt General Dermot Earley was also present and laid out clearly how the State view the soldiers actions. “Your role can be described as the ‘Last Line’ of defence, the ultimate guarantee to the government and people of Ireland. This can never be a matter of compromise and you must never take any action that erodes the confidence of government or the people”. The Lt General’s remarks bear a strong resemblance to Engels description of the capitalist State which he said in the last analysis was armed bodies of men in defence of private property.

The fact that the ground may be set for a confrontation between the “last line of defence” for the State – the army – and the government over pay. That the Gardai have pledged to participate in all of the major ICTU protests and may engage in a form of strike action are all worrying developments for Irish capitalism. They expose the weakness of the Irish State and underline the seriousness of the political and economic crisis in this society. Workers are increasingly being forced to take militant action to achieve even their most basic rights. Occupation as a tactic by workers faced with redundancy is now back on the agenda. The Socialist Party is calling for a 24-hour general strike to bring down the government and defeat the cuts.

A general strike is inherent in the situation. The 6 November demonstrations (if they go ahead) will be a type of a half-day general strike. The potential exists for these struggles to escalate and grow and sectoral strikes and struggles are also likely to take place especially in the aftermath of the budget on 9 December. Faced with such developments this weak government can be forced from office and a new government can quickly face similar opposition to its attempts to make the working class pay for the crisis.

An injury to one is an injury to all

THE DECISION by Aer Lingus management to “tear up” all previous agreements with the workforce, imposing 689 job cuts, a new pension scheme and pay cuts is just one in a now growing list of big companies who have launched major offensives against their employees.

The successful strike by 10,000 electricians against the attempts by the electrical contractors to impose a 10% pay cut is an example of how the employers’ attacks can be defeated. An all out strike by electricians, supported by other building workers shut down all of the major sites and forced a retreat by the employers. Militant action by workers with solidarity support produced an important victory. The electrical contractors haven’t given up but the strike has strengthened the ability of the electricians to protect their pay and conditions.

This is a period in which employers will attempt to take back many of the gains won by workers during the last 50 to 60 years.
In dispute after dispute the employers are ignoring all of the so-called “normal” industrial relations procedures. Instead many have gone to the High Court to get injunctions with the aim of limiting the ability of workers to carry out effective picketing. They are trying to intimidate strikers using the fear of prison and fines. Injunctions have been used to effect by the employers in a number of disputes but this is only because there hasn’t been an effective response from the union leaders. The trade unions have the power to defeat this tactic. Mass pickets of hundreds of trade unionists organised in solidarity action can nullify the effectiveness of High Court injunctions. Faced with mass pickets the Gardai would be powerless to enforce the Court rulings. A collective response from the trade union movement could have mobilised hundreds of trade unionists outside the Thomas Cook occupation to stop the Gardai from carrying out the judge’s orders. In doing so the unions would have laid down a marker and sent a signal to other employers to think twice before trying to use the courts to get striking workers jailed.

As well as the use of the courts, scabs are being drafted in frequently to break strikes. The depth of the recession means that employers are using anti-working class legislation and underhand and dirty tactics to try to defeat strikes. The trade union movement must meet this challenge head on and fight fire with fire, mobilising all of its resources to defend jobs, pay, working conditions and services.

This isn’t happening, instead union officials are still looking for the employers to “play by the old rules” – go to the LRC and the Labour Court – and when the employers refuse or ignore the findings of the Labour Court the union officials are stumped and unable to respond.

Industrial disputes will not be won in the LRC – jobs, wages and hard won working conditions can be defended by strike action that is carried out with the backing of the full resources of the trade unions and the working class. Adherence to the Industrial Relations Act is costing workers their jobs and pay. The anti-trade union laws and the courts are being used by union officials to justify limiting the effectiveness of strikes. Disputes can be won and the employers driven back if the trade union movement “takes off the gloves” – the “gloves” of “partnership”, “industrial relations procedures”, and abidance to the anti-union laws.

The purpose of a strike is to stop a company from trading, to stop the flow of profits into its bank account in order to force it either to accept the employees demands or to back off from its attack. However it is now becoming the norm in many disputes that the company is continuing to trade and the strikes are nowhere near as effective as they could be because the union officials are limiting the strike to only “lawful” action. Workers are being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Companies are getting away with using scabs and scab contractors when what is needed are effective all out pickets that completely shut these businesses down. An emphasis needs to be put on redeveloping solidarity industrial action between workers in order to defend the rights of all. 

Coca Cola is a case in point. SIPTU had the power to defeat Coca Cola by organising, with the assistance of other unions such as Mandate, the blacking of all Coca Cola products in the country. Scab contractors can drive Coca Cola products to the supermarkets or the major wholesalers but those products will never get on the shelves if the trade unionists at Tesco, Dunnes, Musgraves and other major retailers had refused to handle them. The sales of Coca Cola products at all of the major stores could have been stopped and Coca Cola HBC would have been defeated as their profits dry up. This didn’t happen because the SIPTU leaders refused to take the necessary steps to organise this type of solidarity action. If properly organised, trade unionists in the retail sector could have refused to handle Coca Cola products in the knowledge that they had the full backing of their unions against their employers. 

The current leadership of the Irish trade union movement is incapable of defending working class people from the attacks by the employers and the government. This is not because they don’t have the power to do so – it is because they are politically unwilling to engage in the type of militant action required to defend the working class. The majority of the union leaders support “social partnership” as a means to try to make the capitalist market more amenable to the interests of workers – something that the current crisis is exposing as impossible – in the market economy profit is king and everything else is secondary.

Trade union democracy

THE MAJORITY of trade union full time officials are out of touch with the reality of the lives of their members. They earn enormous salaries. David Begg, ICTU general secretary’s wage is €137,400 a year plus expenses – that is €100,000 more than the average industrial wage. Jack O’Connor, SIPTU president is paid €124,895, Peter McLoone, IMPACT general secretary €171,313. It is no wonder they are ineffective when it come to defending their members against the employers and the government’s attacks. Most of them are not elected and are not open to the scrutiny of their members.

In SIPTU a major attack on democracy is underway. At it’s recent conference the method for the election of the senior officials was changed and instead of electing the president, vice president and general secretary by balloting the entire membership, the elections will now be restricted to conference delegates. Candidates for these positions previously only required the nomination of a branch or group of branches of 500 members or more. Now you need to be nominated by three sectors or by 5% of the membership – more than 10,000 members.

The lack of democracy and accountability within the trade union movement is a major problem as it allows the current bunch of incumbents to stay in power and to replace themselves with likeminded careerists. Democratisation of the trade unions would open them up to the members – transforming them into effective organisations for the defence of workers’ rights.

The Socialist Party campaigns for major reform in the trade unions. We believe that all full time officials should be elected on a regular basis and that the members should have the right of recall. Full time officials should only be paid the average wage of the workers they represent and receive only genuine expenses. What we need in the movement are full time officials who put the members interests first, who are accountable to the members for their actions and who have the same standard of living in order to keep them in touch with real lives of the working class. A majority of the current batch of senior trade union officials are careerists who live lives which are closer to those enjoyed by the bosses than the working class. Not many of them would be in their posts if they had to live on the average workers’ wage and face regular election by their members.

Reclaim the unions

THE CLASS struggle has reasserted itself with a vengeance. In a number of recent and ongoing disputes a common theme amongst many of the strikers is that their experience of being on strike has opened their eyes to the failings and shortcomings of the trade union officialdom. This points clearly in the direction of striking workers taking action into their own hands and trying to make the direct links with other groups of workers with the aim of organising effective solidarity support for disputes. In the months and years ahead thousands of trade unionists will go through similar experiences. It is precisely from the ranks of these trade union members that a new opposition to the right-wing full time and lay officials must be built.

A consequence of the increase in industrial disputes, mass demonstrations like 6 November, the one day public sector strike and other similar type struggles in the next period is that a whole new layer of trade union activists will emerge. The Socialist Party believes that genuine opposition groups should be built within all of the unions – broad lefts that unite activists seeking to reclaim the unions around a programme of democracy, solidarity and struggle.

If major opposition forces can be built around a radical programme for change then genuine trade union reps could be elected in large numbers at local, regional and national executive level, and with the backing and active involvement of the members oust the current batch of right wing full time and lay “leaders”.

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