ICTU can't be trusted to organise a general strike

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Tens of thousands will take part in today's ICTU demonstration in Dublin but the demonstration is seen by ICTU’s leaders as yet another one-off protest, another ‘letting-off-steam’ exercise, a trek around town from A to B to listen to speeches from the same people that have misled us to this position and then go home and get ready to vote for Labour in the forthcoming election.  Far from ‘standing idly by’ they are actively working to demobilise opposition to the government.   Against this we need to use today's protest as the starting point for the conversation about what we’re going to replace the current rotten mess with and as the first block in building for the general strike that we need to bring that about.

General Strike needed but ICTU won’t bring it about

The people cannot be expected to endure misery whilst those who contributed most to the cause of the problem go on living pretty much as they always have. It is time to insist on taxing the greedy not the needy.

There are more ways of influencing budgetary policy than waiting until whenever the Government sees fit to call it a day and go to the country. It may be too late by then.

Democracy is about more than just voting in elections once every five years. We must not stand idly by while the final nail is driven into the coffin. We can influence the 
outcome by turning out and joining the march for 'A Better,
Fairer Way' in Dublin on Saturday, November 27. “

So says Jack O’Connor, president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. (http://www.ictu.ie/november27/dontstandidlyby.html)  And there’s nothing in those few words that any socialist or anarchist would disagree with.  But words are words and they’re easy to say.  What, we need to ask, is ICTU’s record when it comes to “influencing budgetary policy”?  And since the onset of this economic crisis how has ICTU lived up to its exhortation to “not stand idly by”?  Finally to what extent will we “influence the outcome” by marching on Saturday?  

Firstly, with regard to “influencing budgetary policy” – the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been wedded to the concept of ‘social partnership’ since 1987.  Through a succession of agreements signed up to by government, employers, unions and farmers’ organisations (and in latter years the ‘Community Platform’), the ICTU would claim to have had significant influence on government budgetary policy. 

In reality though ICTU’s influence on budgetary policy was more illusory than real.  ‘Social partnership’ provided the cover under which huge transfers of wealth from the pockets of ordinary workers to the bank accounts of the super wealthy took place.  The ‘deals’ were never in the interest of workers and the unemployed. 

Wage moderation

In the initial social partnership deals over 20 years ago we were asked to moderate our wage demands in the interests of economic regeneration.  Unfortunately that economic regeneration favoured greatly the better off in society and did nothing to tackle chronic poverty levels.  Then throughout the years of the Celtic Tiger we were told that if we continued to moderate our wage demands there would be investment in public services.  Well all you have to do is look at the number of overcrowded and dilapidated classrooms in our schools and our shambolic health service to realise that that investment never came in anything like large enough amounts.

And then when the banking crisis broke in late 2008, the ICTU’s influence on budgetary policy was such that the government decided to bail out the banks at any cost necessary, and to ensure that ordinary workers would pay through job losses, pay cuts and the slashing of public service!

One would have thought that ICTU would have got the message – their power to influence government budgetary policy was nil.  And why should it be any different – after all the 20+ years of ‘social partnership’, the obscene wage levels of top union officials and direct payments of cash into what seems to have effectively been a junkets slush fund (see http://www.wsm.ie/c/hse-health-service-national-partnership-forum) had bought the union leadership and had ensured that the government had no need to take them seriously.

A whole generation of trade union leaders have lost touch with the members they are supposed to represent and have even forgotten the most basic of trade union lessons – you can only negotiate from a position of strength.  Otherwise you’re always going to be forced to capitulate.  In other words when David Begg, Jack O’Connor or anyone else goes into government buildings the government side knows that they are leaders of a toothless pack, and that their ability to lead their members in the sort of sustained industrial action necessary for any meaningful fightback is practically non-existent.  Why therefore should they be taken seriously?

‘National Interest’?

Union leaders themselves have come to believe that it is ‘clever negotiations’ and ‘good P.R. campaigns’ that will bring about victory.  The past two years have shown this to be patent nonsense.  But more worryingly, their lifestyles and their political philosophy have led the trade union leadership to accept fully the government contention that the ‘national interest’ must come first.  Why is it though that the ‘national interest’ never involves forcing tax exiles to pay their proper share of the tax bill?  Why does the ‘national interest’ never mean that the 1% of the population that own 34% of the wealth (33,000 millionaires - €121 billion – see http://www.wsm.ie/c/irish-millionaires-assets-121-billion) are asked to stump up a bit more?  Why does the ‘national interest’ always result in workers and the poor getting screwed while the wealthy look after their own interest?

The ICTU leadership buys this nonsense of a ‘national interest’ because of its lack of a class analysis of the political situation.  Anyone who starts from a position that there are at least two classes in Ireland – us and them/the workers and the bosses won’t buy into the nonsense of there supposedly being a ‘national interest’.  How could there be any common bond of interest between billionaire businessman and tax exile Dermot Desmond and the worker in the local Centra shop?

By buying into and accepting the notion of a ‘national interest’ the trade union movement has allowed workers to be divided and conquered.  While the wealthy remain wealthy the rest of us find ourselves in an interminable debate about whether cuts should be made in the education or the health budget, whether the old age pension should be cut or water charges should be introduced and on and on…  We have allowed a wedge to be driven between public and private sector workers, and between different groups of workers.  Witness the widespread view that we have a ‘bloated public service’ with ‘gold plated pensions’.  Witness the attacks on the ‘uncompetitive’ minimum wage and the cuts in social welfare to ‘incentivise people’ into non-existent jobs. 

As more and more of the top bankers relocate themselves and their wealth to Switzerland, the USA and other sunny climes, it’s clear what their commitment to the ‘national interest’ is.

Controlled protest

And this is where ICTU’s exhortation to “not stand idly by” comes in.  Far from standing idly by, ICTU have played a very specific role in managing and controlling the way in which workers have responded to the crisis.  At certain strategic times over the past two years ICTU have effectively opened a pressure valve and allowed the release of public anger.  On 21st February 2009, up to 120,000 people participated in an ICTU-organised march ‘For a Better, Fairer Way.’  On 24th November 2009 approximately 250,000 public sector workers took a day’s strike action in what could have been the first step in a real demonstration of the power of our collective strength. 

On each occasion, rather than using the opportunity to radicalise people’s  views and try to encourage, support and embolden people towards further action, union leaders trekked back into meaningless ‘talks’ and eventually led us to the pathetic Croke Park agreement which effectively tied our movement into an acceptance of government policy.  And now we find ourselves in the crazy position that ICTU’s only major disagreement with what is probably the most severe austerity package ever attempted by a European government is that the pain should be spread out over a longer period of time.

So Saturday’s demo is seen by ICTU’s leaders as yet another one-off protest, another ‘letting-off-steam’ exercise, a trek around town from A to B to listen to speeches from the same people that have misled us to this position and then go home and get ready to vote for Labour in the forthcoming election.  Far from ‘standing idly by’ they are actively working to demobilise opposition to the government.  And that is not to suggest that there are tens of thousands of workers straining at the leash and ready to join a fightback tomorrow if only the right leadership was in place.  We all know it’ll take a lot of work on the ground persuading, cajoling and encouraging people to make a stand before that will come about.  But what is clear is that ICTU’s leadership will not be on our side in building a genuine campaign of resistance. 

Influencing the Outcome

Which brings me to the extent to which Saturday’s march can “influence the outcome”, as Jack O’Connor put it.  Firstly it goes without saying that unless Saturday’s march – the first opportunity for people to express a view on the 4-year plan and on the continued deterioration in the economic situation which led to IMF intervention – is huge, the outcome is bleak for all of us.  If there are tens of thousands of people on the streets expressing our opposition to the attacks on our public services and on our living standards we have the start of something that can “influence the outcome”.

We have, in that scenario, a potential for action.  It’s clear that those who have political power – the wealthy elite who control the purse strings of our society – will not give it up easily.  If we are to bring about a situation whereby there is a re-balancing of wealth and the huge wealth divide is gotten rid of we have to organise ourselves in every community and in every workplace.  We have to discuss and debate with our work colleagues, fellow trade unionists, friends, family and neighbours what way in which we want to re-balance society. 

We have to build from scratch the types of workplace and community organisations that can start the process of building a fairer and more equal society.  And we have to learn the lessons of the past twenty years of social partnership and, more especially, the past two years of ‘controlled protest’.  The principal lesson is that we cannot rely on trade union leaders or politicians to do this for us.  We have to do it for ourselves.  And that means each one of us has to be willing to become a ‘leader’, an advocate for change and a focus of debate and discussion aimed at bringing about that change.

Our biggest weapon if we want to bring about fundamental change is our ability to withdraw our labour.  The wealthy elite in whose interest society is currently run do indeed have all the political power.  But nothing would function for them without us.  They need us to work in their businesses, they need us to keep the wheels of society running by providing a health service, education service etc.  And that’s where our power comes in.  Imagine a situation where all of us together – public and private sector worker alike – stop working.  Imagine the feeling of collective strength that would give us.  Equally imagine the message that would deliver to our current rulers.  A general strike organised across all workplaces would be a first step towards a re-construction of society in our interests rather than in the interest of a tiny greedy minority. 

Our organisations

That’s what a real and genuine trade union movement would be setting itself as its principal task.  We need to remember that the trade unions are our organisations and that we can use the current structures to argue for and build for that strike.  We don’t have to be hidebound by the conservative political views of the current crop of leaders.

This is of course no easy task.  It’s not just a case of putting out a call, hoping a few thousand people will read it and hey presto the general strike will be upon us.  It’ll be a task that will need a great deal of effort and no small amount of persuasion, discussion, debate and no doubt rows.  But it’s a task we cannot afford to put off. 

A start can be by making sure that Saturday’s protest is not allowed to be just another ritualistic letting off of steam.  Instead let’s use Saturday’s protest as a springboard for a further protest on Budget night and a series of local and national protests over coming months.  More importantly let’s use Saturday’s protest as the starting point for the conversation about what we’re going to replace the current rotten mess with and as the first block in building for the general strike that we need to bring that about.

WORDS: Gregor Kerr

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