Trade Unionists betrayed by leadership


On Tuesday 24th November 2009, 250,000 public sector workers took strike action in opposition to the government policy of public service pay cuts. This was a potentially massive show of defiance and the first time in more than 20 years that the trade union movement had flexed its collective muscle.Yet, just over two weeks later Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan announced a budget which everyone recognises as a vicious attack on ordinary workers and those dependent on social welfare. What happened over that two week period demonstrated clearly that the gap between ordinary trade union members and the supposed ‘leadership’ of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is huge and possibly unbridgeable. The potentially massive show of defiance had been turned into a whimper and the government could proceed to do just as it wished.

Workers had taken to the picket line under a barrage of criticism and attack from economists, politicians and political commentators. Huge energies had been spent in attempting to drive a wedge between public and private sector workers. Workers employed in the public sector were told constantly of the need to ‘share the pain’; workers in the private sector were fed the line of a ‘bloated’ public service enjoying fantastic perks and privileges.

Truth v. fiction

The truth, of course, was vastly different. Public servants had already more than ‘felt the pain’ of the economic crisis, having had their wages cut by an average of up to 13% in the past twelve months when the so-called ‘pension levy’, the other levies imposed and wage increases foregone were all taken into account. And far from being ‘overpaid’ and ‘bloated’ 54% of public sector workers were earning less than €40,000 before those cuts had been implemented.

The real difference in Irish society is not between public and private sector workers but between the very wealthy who have made fortunes during the years of the boom and the rest of us. To take just one example - In the last three years of the boom (2004 to 2007) alone, the richest 450 people in Ireland added €41billion to their combined personal wealth.

But a very clever political strategy has been pursued by those in power. Those who would prefer that we wouldn’t be thinking about the possibility of taking the wealth from the hands of the elite would prefer to set us at each others’ throats. Thus private sector worker is pitted against public sector worker, worker against social welfare recipient, etc.

It means that while we’re busy fighting with each other, the wealthy can get on with dividing up the spoils. And of course the real agenda was clear – if the government could get away with cutting the wages of public servants then an attack on wages across the private sector (and, most importantly, on the minimum wage) would quickly follow.

The legacy of ‘partnership’

It was in this context that public sector workers voted overwhelmingly for strike action in the face of another round of threatened pay cuts. And it was the solidarity and strength shown by workers who took to the picket lines on 24th November that could have undermined and defeated the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Unfortunately the rug was pulled from under us by a leadership whose political outlook and belief is fed by over 20 years of so-called ‘social partnership’ – a leadership who themselves were terrified at the idea of trade unionists discovering the strength of collective action.

Even before the pickets were lifted on the evening of Nov. 24th, the ICTU Public Service Committee’s spokesperson Peter McLoone was agreeing in an RTE interview that pay cuts were inevitable. Instead of declaring that as a movement we were strong enough and determined enough to force our agenda onto government, the union leaders conceded that agenda and entered talks on how a pay cut could be made most ‘sellable’ to the membership. This led to the insulting concept of “unpaid leave”, which incredibly the media managed to portray as a victory for the trade unions, a view not shared by ordinary trade unionists who recognised it for what it was – a pay cut by another name.

In itself this was bad enough but more worryingly it provided a cover for the so-called “transformation agenda”. This involved agreement on a whole range of changes to the terms and conditions of public servants amounting to a huge attack on living standards and working conditions.

This ‘deal’ eventually collapsed only because the government realised that they no longer needed the connivance of the trade union leaders. Everything had been conceded by the union side in return for nothing so the government was able to take even more.

Our Challenge

Following on from the budget, and from this defeat of the trade union movement, the challenge that faces trade union members is to begin the process of reclaiming ownership of our movement, and re-orientating the political outlook and direction of the trade unions. We’ve had more than 20 years of ‘social partnership’ and it’s proven to be a disaster for the independence and strength of the trade unions.

But the trade unions belong to union members, not to overpaid bureaucrats. In every union now we should begin the process of reclaiming ownership. Members should be looking for special general meetings to be called to discuss what has happened. At these meetings, motions of no confidence in the leadership and strategy of the Public Services Committee of ICTU should be proposed, and a discussion should begin on formulating a new strategy to defend workers’ pay and conditions against government attacks.

It’s up to each of us to take up the struggle in our own union. We may have lost this battle but there are a lot more struggles on the way.