Celebrating the rejection of Croke Park II – but where to now?

544260_520804691305780_1803494419_aby Philip Ferguson

The rejection of Croke Park 11 is a positive sign that workers are not prepared to just lay down and give up when faced with the Fine Gael/Labour coalition’s attacks on hard-won rights and living conditions and their attempts to make southern Irish workers pay for the financial crisis of Irish banks and the meltdown of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy.

For several decades the bulk of the union leadership has pushed tripartite deals with the bosses and the state, a ‘partnership’ model which has been held up by union leaderships as far afield as New Zealand as worth emulating.  But these tripartite deals did not deliver to workers even during the ‘good times’ of the ‘boom’ periods in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Now the boom has inevitably turned to bust, the partnership model has simply locked unions into accepting responsibility for the financial crisis and agreeing to the austerity measures demanded by the Troika.

The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has engaged in some token rhetoric about ‘sharing the  burden’ of the crisis and they have marched workers up and down the hill and then sent them home a couple of times.  But, in general, they have acted as faithful lieutenants of the state and capital, serving more to demoralise workers than mobilise them.  Over time, the protests against austerity have become smaller and smaller and the main opposition to austerity measures has been the campaign against the household taxes.

Now, however, union members have had enough of simply being expected to accept whatever crap is put to them by the ICTU bureaucrats.  While the main body of bureaucrats recommended a ‘yes’ vote for Croke Park II, a majority of unions and union members have now rejected the deal.  In the largest union in the south, SIPTU, the leadership again recommended a ‘yes’ vote but members of the union rejected the deal by a margin of 53.7% to 46.3%.  In IMPACT, the next biggest union, the vote went almost exactly the other way.  In the Technical, Electrical and Engineering Union the vote went almost two-to-one against the deal.  Unite union’s public sector section voted 84% against the deal.

Given that the government is wanting to save €1 billion by cutting the pay and increasing the hours of workers in the public sector,  opposition to the proposed deal has been especially strong among the public sector unions.  Overtime rates would be cut.  Attempts would also be made to restructure grades in the public sector.

While a ‘no’ vote in the public sector unions was therefore hardly surprising, the sheer scale of the rejection is exceptional.  For instance, the vote in the nurses and midwives union was 95.5% against to a meagre 4.5% in favour.  In the Irish Medical Organisation, the vote was 92% against.  IMO leaders had already walked out of talks at the Labour Relations Commission before the Croke Park proposals were agreed to by the ICTU bureaucrats.  Other public sector unions subsequently walked out of the talks.  More widely, unions opposed to the deal had also indicated that they would not be bound by the overall vote in ICTU if it was in favour of the deal.

The Civil Public and Services Union, the Irish Federation of University Teachers and even the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants all rejected the deal, while the Prison Officers Association and the Public Service Executive Union registered comfortable majorities in support of the deal.  The main teachers union, INTO, registered a strong vote against the deal, despite the leadership backing the deal and trying very hard to drum up support for it.

Labour parliamentarians are overwhelmingly behind the attacks on the working class and hold key cabinet positions, including the deputy prime ministership. Involved in the attacks.  The Labour leaders, along with the trade union hacks linked to Labour, have played the key role in trying to divide public and private sector workers, a division that is crucial if the bosses and the state that serves their interests are to get away with the attacks.

Moreover, the cuts are the logical consequence of the entire partnership project of the ICTU leadership.  Partnership, after all, logically implies accepting pain and suffering in bad times.

The ICTU bureaucrats, like SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor, have put forward two main arguments to support agreements like Croke Park II.  They claim that they have succeeded in modifying proposals that were worse and that no better deal could be gained by industrial action.  In reality, they have trying to tie workers into an ever-downwards spiral.  The less workers fight back, the more the Troika, along with the southern Irish state and its capitalist class, will be able to impose its agenda and the more demoralised workers will become, making it even easier for more cuts to be imposed.

Despite the votes by union members, the coalition, including Labour members, are keen to push ahead with public sector pay cuts and impose longer working hours and other cost-saving measures.  Labour leader and tanaiste Eamonn Gilmore has refused to rule out the government simply legislating for pay cuts for public sector workers.  Irish Times political correspondent Arthur Beesley has noted, “the Government is wedded to a fiscal plan which compels it to extract big pay cuts from the pay and pensions bill this year.”  At a deeper level, however, it is much more than the commitment to a particular plan that compels them to take this course of action – cuts like these are necessary from the standpoint of capital and Dublin governments of all complexions since the establishment of the state in 1922 have been utterly committed to the maintenance of the rule of capital.

Attacks on public sector workers are so important because most workers in the public sector in the south of Ireland neither produce surplus-value (the basis of capitalist profits) or assist its production in quantifiable ways.  In Ireland, north and south, the production of surplus-value takes place almost entirely in the private sector, as the state sector has not been converted into merely state-owned capitalist enterprises the way chunks of the public sector in New Zealand has.  Since the state is largely underwritten by revenues whose origins are in the surplus-value produced in the private sector, the costs of the state are a drain on profits.  This is why public sector spending is always a target of capitalist ideologues and politicians in recessions and depressions.  In the south of Ireland, the intensity of the crisis makes cuts in public spending even more vital to the interests of local Irish capital.  This is also the case with the Troika.  Capitalists in France and Germany have no desire to have some of the surplus-value they exploit out of their own workers – and workers in the Third World countries they also exploit –used to help underwrite public spending in Ireland, for instance.

Whether the ICTU bureaucrats can snatch a defeat for the working class out of the victory registered in this week’s vote on Croke Park II remains to be seen.  However, they will certainly strain every muscle to hold back working class resistance to austerity and maintain their own cosy relationships with the state and the Irish bosses.  Unfortunately, there is no political force with serious roots in the working class that is large enough to provide a viable strategy of resistance through mass mobilisations, strikes and occupations, along with the boycott of household taxes that has been in place for months now.

The main party to the left of Labour is Sinn Fein, which has been running well ahead of the Labourites in opinion polls in recent months.  Sinn Fein has verbally opposed austerity but in the north they are busy imposing austerity as part of the Stormont regime.  Moreover, the leadership of Sinn Fein abandoned their previous radicalism in the 1990s and, having long since been incorporated in the establishment in the north, now long to be part of the establishment in the south.

Their hopeless perspective of reuniting Ireland on a nationalist basis from above requires their participation in government in both Dublin and Belfast and co-operation with the British state and the interests it represents.  Nothing will stand in the way of that, least of all the little matter of the living standards and rights of the working class, north or south.

The forces most staunchly opposed to the southern ruling class and its state, including its Labour managers, are the socialist-republicans who stand in the tradition of the revolutionary workers’ leader James Connolly, who was executed by the British in 1916.  However, we are divided into three-four main organisations.  Our inability to unite into a single revolutionary party, which could have some serious political weight in working class communities right across the island, is an obstacle to building the kind of fightback that could pose a serious challenge not only to the austerity measures but to the very system which requires such measures.

Wherever things go following this week’s rejection of Croke Park II, there are already several major lessons.  Firstly, what is shown is the bankruptcy of the partnership model pushed in recent decades by the main body of trade union leaders in the ICTU.  We need a new union movement, one based on putting workers’ material interests first and struggling for those interests.  Such a movement would need to be independent of the whole range of mechanisms which currently tie workers to the state and the exploiting class.  A glimmer of what is possible is the emergence of the Independent Workers Union and its class-struggle leadership.

Secondly, what has been happening in Ireland indicates the perfidy of Labour parties her and across the world.  They are and always will be utterly dedicated to managing capitalism.  They will always stab workers in the back.  From 1922, when they were ‘neutral’ on the side of the Free State against the interests of workers, small farmers and the rural poor, to today’s anti-working class purveyors of austerity, is an unbroken line.  No unions should be affiliated to them, no unions should give them money or canvass for them.  They aren’t on our side, they aren’t allies, even wayward or unreliable ones.  For that matter, they aren’t even class traitors, because they were never really part of our side; they are simply on the other side, they are part of the enemy.

Thirdly, we need a new political movement , a political movement of, for and by workers and directed at educating and organising the working class, leading the small farmers and all the exploited and oppressed of Ireland to get rid of the system that exploits and oppresses them and most of humanity.  The first step to achieving this is the unity of socialist-republicans around a Connolly-type perspective for the twenty-first century.

Posted on April 19, 2013, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Anti-household and anti-water tax, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, EU, Independent Workers Union, Irish politics today, Political education and theory, Social conditions, Trade unions, twenty-six counties. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Celebrating the rejection of Croke Park II – but where to now?.

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