Workers and the way forward: a socialist-republican perspective
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by Philip Ferguson
It seems a long time now since trade union members in the south of Ireland voted to reject Croke Park 11, a deal promoted by leaders of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in partnership with the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government in Dublin. The current coalition, like the Fianna Fail/Green coalition that preceded it, has sought 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 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.
Rhetoric v resistance
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.
The rejection of Croke Park II showed that union members had 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 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 also voted strongly against the deal.
Scale of rank-and-file opposition to austerity
Opposition to the proposed deal has been especially strong among the public sector unions because the government is wanting to save €1 billion by cutting the pay and increasing the hours of workers in this sector. 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 was 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. The Civil Public and Services Union, the Irish Federation of University Teachers and even the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants rejected the deal, while the Prison Officers Association and the Public Service Executive Union not surprisingly registered comfortable majorities in support of the deal.
The main teachers union, INTO, registered a strong vote against. INTO 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 also indicated that they would not be bound by the overall vote in ICTU if it was in favour of the deal.
However, workers’ opposition to austerity proved no match for the bureaucrats’ machinations to dampen down anger and prevent effective resistance. And, of course, as resistance is blunted by the union misleaderships, workers become alienated and demoralised. They get sick of being marched up the hill, only to be marched down again. They get sick of being betrayed and go home.
Role of Labour Party
Since a section of unions are affiliated to Labour and a section of workers vote for that party, it is a useful tool for the ruling class when it needs to impose significant cuts on working class living standards and rights.
Labour parliamentarians are not only overwhelmingly behind the attacks on the working class but hold key cabinet positions, including the deputy prime ministership, and are directly responsible for 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. 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.
Behind the attacks on public sector workers
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) nor assist its production in quantifiable ways. In Ireland, north and south, the production of surplus-value (see our feature on exploitation for an explanation 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, say, 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.
While the vote against Croke Park II indicated the hostility of swathes of the working class to austerity – our class knows austerity is austerity for us alone – the ICTU bureaucrats’ chief concern is mediating between the interests of labour and capital. In fact, these days they are really more about mediating the interests of capital onto the working class.
And here is a crucial problem. How can workers fight with ‘leaders’ like these?
ICTU bureaucrats can snatch a defeat for the working class out of the victory registered in workers’ rejection of Croke Park II. They 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.
Problems of lack of an alternative movement
Workers simply don’t have our own fit-for-purpose organisations – real, fighting unions
Moreover, unfortunately, there is no political force with substantial enough 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 boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience.
If there was an authoritative left movement, workers’ disillusionment with the ICTU brass could have very positive consequences – angry workers would be able to turn to such an alternative movement. But in the absence of a sizeable, credible, revolutionary alternative, workers’ disillusion is likely to breed demoralisation among many.
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 it 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, none of which – certainly as of yet – have sufficiently serious political weight in working class communities right across the island, that would allow us to build 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. Even if we were united, we still wouldn’t have this power. Which is not to say that discussions about how we might work together would not be useful.
The way the ICTU bureaucrats have consistently (and successfully) sabotaged the attempts workers have made to resist the savage attacks on wages and living standards provides several major lessons.
Not just drawing lessons, but acting on them
Firstly, is the bankruptcy of the partnership model pushed in recent decades by the main body of ICTU leaders. 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.
A place to start was indicated by Louise Minihan of éirígí at the mass protest outside the Fine Gael ard fheis in Dublin in March 2012 when she appealed to “the grassroots men and women to take the trade union movement back to the vision of organised labour that James Connolly dreamt of. The time has come to take control and remove the current leaderships and if they won’t go, they should be forcefully removed. It’s high time the likes of Jack O’Connor and David Begg were reminded it’s the workers who really hold the power in this country.
“All workers must unite against these austerity measures. It’s time for the workers to call a national general strike and bring this country to a standstill.”
Secondly, what has been happening in Ireland indicates the perfidy of Labour parties here 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. Labour 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, workers don’t just exist as people in workplaces, they also live in communities. The union bureaucrats don’t control these communities. While we certainly need to fight within the unions, and build rank-and-file resistance there, being involved in organising working class communities is essential work and gives the wider working class – ie not just those directly employed as workers, but the whole working class (which means workers’ families, beneficiaries and others) – an experience of their power. The working class is not the weak and vulnerable of society; it is the class which can transform the world! But only if it acts.
Fourthly, 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 building a real movement of socialist-republicans around a Connolly-type perspective for the twenty-first century. A movement which can go out and explain to workers that the current austerity policies are the logical consequence of capitalism, not some aberration; that the attacks on public sector workers are not in the interests of other workers; and, most of all, that a different world, a much better one, is possible, But only if workers fight for it.
To massive cheers, Louise concluded her March 2012 speech, “It’s time to organise, it’s time to fight back, it’s time for a revolution. As James Connolly famously said, ‘We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times’. These are exceptional times!”
Central to this strategy is the national question. And this is a key dividing line between socialist-republicans and gas-and-water socialists. The national question is not the issue of the border alone. The national question is all the issues that make up exploitation and oppression of the vast majority of people on the island. It encompasses a range of social, economic and political issues, for instance.
For Lalor the central aspect of the national question was the land issue; as a property-less class of peasants was replaced by a property-less of wage workers, the question of ownership of the wider means of production, distribution and exchange became central to the national question and remains so. Since these problems are all-Ireland problems there can be no ‘socialism in the south’ or ‘socialism in the six-county state’; issues such as austerity need to be fought on an all-Ireland, class basis. And the possibilities of doing this are opening up.
That’s the road to unity of the working class and unity of the island; it’s the road to liberation of the working class across the island and the complete national and social liberation of Ireland.
Posted on June 22, 2016, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Anti-household and anti-water tax, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, Elections, EU, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Fintan Lalor, General revolutionary history, Independent Workers Union, Irish politics today, James Connolly, Labour Party, national, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Repression in 26-county state, Revolutionary figures, six counties, Social conditions, Toadyism, Trade unions, twenty-six counties, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Workers and the way forward: a socialist-republican perspective.
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