Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ireland: Trade Union meeting in Dublin

Report from Finn Geaney
Member of Teachers Union of Ireland and the Irish Labor Party

Sometimes we need the invigorating blasts of fresh air from an enlivened trade union movement, when the often dark and stuffy atmosphere of polemic is dissipated and doors are thrown open by surges of activity from outside.

Yesterday a meeting attended by around 250 union members was held in a Dublin hotel for the purpose of discussing a strategy to defeat the Government’s proposals for cuts in public service provision and the pay of public service workers. The meeting had been called by branches of the Teachers Union of Ireland, including my own branch where a number of discussions have already been held on this issue. On the platform were representatives of the four teaching unions, the nurses’ unions and the union representing management grades in the Irish police service (Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors). Similar meetings have been organised by other trade union groups in the recent past. This process represents a major fight by organised labour against the policies and plans of Ireland’s right-wing Government, a united front of trade unionists fighting the cuts and presenting an alternative. Furthermore what is now developing is a significant challenge to the union bureaucracy in Ireland.

The origins of the present situation are in attempts to savage the wages and conditions of public service workers that have been going on now for nearly five years. The most recent attacks are encapsulated in an agreement worked out between the Government and Irish Congress of Trade Union (ICTU) bureaucrats, one year before the terms of a deal done in 2010 deal were to run out. The Government sought one billion euro in cuts from the pay of workers in the public service and called in the national trade union bureaucrats from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to assist them in this, which of course they promptly did. The Government got agreement on exactly what they wanted, one billion in pay cuts. This betrayal has become known as ‘Croke Park 2’, so-called because of the location of the talks between the Government and the union bureaucrats.

There can be few clearer illustrations of what Marx meant when in 1851 he wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce; of course a major point of difference in this regard is that this episode does not involve ‘great personages’ but rather petty bureaucrats. One of the speakers at the trade union rally in Dublin yesterday said that if ever he was to be kidnapped he did not want the ICTU to become involved in any negotiations about his release!

The outcome of the betrayal has yet to be voted upon by the members of the unions involved, over three hundred thousand workers. Already a number of National Executive Committees have recommended a ‘No’ vote. Following a discussion on its National Executive, where the vote was seventeen to one against, my own trade union, the Teachers Union of Ireland has recommended rejection of the ‘deal’. Other unions representing nurses, lower-paid civil servants, prison officers, police, firemen and craft workers have also called for rejection. If a majority of public service workers vote against ‘Croke Park 2’ this will represent a major defeat for the Government. More importantly it will restore confidence in the organised labour movement in this country and will be a significant kick in the teeth for the overpaid union officials who form a dense, infectious crust around organised labour.

Clearly there are major issues confronting organised labour in this country. Even those unions that vote ‘No’ can be over-ruled if a majority of public sector unions accept the terms. The Government have devoted much energy to creating divisions within the trade union movement: public sector workers versus those employed by private companies, higher-paid public servants versus lower-paid, ‘frontline’ public servants who rely on 24-hour, 7-day arrangements versus those on the traditional working day. And union bureaucrats, unable to provide any way forward, have colluded in fomenting these divisions.

There is a long and difficult battle ahead, firstly to secure rejection by union members of the new sell-out, and following that to prevent the bureaucrats from returning to talks in search of ‘sweeteners’ that they can then bring back to the members in an endeavour to secure acceptance a second time around. This happened before. In 2010 an agreement was made between the union bureaucracy and the previous government, which some unions rejected. After much to-ing and fro-ing a deal was accepted. As part of the campaign against the ‘Croke Park 1’ deal in 2010 I challenged the President of the Teachers Union of Ireland in an election. I won 20% of the vote of the members. The sitting President and the National Executive voted initially against the ‘Croke Park 1’ proposals in an endeavour to undermine my campaign. No sooner was the union election over that she and her bureaucrats went back into talks with the Government and, after much manoeuvring and trickery, eventually secured acceptance of a slightly amended set of proposals. She lost a lot of support then, and that lesson has not been lost on the current National Executive Committee of the TUI.

The Government have said that they will bring in legislation to cut the pay of all public service workers if this ‘deal’ is rejected. This is easier said than done; an attempt to cut pay through the mechanism of a vote in parliament after a majority of workers in the country have expressed opposition to such a measure would be vigorously resisted. And while the leaders of the Irish Labour Party in the Coalition Government have been making a lot of noise about how they support the proposals in ‘Croke Park 2’, and their readiness to introduce legislation to enforce pay cuts by law should they deem such to be necessary, in fact would be unable to proceed in the way that they threaten. For one, the major unions are affiliated to the Irish Labour Party and provide much of its funding and support at election time. This Government, already weakened by the economic crisis, and very unpopular because of its continuing attacks on living standards through cuts and unfair taxes, will not want to face a generalised strike movement.

Events have a habit of surprising revolutionaries. When revolution broke out over Europe in 1848 Marx and Engels were surprised at its suddenness and its rapid escalation. They had been urging support in a number of European countries for the ideas contained in the Communist Manifesto and were advocating the overthrow of the ancien régime. Starting in February in Palermo in Sicily where there was widespread economic distress, the revolutionary movement spread quickly to France, Denmark, Hungary, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Czechoslovakia and much of Italy. In June of that year the workers of Paris, where revolutionary traditions had taken deep root, rose up against the Government but were subsequently slaughtered in huge numbers by the bourgeois republicans. By the time that Louis Bonaparte took power in 1851, balancing between the bourgeoisie and the workers, France was being ruled by what Engels called “a gang of political and financial adventurers”.

There will be further meetings of trade unionists like that in Dublin's Gresham Hotel yesterday, as organised workers attempt to hammer out a strategy to defeat the savage measures of this government. A group of supporters of the French rugby team were staying in the same hotel. Allez La France, they greeted. Unfortunately that game ended in a draw.

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