Ireland: Bus Éireann dispute – explosive anger a harbinger of the class struggle to come

After Bus Éireann, a subsidiary of Ireland’s state-owned public transport operator (CIÉ) responsible for bus travel outside of Dublin, announced a swathe of attacks against workers and bus services, the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) declared an all-out strike effective from midnight on 23rd March. The bus drivers have reacted to these attacks with fierce militancy. This struggle is a clear indication of the growing discontent and class anger building up across Ireland.  As cracks open up in the Fine Gael-led coalition government over everything from water charges to police corruption, it is clear that this weak and divided government can be brought down.

Fierce class struggle

The dispute began with the publication in September 2016 of a report drawn up by management, which outlined that the company faced imminent insolvency unless "cost saving" measures were introduced. Cuts outlined included winding up the Expressway service, attacks on pay and overtime, voluntary redundancies, and the implementation of intrusive "fuel efficiency" technology. The workers at Bus Éireann correctly identified these measures as a softening-up exercise in preparation for privatisation.

The statements of the unions indicated that their leaders were initially prepared to accept the logic of the bosses that some cuts were necessary, including cuts to salaries and job losses. However, the bosses proved utterly intransigent in the negotiations. Their attitude suggested a well-prepared assault, with management seeking a showdown with the workers and unions.

Despite attempts to hold back the anger of members, the unions have had no choice but to act. In the words of Dermot O’Leary, General Secretary of NBRU, it was, “becoming increasingly clear that the continuous buildup of frustration and pressure among our members is reaching volcanic proportions...” (our emphasis) At midnight on 23rd March the drivers were called out on an indefinite strike.

Bosses intransigent

Since the outbreak of strike action, the bosses and the Fine Gael-led government have made it abundantly clear that they intend to deal a harsh blow to the workers. Two days after the beginning of the strike, management at Bus Éireann declared that mounting losses (after just 2 days of action?) now mean that voluntary redundancies are off the table: the workers will face compulsory redundancies instead. Meanwhile Transport Minister Shane Ross has refused to step in to resolve the dispute.

The reactionary boss of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, clearly expressed the thinking of the Irish bosses when he showered praises on Ross for his handling of the dispute, claiming that he has “played a blinder” and that this was a welcome break from previous governments, which had been too eager to “open the chequebook” to buy social peace.

The point is that after years of attacks, austerity cuts and a squeeze on living standards, we are reaching the point in Ireland where workers have passed the limit of what they can take and yet it is still not enough for the bosses. The stage is set for an open outbreak of class struggle. The bosses are aware of this fact and have shown their determination at Bus Éireann to deal a pre-emptive blow.

Workers rediscover class struggle methods

The response of the bus drivers however has demonstrated a tremendous class instinct. It has also highlighted all of the dangers that the ruling class face in going on the offensive: Ireland has become a tinder box. At 4am on the morning of 31st March, workers began arriving in Dublin to picket stations of Dublin Bus and Irish Rail, subsidiaries of CIÉ that are not directly affected by this dispute. However, the workers in these companies fully understand that the bosses' offensive against Bus Éireann today will turn against them tomorrow. Pickets were met by a solid display of class solidarity and by early morning Ireland was effectively in the grip of a wildcat public transport general strike!

The bosses reacted to such a display of working class strength with uncontained fury. Rivers of ink have been spilt by capitalist commentators denouncing "union blackmail" etc., etc. Meanwhile, the union leaders, who see their role in "normal" times of peaceful development as being that of mediator and maintainer of industrial peace, were aghast at the developing situation. In the words of Dermot O’Leary: "Compulsorily laying off staff will open a completely different and potentially uncontrollable dimension to this dispute, and will present severe difficulties in trying to maintain the already fragile industrial peace." (our emphasis.)

The leaders of NBRU object to accusations that it was they who organised this illegal secondary action. Rather they explain that it was the workers themselves, organising through social media. The objections of the union leaders have been met with indifference by the bosses who have made clear that they intend to make the NBRU pay all losses incurred as a result of sympathetic action. The bosses fully expect the union leaders to play the role of policeman in the working class. If they fail to do so, they will pay the price.

The bus drivers have shown the real way to defeat the bosses. The tactics of sympathetic strike action were precisely the class struggle methods employed by Connolly and Larkin's ITGWU in the early part of the 20th Century. It was these methods that struck the fear of God into the hearts of the Irish capitalist class and over the use of which the workers of Dublin were locked out in 1913. It is these methods - the methods of revolutionary, class struggle trade unionism - rather than class collaboration, that must and are being rediscovered today.

A general mood

The struggle of the Bus Éireann workers is but one symptom of a tremendous pressure that is building up within the Irish working class, one that is being expressed through various avenues from strikes to water charge protests. Reflecting the groundswell of pressure from the ranks, the government were warned at the recent conference of CPSU, the public sector union, to expect coordinated public sector strike action if it fails to offer decent pay increases in upcoming negotiations.

The period of meaningful reforms and improvements in the living standards of the working class is long over and as such nothing can be expected from such negotiations. In this new period of counter-reforms and austerity, the ruling class intends to force workers to accept permanently lower standards of living. For the government there can be no question of concessions.

The exception too proves the rule. Where they have appeared to make concessions - with the generous pay rises to the Garda (police force) for instance - the same logic applies. It is the very fact that the ruling class anticipates social unrest; and therefore also the need to employ the armed bodies of the state against workers; that requires them to buy the loyalty of the gardaí with fat pay rises.

This has not however prevented nursing unions, for instance, from quite reasonably asking, "if pay rises can be afforded for gardaí, why not also for us?" and putting in a quite modest claim for a 12% pay rise. The money is there; workers are no longer prepared to believe that the "emergency" austerity measures are a matter of necessity; the question is merely, in whose pockets does this money reside?

With this mood bubbling up in society it therefore becomes imperative for the ruling class that they deal a harsh blow against one section of workers or other. Bus Éireann have been singled out. For the working class it is just as imperative that this assault is defeated.

Fear of revolution

In any offensive against the working class in the coming period, the bosses face extreme dangers; not least of setting off a general conflagration. As was ominously reported in a recent opinion piece in the highest circulation capitalist paper in Ireland, the “Independent”, all the conditions for such a situation are being prepared:

"...no one believes in anything anymore. Only one third of us trust the Government. Nearly two-thirds of people believe the system has failed them, with just one-in-seven people believing the system is working properly. Most people don't trust business. Trust in CEOs is plummeting. Indeed, with only a quarter of people now trusting CEOs, they are down there with government officials."

In conclusion, the article reveals the real fear of the ruling class: nature abhors a vacuum, so people have to be made to buy in to this system and its institutions otherwise, who knows what they will buy into?

"Trust is probably the most important commodity in the world right now. And buying into the system, to institutions and to government is what will ultimately save us from ourselves. Of course, we should have a healthy scepticism about institutions but if we reject everything, then something else will move in to fill the vacuum, as we are seeing in some parts of the world." ("Everything is broken and you can trust me on that", Sunday Independent, 2/4/2017)

To be more explicit: it is clear what the Irish bosses really fear; they fear revolutionary upheaval.

A fragile government

Furthermore, the current government is in an extremely weak position. First Fianna Fáil and then Fine Gael-led coalitions have, since 2008, carried out brutal programmes of austerity. In so doing they have exposed themselves as little more than two wings of the same capitalist class. In 2007 these two main parties held 68.9% of the vote cast. That figure has fallen to 49.8% in 2016. With the shattering of their former coalition partners an unprecedented situation has come about where Fine Gael are forced to rest on support from their erstwhile enemies in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil, merely to govern. If any doubt existed that these two parties are merely tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, it has surely evaporated by now.

After barely a year this coalition is tearing at the seams. A whole series of divisions are beginning to open up. The latest twist in the endless series of crises engulfing the Garda highlights the contradictory position of Fianna Fáil. After the revelation that the Garda simply invented 500,000 breathalyser tests and incorrectly issued tens of thousands of court summonses to hit targets, the Commissioner Noírín O'Sullivan has outright refused to bend to demands for her resignation. Whilst parties such as Sinn Féin have called upon her to resign and Fine Gael have stood resolutely behind her, Fianna Fáil have tried to occupy an intermediate position. They publicly declare that they have no confidence in her but meanwhile refuse to back a vote of no confidence in the Dáil!

Over the question of introducing water charges too (an issue which has brought thousands to the streets in recent years) Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are increasingly finding themselves at loggerheads. These splits between these two parties of the ruling class reveal the impossible position of the bosses’ parties. To admit defeat on water charges will embolden the working class to struggle for more; to push ahead with charges will only intensify anger and call forth an even bigger movement. Both options will lead down the same road. Heightened class struggle is unavoidable.

Under these conditions all talk is of a new election becoming inevitable. It is in the interests of the working class to hasten the downfall of this anti-working class government. The Bus Éireann workers have shown the tremendous potential that exists in the organised working class. As Marxists have always said: not a wheel turns, not a lightbulb shines without the kind permission of the working class.

The leaders of all the transport unions must now place themselves at the forefront of efforts to extend sympathetic action, beginning with an official public transport general strike. However, as we have made clear, the workers of Ireland share a common interest in seeing the government defeated in this dispute. It is up to the ITUC and the big unions to go into every workplace and every union branch and explain the real significance of this dispute, how the attacks on the Bus Éireann workers flows from the logic of capitalist crisis, and the need for a revolutionary, socialist alternative. On this basis the groundwork can be laid for a political one day general strike. Such a campaign can raise the working class to its feet and begin to seriously pose the task of bringing down this government and building a socialist alternative.