Ireland: Brian Cowen and the “Foghorns of Negativity”

The next few weeks will be very important for the trade union movement in Ireland; either the Public Service Agreement will be rejected and the trade union leaders will be forced into organising action, or the government will get away with yet another attack on living standards and working conditions.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen thinks that the public sector workers should “ignore the foghorns of negativity” because he considers the Public Service Agreement as a “win-win agreement for Ireland”, and it is no surprise that he thinks that. Throughout the whole of the economic crisis and the whole of the debate over what to do about it, Brian Cowen and his henchman Lenihan, together with all the so called “thoroughbreds” in the Fianna Fáil, have unanimously stood for the interests of the bosses and the bankers. In their thinking, under all and every circumstance it is the working class who must be made to pay for the crisis.

So with that in mind, what is different about the Public Sector Agreement? Why does it differ from anything else they have produced? The answer to that is in reality that it is more of the same. All the fine words about no more pay cuts have to be seen against a background of slash and burn economics, pension levies and existing wage cuts. Lurking in the background is the threat of a double dip recession internationally and of huge instability in the Euro zone, spreading out from the financial and political earthquake in Greece. Then there’s the black hole of NAMA and the threat raised by the Bord Snip report, not to mention the experience of the last few budgets.

With all these factors in mind, it is hardly a leap of logic for workers in the public sector to see through the headlines of the PSA and to see it as just another attack, this time on conditions as part of a so called strategy of modernisation. The majority of the unions have rejected the deal and even where there has been agreement as in the case of INTO, the vote in favour was paper thin. ICTU must take the lead and reject the deal out of hand. The Public sector workers have already been forced to take huge cuts and this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Central to the situation however is the reliance of the ICTU leaders on the principle of so called “Social Partnership”. We have explained on several occasions that while this approach gave the impression of progress during the Celtic Tiger years at a time when the bosses were gorging on huge profits and they were prepared to let the workers have a few crumbs, in conditions of a deep recession with a huge deficit “Social Partnership” is a fiction that will continually break down under pressure from the bosses on the one side and the working class on the other. Only the trade union leaders seem to have any real faith in it.

But there is a big problem here for the ICTU leaders. The trade union leaders have to take the workers with them or they stand to lose control of the movement. Time and again over the past year or more the workers have demonstrated their willingness to struggle and to defend themselves in the face of a one-sided assault by the government. The FF and the Greens have nowhere to go. They are being pushed along the Thatcherite line that the British Bourgeois went down in the 1980s. They see no alternative but to make the workers pay. The situation in Greece and the reaction of the bourgeois is an illustration of what is to come.

The vacillation, prevarication and dithering of the ICTU leaders over the last year has held the movement back in Ireland, at every chance they have sought to come to an agreement – but every time the government has pulled the rug from under their feet. This time, however, it is likely that the members will be the ones that throw the deal out. David Begg is no doubt desperate to pull the Public Service Agreement out of the fire and it is clear that Peter McLoone is trying to overturn the decision of IMPACT to oppose the agreement. As the Sunday Business Post explained on 25/4/10:

“The Impact executive will discuss the deal at its meeting next week. At that stage, it could decide to withdraw its recommendation to reject the deal.

“Informed sources said it was unlikely that the union’s executive would reverse its position and recommend a Yes vote, but it may choose to adopt a neutral position. This would allow senior executives and Impact negotiators to explain to members that they do not believe a better deal is possible.”

And also:

“Impact was traditionally seen as one of the most pro partnership unions and its general secretary, Peter McLoone, was one of the chief architects of the Croke Park deal. The union’s rejection of the deal two weeks ago was a shock to government and other unions alike.”

The next few weeks will be very important for the trade union movement in Ireland; either the deal will be rejected and the trade union leaders will be forced into organising action, or the government will get away with yet another attack on living standards and working conditions.

The trade unions were formed to fight to defend the working class. They are needed now perhaps more than ever in the history of the state. With that in mind, it is highly ironic that Brian Cowen sought to use his speech at the FF Easter commemoration to make a call for the workers to accept the Public Sector Agreement. The ideas of James Connolly were fundamental in developing trade unionism and Socialism on this island and doubtless he would have had something to say about the antics of the ICTU leaders. But he would have been very clear in condemning those responsible for the economic crisis in Ireland, the Irish, US and British bourgeois the same people who are pulling Cowen and Lenihan’s strings.