Ireland: One hand tied behind their back

While many active trade unionists across the country will be pleased to hear that IMPACT and SIPTU among others are planning to escalate the wave of partial actions across the public sector, and that they will be pushing for escalation at the ICTU meeting on March 8th; at the same time they will be acutely aware of the need to demonstrate to their members that the action is having an affect on the government. We welcome Jack O’Connor’s remarks that workers need to be prepared to escalate the action, but we also recognise that the responsibility for coordinating the action and providing a national focus to the campaign lies firmly in the hands of the ICTU leaders.

We have made the point recently that a trade union struggle needs to have clear aims and needs to involve the members at every stage. The task of turning back Cowen and Lenihan’s assault on the public sector workforce is a difficult one. The past year has revealed a big shift in the industrial situation. The government is in freefall, the FF leaders realise the game is up and in the style of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher they have determined that the workers have to pay for the crisis and they’ve launched a one sided civil was against the working class. The Irish working class have demonstrated that they have the capacity to struggle and in huge numbers at that. We shouldn’t forget the scale of the votes in favour of strike action that came in throughout November, which were all over 70 and 80% in favour.

But at every stage it’s been the leaders who have prevaricated. The over reliance on the idea of social partnership; of somehow sharing out the spoils from the bosses’ table has proven to be utterly illusory in the depths of the crisis. The extent of the crisis affecting Ireland determines the psychology of both the Bourgeois and the government. Enormous pressure has been brought to bear on the workers and particularly by the bosses against the public sector workers. This pressure has been reflected in the vacillations of the union leadership. They called off the March 30th strike and called off the action in December after the strike day. Throughout the whole year, the leadership has been camped outside Leinster House desperate to be allowed in for a polite chat.

But for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, a polite chat won’t pay the bills or feed the children. There are serious limits to what partial action and negotiation can achieve. The only way in which the FF and Green Party coalition will be forced to back track on the pay cuts will be through the coordinated mass action of the working class. The partial action taking place at the moment will only have a partial effect, it needs to be escalated and generalised if it is going to win. For sure, there will have to be talks at some point. But the unions need to win a position of strength. The boom years enormously strengthened the working class in Ireland, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t assure victory. This is a struggle of living forces and the role of leadership is crucial.

Many activists will be critical of the role of the leadership and it’s important that a fighting alternative is posed. We need to fight for greater democracy in the unions and for a leadership worthy of the members. Without that the Irish workers are fighting Cowen and Lenihan with one hand tied behind their back.

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