Ireland: Public sector strikes begin - ICTU needs a clear strategy

The trade union campaign against the wage cuts announced in Lenihan’s December budget will begin to escalate over the next few weeks as different groups of workers across the public sector take action in what is being portrayed as an ongoing campaign of selective action. Today the air traffic controllers are coming out, which will have a dramatic and very public effect on air travel. It’s likely that the workers concerned in the various selective actions will receive strike fund support in many cases and as such the campaign could continue for a considerable time. But what is the underlying situation and what are the issues for the movement?

The majority of workers will support the ongoing campaign, after all what choice do they have when the government are after taking €1,000s from each of them? The mood that developed in the run up to the November day of action an the November 24th strike was overwhelmingly in favour of a fighting campaign against the cuts. It’s likely that many of the trade union leaders; wedded as they are to the hopelessly outdated policy of social partnership, were forced to go further than they intended. They have been under enormous pressure from the workers on the one hand, while on the other side there has been a relentless campaign of lies and a blatant attempt to try and divide the private sector workers from their brothers and sisters, husbands, wives, friends, parents and children working in the public sector. Of course when the FF leaders talk about the private sector, they really mean the bosses. Private sector means capitalist class in the doublespeak in the Sunday Business Post and the rest of the bourgeois press.

The willingness of the trade union leaders to call off the December strike at the faintest sniff of some talks with the government indicates a number of things; firstly how far from reality the trade union leaders have drifted, but also how scared sections of them are about the militancy of the working class. For sure, it can be an easy life when everything’s going well, as appeared to be the case in the boom years. But now that has turned sharply into its opposite. It cannot be a coincidence that Peter McLoone General Secretary of IMPACT has chosen this moment to stand down – although he had been due to retire in a few months when he hits 60.

As the Irish Independent explains:

“A SENIOR union leader who saw social partnership go from boom to bust is set to retire.

Peter McLoone will step down from his position as general secretary of the country's largest public sector union, Impact, this summer.

Just before the Budget, he almost persuaded the Taoiseach to embrace a controversial plan to avoid a €1bn public sector pay cut.

In his role as chairman of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions' Public Services Committee, he advocated that public servants get two weeks' unpaid leave rather than take a pay cut.

The proposal was initially backed by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, but was dramatically rejected just days before the Budget.

Mr McLoone was also in the spotlight as chairman of the FAS board, which resigned following allegations of excessive spending at the employment agency.”

“The union leader has been described as a 'high priest' of social partnership over the last two decades.

He is still expected to play a role in the union movement's strategy following the collapse of the process before Christmas.”

As Fightback has pointed out however, it would take a sight more than a high priest to negotiate anything meaningful with a FF government that has more or less decided that they have nothing to lose. As we’ve also explained consistently over the past period; the only force that can defeat the plans drawn up by Lenihan and Cowen is the mass action of the working class. The coalition is in serious trouble and it’s obvious that many in the government have decided that they have no alternative but to take on the workers, after all why not be hung for a sheep as a goat? They know they will be slaughtered at the next election.

With that in mind how does a campaign of selective action stack up? The biggest risk in a trade union struggle is loss of momentum and disillusionment, selective action can be very effective, especially in organisations reliant on “just in time” production methods. It’s a bit different in the Public Sector although some groups of workers have a lot more industrial muscle than others, the Air traffic controllers being a case in point. The American Bourgeois went as far as locking them in irons and dragging them off the premises. Things aren’t at that point in Ireland at the moment, but the fact that the employers in the docks were willing to employ ex British Special Forces troops as security guards means that the stakes are high.

A small group of workers engaged in selective action needs to feel the support of the entire work force and that means all out action and regular meetings, rallies and above all a leadership that knows what its doing not only at branch and shop level, but crucially at a national level. Selective action has to be backed up by the threat of all out action. The bosses will be readying themselves to use whatever legal, political and social weapons they can to stop the strikes from succeeding.

There must be a clear call to workers in the private sector and a clear explanation of the reasons behind the actions. It’s obvious that the attack on the public sector is a precursor to an assault on the private sector. Many workers have already been forced to take cuts and to go on short time. Last summer sections of the Electrical Contractors Employers made it quite plain that they were after breaking apart the REA in the industry which would be a green light for wage cuts on a vast scale. The public sector trade unions represent a big obstacle to the bosses. If they can get away with defeating the public sector unions then other layers are much more exposed.

Crucial in all of this is leadership. This isn’t the time for High Priests of Social Partnership, their day is long gone. The Irish trade unions need a fighting socialist leadership committed to mass action to defeat all the cuts and the levies. The role of Marxism has to be to patiently explain the alternative. The trade union and Labour organisations will be transformed time and time again, there is a clear reason for that; there is no other choice open to them.

Source: Fightback