Ireland: Public sector workers strike suspended... at what cost?

Thursday's planned public sector strike has been suspended after the government and the union leaders announced that a breakthrough had been made. The "agreement" means that some of the cost of wages would be offset by the workers taking "unpaid leave". As we pointed out on more than one occasion recently, the political and economic situation in the state is such that any agreement that has been reached on the basis of "social partnership" will inevitably mean cuts in worker's wages and increased work load and pressure on already stretched services. Effectively it means that the public sector is being put on short time.

As at 6.01 tonight everyone was being tight lipped as to just how much of the planned €1.3 billion worth of cuts will be covered by this proposal. But, it is likely that a sizeable chunk of unpaid leave is going to be forced on workers in the public sector. Here is the calculation: There are about 370,000 workers in the public sector in Ireland. That means that if the whole €1.3 billion was raised, it means €3,500 per person. Last year's slash and burn budget from Lenihan meant an additional burden of €837 per man, woman and child in the country. The truth is that this cut is potentially even bigger than that. Doubtless the whole amount won't be cut in this way. But any further cuts will be another disaster for workers.

In the real world - after the spin has been unravelled- this deal essentially means putting the Irish public sector workers onto short time working. The trade union leaders are preparing to sell the workers short in this situation. The experience of the strike last week and the demonstration on the 6th November is that the workers are prepared to stand up for themselves. There are sections of the trade union leadership who are determined to try and channel the workers anger in the direction of "social partnership". There are two reasons for this. In the first instance the trade union leadership are very aware of the economic situation, but they don't have a socialist perspective, far from it in many cases. On the other hand they are acutely aware of the fact that the mood among the working class means that they might be forced to go further than they are prepared to do.

The mass character of the opposition within the public sector to the cuts has been reflected in layers of workers coming into political and trade union activity for the first time. Under these conditions it is possible that over a period of time the right wing could begin to lose control of the movement if they fail to deliver. This agreement, the scale of which isn't yet clear will be portrayed as a victory and for sure it is not the worst possible deal that could have been struck. But it certainly is far from the best. How much are the bosses paying for the crisis? How will this agreement help workers? Somewhere between one in 4 and one in 6 families in Ireland probably have a public sector worker in them. That means big cuts in wages. It will further cut the market for Irish goods, reduce tax revenue and further impoverish the government. It's a short term measure that reflects the crisis.

For active trade unionists in Ireland this deal looks to represent a desparate attempt by the government and the right wing of the unions, neither of whom want the entire working class in the public sector breathing down their necks. The deal won't solve anything in the long run and is likely to be followed up by more cuts and more levies, more uncertainty, more attacks from the bourgeoisie and their mouthpieces in the press and the media. Ultimately, had the strike not taken place last week this deal wouldn't have happened. It shows that the government have been forced to change tack from the wage cuts and job losses they have been advocating. Doubtless many workers will see the calling off of the strike as a sell out by the leadership. Some will question the role of McLoone and David Begg and a minority will look towards the ideas of marxism and of socialism for an explanation of the events taking place in Ireland today. It's our ambition to provide an answer.

December 1, 2009

Source: Fightback