Thursday, March 26, 2009

Strike off but struggle continues

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has called off the national strike planned for March 30 despite massive support. ICTU has instead decided to accept the invitation of taoiseach Brian Cowen to re-enter talks with government and employers for a ‘programme of national recovery’.

General secretary David Begg is no doubt relieved that his proposals for talks have finally been accepted. He had been pressing the government to adopt his ‘10-point programme’ since the strike was announced on February 21 following tremendous pressure from below and a massive 120,000-strong demonstration in Dublin. ICTU knew it had to act to show opposition to the deeply unpopular pension levy.

However, from the beginning it was clear that the plan was to use working class militancy as a lever back into negotiations. It was a stick to beat the government for causing the previous talks to break down. Equally, that the government did back down shows that it felt aware of the intensity of anger among the working class. Cowen feared not only the prospect of the entire country, including airports, closing down, but that of yet more thousands taking to the streets. Begg has now admitted that talks to avoid all this were actually taking place behind the scenes.

Once the strike was announced, we were all in the dark as to what the plans were for the day. The ICTU website was completely devoid of any information regarding March 30. Nobody knew what was going on - except, of course, those involved in backroom discussion. You would not be criticised for thinking that the ICTU leadership never actually meant the action to go ahead.

Despite this and the absence of any mobilisation campaign, the ballots on the whole were very solidly for industrial action. The Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union, the largest craft union, voted 80% in favour, while the main teachers’ union, INTO, voted by 79% for action. This kind of response was reflected throughout the unionised workforce. Impact, the country’s largest public sector union, was just 1% short of the 66% required for a strike under its undemocratic two-thirds majority rule. There were in fact reports that not all members had been balloted. Despite all of the confusion and pressure, however, it was clear that Impact members would not want to cross picket lines. March 30 - or M30, as it became known - promised a very strong showing of working class opposition, something the government did not want. And their loyal allies in the trade union bureaucracy helped them to avoid that reality.

But the crisis is by no means over. A draconian budget aimed at raising at least €4.5 billion is to be announced on April 7. This will include front-line cuts in the already badly stretched health service. Taxation will be introduced for those on low incomes, and welfare benefits are also due to be cut. ICTU says it wants to be in on discussions so as to protect ‘the most vulnerable’. But Begg and other union leaders also tell us that the working class, including the most vulnerable, will have to accept their share of the pain.

The response of workers to the March 25 announcement that the strike is off will be interesting. Many will feel sold out. A place around the table to agree cuts and levies is not much help to those struggling to make ends meet, with the new pension levy already in place. There may be some unofficial action or lunchtime protests. Workers are well aware that the need for struggle has not gone away.

Indefinite strike action by bus workers in Dublin is to begin on March 30. They had also been to the labour court for talks with employers, but these broke down. The government cannot provide any succour for those looking for less pain. Irish capitalism is in big trouble.

The media over recent weeks shifted attention from ‘fat cats’ in the banking sector to those selfish workers intending to strike. Tremendous pressure has been applied for everyone to pull together in the national interest. Waterford Glass workers, lacking support from ICTU, reached a deal this week and, having been forced to compromise, will see the plant close.

This episode has shown a clear need for unity from below. The trade union bureaucracy cannot be given sole responsibility for conducting the struggle. They are bound to sell out, particularly as they are so desperate to get back into social partnership. We need to create a rank and file within the unions that can coordinate action. One of the problems is that there are far too many different unions, especially in the public service.

We also need to struggle for democracy within them, for all discussions between ICTU and government to be fully reported, for ballots to be won and lost on a simple majority, not prohibitive quotas. We also need to look to coordinate action locally and involve non-unionised workers.

But, most of all, we on the left need to look to ourselves as communists and socialists, and begin serious discussions now aimed at the building of a single revolutionary party. The situation is crying out for a genuine working class alternative and we must not waste this opportunity to demonstrate that only Marxism can provide real answers.

No party represented in the Dáil supported the March 30 strike. The working class needs its own political voice.

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