Sunday, November 29, 2009

Masses force leaders to act

The difficulties faced by the Irish working class cannot be understated.

Public sector workers in Ireland displayed a grim determination to resist further cuts when they turned out in their thousands on November 24.

The strike saw nearly a quarter of a million workers come out throughout the country. Many private sector workers refused to cross picket lines. The only state employees not joining in were emergency staff in areas badly hit by floods, who had decided to defer their action. Otherwise the strike was extremely solid - unsurprising given the overwhelming ballot in favour in every union.

From prison officers to nurses to clerical officers, the organised working class was out in force. The gardai, who are prohibited from striking, sent a message of support to the unions and refused to undertake many normal duties, including guarding the Dáil. They also declined to work overtime. The support for the strike and sheer strength of numbers showed the possibilities.

The main hurdle now to overcome is the cowardice and complicity of the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. While setting a second strike day on December 3, Ictu simultaneously announced a return to talks with government and employers to try to avert that action. David Begg, Peter McLoone and other union tops have openly stated their commitment to rescuing Irish capitalism. McLoone, chair of Ictu’s private sector committee, has conceded that “temporary adjustments” need to be made. He agrees that the public sector wage bill should be cut by €1.3 billion - but without reducing wages. This translates into a loss of overtime and shift premiums, unpaid holidays and job cuts. Ictu’s Better, fairer way document sets out its alternative strategy - to extend the recovery period and implement the cuts more gently than planned by the government. Begg and others are now hoping the government has learned its lesson from the one-day strike and will be willing to play ball.

But taoiseach Brian Cowan has insisted that civil service employees will have their wages reduced - by at least 7%. He is “not for turning” and is adamant in his refusal to give in to pressure from the unions. His government has been warned by the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank that €4 billion of cuts have to be made on December 9, as a precursor to even more severe attacks in 2010.

It is expected that Ictu will give ground on wages and come back with something less than a 7% cut. But trade union members are under far too much pressure, as they struggle to cope on incomes already slashed by almost 10% thanks to pension and income levies. There was fury in March when Ictu called off a national strike of public and private sector workers in favour of new talks. They produced nothing at all and it is clear that nothing will be gained out of continuing ‘social partnership’. The only reason the November 24 strike went ahead was because of the mass pressure from below.

The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland - which has recently seen a damaging split based around most of what remains of its Belfast membership - has made some worthwhile, if limited, proposals. It has called for the formation of strike committees and for mass meetings leading up to a national demonstration on December 3. It also argues that unemployed and private sector workers should be drawn into the struggle. The Socialist Party agrees with the need for unity of the public and private sector and says that it stands “for the establishment of a new party to fight for a left/socialist government that would end the dictatorship of the capitalist market and instead plan the economy for the needs of people, not the profits of the few”.

Discussion continued between both groups and others at the SWP’s Marxism event last weekend. Deep-seated tensions were evident between the main protagonists, with little sighn of agreement beyond a possible commitment to work together on the December 3 demonstration. That is welcome, but hopefully it will be the start of a meaningful process which draws in others.

The difficulties faced by the Irish working class cannot be understated. The recent freak weather conditions have added to the economic stresses, causing social dislocation and homelessness. This has severely affected the rural community. But the sight of so many thousands taking action can only but give us tremendous hope. The raw material is there for the creation of a mass working class party but what is needed is a political programme for democracy in Ireland - curb the power and influence of the church and introduce the principles of secularism, a popular militia to replace the standing army, abolition of Seanad Éireann, the upper house of parliament, fight for a united Ireland with the right of self-determination for a British-Irish territory - and a strategy that links achieving this Ireland with the perspective of working class rule throughout the European Union.

For too long the left in Ireland has either mimicked the trade union bureaucracy or the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. Now is clearly the time for the politics of Marxism and working class independence.

Friday, November 20, 2009

SWP member & CWU president Jane Loftus sells out the postal strike

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).
Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action - that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week - had widespread support within the union” (November 14).
Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out - indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.
Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.
Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.
There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.
As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.
Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers - sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.
However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.
SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden - a Reesite Left Platform supporter - has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.
I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.
Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).
Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Working class responds to cuts

The huge scale of opposition throughout Ireland to government cuts was made crystal clear on November 6. Despite poor organisation by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions nearly 100,000 marched in protest in major towns and cities.
New forces were very much in evidence, as non-unionised workers, the unemployed and pensioners joined trade unionists in protests against the draconian attacks on pay, benefits and public services - to be intensified with the December 9 budget. Many middle class people are also up in arms against the government’s determination to make them too pay the billions needed to underwrite the National Asset Management Agency - its bail-out of finance capital.
The demonstrations were part of the ICTU-organised ‘Get up, stand up’ campaign. Another march took place on Wednesday November 11 and a national strike is planned for November 24. Ballots for strike action have received overwhelming support - with over 80% ‘yes’ votes received on turnouts of more than 70%. The mandate for action is unquestionable. So is the militancy. Public service workers are at the forefront of the dispute, being the most highly unionised and also being a central target of government cuts.
The 24/7 Frontline Alliance was formed in September to mount a united fightback and includes nurses, paramedics, firefighters and gardai (police). It also included servicemen and women until minister for defence Willie O’Dea warned them to withdrawal immediately. But defiantly soldiers have warned that they will not scab on any national strike. The alliance organised a militant demo of over 4,000 on November 11, with gardai marching in baseball caps displaying the official police insignia, as they were not allowed to wear their uniform. Angry speakers insisted on defiance of the government and assured marchers that no further cuts would be tolerated.
The raw material is certainly there for a major social movement. The depth of the crisis cannot be understated. Unemployment has now risen to 13% and many still in work are also in big difficulty, as wage cuts mean that mortgages and other debts cannot be paid. Public sector workers are facing job losses of between 7% and 15%, while social welfare, including child benefits, is also for the chop. Already charities like St Vincent de Paul have said they are unable to cope with the huge rise in demand for help. Many people have gone from being charity-givers to depending on handouts themselves.
The scale of the problem is immense. During the Celtic Tiger years people were actively encouraged to go into major debt. Housing prices were astronomically high, but credit was easy. Banks would phone mortgage holders enticing them to borrow still more - for a second house, a holiday of a lifetime, a new car: the sky’s the limit; you could have it all. Many were already living way beyond their means before the current recession hit. Now they are drowning in debt.
Unfortunately the problem remains lack of leadership. ICTU is not serious about fighting the cuts. More than that, it is actively undermining the militancy of those prepared to fight. It has a 10-point programme which openly accepts the need for “pain”. But rather than short, sharp shock treatment, general secretary David Begg proposes a “more gentle adjustment over a longer period”.
ICTU is therefore using its members’ militancy to pressurise the government into accepting a programme that is directly counterposed to the interests and the wishes of its members. Desperate to uphold ‘social partnership’, ICTU remains in talks with government about how best to cut €1.3 billion from public sector wages. This is despite the militant speeches of individual trade union leaders. Begg has promised that the strikes and protests can be avoided if agreement is reached on minimising the pain. Conflicting messages are being sent out and there are splits and divisions between unions.
Meanwhile the Irish government is hell-bent on squeezing the working class. Social welfare and pensions as well as wages will be slashed in the December budget. And now that union leaders are indicating their acceptance of some cuts, taoiseach Brian Cowan is upping the pressure even further. He has promised that the €4 billion-worth of savings to be made in the budget is only the beginning. Much more ‘sacrifice’ will be needed. By participating in the drive to save Irish capitalism, the ICTU leadership is shamelessly selling out the working class. An urgent challenge to this complicity is needed.
So the left has a major challenge to face. Although talk continues of electoral unity (or a non-aggression pact at any rate) between the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party’s People before Profit, nothing tangible has emerged. The SWP is calling for committees of action to be set up by public sector workers in the run-up to the November 24 strike. The Socialist Party has called on ICTU to turn it into a general strike. Meanwhile both groups continue to run their own separate campaigns.
A meeting on November 7 organised by the Irish Socialist Network and the magazine Fourthwrite to discuss left unity reflected both the possibilities and problems facing the left. Addressed by a number of speakers, including Chekhov Feeney of the Workers Solidarity Movement and Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union. One of the sessions was chaired by Mick O’Reilly, former Irish regional secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union. There were also contributions from Murray Smith of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and José Antonio Gutierrez, a Chilean activist.
The meeting heard about the crisis at the heart of global capitalism, whose effects are being felt particularly deeply in Ireland. From the floor comrades spoke of the frustration of forever fighting a losing battle against cuts. There was recognition of the potential. More than 50 people were present, from different traditions, including anarchists, republicans, Labour members and Marxists. There were obviously enormous differences and a lot of confusion. But all were there to discuss left unity and there was an expectation that a further initiative would be taken. However, none was, although it was called for from the floor. Mick O’Reilly said it would be “up to the organisers of the meeting”. Perhaps the discussions are being held behind closed doors and we will all be enlightened later.
It is not clear as to whether any invite went out to the SPI and the SWP to attend. Certainly any initiative around unity must try to involve these two left organisations. The need for a mass workers’ party based on Marxism received minority support. None at all from the platform speakers. Although the need to challenge social partnership was raised by members of Socialist Democracy (a group that originated in the northern-based Peoples Democracy and is now part of the Fourth International).
Hopefully this meeting is a spark for something more ambitious. Meanwhile those of us committed to the formation of a single revolutionary party will raise the need for it whenever we can. It is the only serious answer for a working class desperate for change. Workers can see with their own eyes that capitalism has failed. What they need now is inspiration, ideas and, above all, organisation.