Created on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 14:35 Written by Seamus Loughlin
The Irish economy is predicted to crash this year. It’s set to contract by 9.2%. To put this into perspective, the growth rates during the years of the Celtic Tiger were about 6%. So these figures are the equivalent of turning the clock back economically by almost two years. The Economic and Social Research Unit are predicting unemployment will spiral to 17 %next year. 300,000 jobs will disappear and living standards will fall to 15% lower than in 2007.
All the factors that strengthened the hand of Fianna Fáil during the boom times have turned into their opposite. But it’s not a simple adjustment. It’s more like taking an axe to the economy, and who suffers? Why the workers of course. Unemployment now stands at 388,600 and is rising rapidly. The polls show Cowen heading for the rocks in the European elections. The bourgeoisie are facing a huge wave of opposition.
The change has been rapid and far reaching. You can’t turn on the radio, watch TV or open a newspaper without seeing the depth of the crisis. Two weeks ago in Tralee the Amman Textile company announced it would close with the loss of 250 jobs. It was the last big factory in the area. The press are reporting that Ireland is facing the biggest crash of any western Industrialised economy since 1929. This is a disaster for the Irish working class. It will inevitably have huge political repercussions.
Trotsky explained that big events tend to generate their own logic, but which is rooted in the events of the past period. In Ireland the boom years from 1995 – 2007 are still the decisive factor at this stage. They transformed the country, but they also transformed the psychology of all the classes in society.
Some on the left in Ireland have raised the perspective that the depth of the slump will cut across the workers movement. But this isn’t an automatic process. A series of defeats could have an effect. But far more important in this equation is the question of leadership, prevarication and wishful thinking; in other words relying on ‘social partnership’ in a deep slump, will sooner or later have an effect also.
But the Irish working class was immeasurably strengthened during the boom years. There is plenty of pressure from below. The trade union leaders are being pushed much further than they would regard as healthy. At the moment it seems that the movement of the class is continuing to develop.
Slumps don’t necessarily cause radicalisation, but uncertainty and the rapid move from boom to slump can generate enormous questioning. Many workers were angry about the decision of the ICTU leadership to call off the March 30th strike and some have been forced to bypass the official structures.
An example of this was the recent three day unofficial strike at Dublin Bus. The strike, which was very effective, was in response to the suspension of one driver who refused to work new rosters. The 450 drivers at the Harristown depot immediately struck in sympathy. Pickets from the depot then picketed out the Clontarf, Coyningham and Summerhill depots.
An example of the mood in the public sector is the attitude of the teachers. There is a growing mood of militancy among teachers, who are facing an €80 million cut in education spending as these press reports from the INTO, ASTI and TUI Conferences show:
“Primary school teachers are to call on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to hold a day of action before June to defend public services and jobs.
“Earlier, there was a frosty reception for Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe from teachers at the Conference. The Minister was greeted with silence as he arrived and his speech was punctuated by loud moans and derisive laughter at times. Around 30 delegates walked out, others held up posters highlighting some the issues that have provoked their anger - the pensions levy, the lost of teaching posts and the abolition of special needs classes. When the Minister ended, there was only applause from the front row of invited guests…
“Later, delegates gave a standing ovation to INTO General Secretary John Carr when he spoke of the bitter resentment felt by teachers as their pockets were picked to bail-out bankers, speculators and developers. To loud and frequent applause, Mr Carr said children were paying the price for a few capitalist criminals.
“Last night, INTO President Declan Kelleher accused the Government of being dictated to by the employers' group IBEC and the right-wing at the expense of ordinary workers…Yesterday evening, Mr Kelleher got a standing ovation when he warned 'the Government would reap its reward'.
“He said teachers were prepared to pay their fair share but, in the meantime, the rich were getting off scot-free.” (RTE 14th April)
“Delegates at the Teachers' Union of Ireland conference in Cork have voted unanimously to have strikes as one of the options they might take as part of their campaign of opposition to cutbacks. ….in the event of cuts in the agreed timetabling allowances in the IT sector, branches concerned will immediately conduct a ballot for industrial action.” (RTE 14th April)
"A private session of the ASTI convention in Killarney voted massively for ‘a strategy of opposition up to and including strike action’.
“On Wednesday, delegates forced the union's standing committee to reconsider its emergency motion on the basis that it did little more than 'deplore' the levy. The committee decided to broaden the motion to condemn the education cuts, the subsequent job losses. It also condemned the ‘draconian and inequitable pension levy’, calling for its abolition.”
“More than 60 speakers took to the podium, denouncing the cuts and the pensions levy in a debate that went on for more than two and a half hours.
“ASTI general secretary John White said that in his long experience in the union he had never seen such ‘seething anger’.
“Some delegates felt the motion was still not tough enough and wanted it amended. Last night, they were considering organising signatures to force an executive meeting to press for stronger action.” (Irish Independent 17th April.)
Despite the cancellation of the March 30th action, the budget has hardened the mood in some sectors. Doubling pension levies brought in mere months beforehand, even extending taxation to those on the minimum wage and at the same time slashing public services - essentially this is a recipe for class conflict under the present conditions. Yet the leadership of the trade unions still appear to be placing their faith in ‘social partnership’. As Martin Frawley explained in People Management magazine:
“The key battleground in the forthcoming talks will concern jobs and pay, or, more accurately, pay cuts and freezes among staff that have been most exposed to the recession.”
On pay, the unions said that the existing pay agreement made in September, which provides for a rise of 6 per cent over 21 months (paid in two phases of 2.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent) should at least be honoured in principle. If employers have difficulties in paying, the unions said they can use the considerably extended ‘inability to pay’ clause in the agreement which, following an examination of the books by the Labour Relations Commission, allows employers to pay some or none of the increases.
It was this issue that led relations between unions and employers to sour to the extent that O’Sullivan declared the September national pay agreement to be ‘dead in the water’.
“While the post-budget noises from the unions are not that encouraging for the successful outcome of national recovery talks, privately the unions admit that after 20 years of partnership, outside of industrial action there is nowhere else to go. Having abandoned their ill-conceived national strike to enter the current talks, the unions know that in the present climate the public has no appetite for strikes or protests.
“A rare agreed joint statement following the adjournment of talks on 5 April gave more reason for optimism. It said: “The social partners have reaffirmed their view that the best chance of laying the foundations for a sustainable recovery lies in an integrated response agreed through the social partnership process which simultaneously addresses all [...] dimensions of the crisis, and that is widely understood, can command the support and engage the ability and energy of the Irish people.
“The outcome of the talks will be keenly awaited.”
As we have consistently explained there is truly ‘nowhere else to go’. The only way to stop the bosses’ onslaught is through coordinated national industrial action. If we give the bosses an inch they’ll take a mile and a country mile at that. Social partnership in a huge boom is an easy game; the bosses can afford to offer a few scraps to the workers. But under conditions of deep slump and crisis all bets are off.
To rely on the old methods from the Celtic Tiger days is very short sighted. The bosses won’t make any concessions unless they absolutely have to do so. Relying on social partnership will be like firing a pea shooter against a tank. We know that weakness invites aggression. Just look what Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s. The British trade union leaders held up the white flag and the Tories saw it as a sign of weakness.
So what happened when the talks recommenced? The Irish Independent explains:
“The prospect of a national strike loomed again last night after Government officials ruled out a two-year stay on home repossessions for mortgage holders who lose their jobs. Union leaders had sought the assurance during talks on an economic rescue deal.
“Social partnership discussions entered a critical phase yesterday when unions met officials from the departments of the Taoiseach and Finance, but said there was 'no movement' on their central objectives.
“Siptu leader Jack O'Connor has set a deadline of May 1 … for agreement or warned a campaign of 'prolonged' industrial action will follow. ICTU wants a two-year stay before financial institutions begin legal proceedings against mortgage holders who have lost their jobs.
“It also wants the State to bail out workers by setting up a national pension protection fund to guarantee schemes like those at SR Technics and Waterford Crystal that have enormous deficits.
“It is understood Government officials refused to give the mortgage proposal serious consideration yesterday claiming it could jeopardise rating agencies' assessment of the banks' financial stability.
“A senior union source last night revealed there was every sign that talks are already 'doomed' after officials refused to consider the measure or offer anything new on the pension issue, which is also central to the ICTU 10-point plan for economic recovery… Ibec's director of industrial relations, Brendan McGinty, said the next couple of days will be make-or-break time in the talks as parties assess whether there is room for agreement.”
The outcome of these talks to date more than confirms our perspective that there’s no middle ground. Any agreement that eventually gets cobbled together under these conditions will have more holes in it than a Swiss cheese. But the pressure is building up; it’s likely that we will see more struggles and more battles, because of the intolerable burden that is going to be placed on workers and their families. ‘Social Partnership’ won’t stop the bosses’ onslaught. Only the mass action of the working class can do that.
For the Marxists in Ireland the task has to be to connect with the best workers and youth, to skillfully and patiently explain how to stop the bosses in their tracks. More than that however, we need to begin to lay the basis for a strong Marxist current that ultimately will become a means for the working class in Ireland to transform the whole island along socialist lines.