Created on Sunday, 10 July 2011 22:45 Written by Tony Healy
The development of the policy and programme of the Trade Union movement reflects the day to pressures and contradictions from the working class brought into the movement. But it would be a mistake to assume that economic and political crisis in Ireland on either side of the border will automatically result in a radicalisation of the leadership of the movement.To do so would be to ignore the immense pressures of the capitalist class, the EU, IMF, the Government, media and the press also which weigh down like 100 tonne weights on the leadership of the movement. The trade union leadership in large measure see themselves as arbitrators, attempting to resolve the unbridgeable gulf between the working class and the ruling class.
Trotsky explained in his article “Trade unions in the epoch of imperialist decay” that under conditions of crisis the trade union leaders will inevitably try to seek an agreement at all costs, even with the most reactionary governments. The problem however is that the nature of the crisis means that any agreement which is reached will be inherently unstable. The agreement will come under pressure either from the bosses or the working class or both. Ultimately this is a result of the irreconcilable antagonisms between the working class and the capitalist class on a world scale.
While Trotsky’s incomplete article, which he was writing at the time of his murder in 1940, was written over 70 years ago. It more or less sums up the scenario around the Croke Park agreement. We have commented on the deal on several occasions, but we pointed out in advance that the commitment to no further wage cuts would come under enormous pressure from the bosses as the crisis got worse as the state finances went deeper into debt.
At the same time we explained also that the flip side of the deal; the massive “reform” in the public sector would be very hard to implement, as it would inevitably generate massive opposition from the public sector workers. Essentially this has happened already. But the stakes have been raised onto a much higher level as a result of the bailout and the strict austerity programme and targets that have been imposed by the Troika of the ECB, EU and the IMF. The Troika are currently in Dublin on their third visit assessing the governments “progress” in addressing the deficit.
Here’s what Enda Kenny said at the ICTU conference in respect of the Croke Park Deal:
Changes made in the public service under the Croke Park agreement have been “impressive” but are only the beginning of what is required, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said.
Addressing delegates at the biennial conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Kerry, Mr Kenny said he shared the view that there had been “much unfair and unreasonable criticism of the Irish public service over recent years”.
He acknowledged the “hard work and commitment, and indeed the flexibility and innovation of so many public servants across all the branches of our system”.
But Mr Kenny said he was equally aware of the frustration, “and even despair” of many committed public servants at the “outdated structures, the inadequate processes, the fragmentation and arcane work practices which blight their working lives and frustrate our objective to have the highest quality public services available to those who need them”.
“That is why nothing less than public service transformation is required. It is why the Government established a new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to provide effective and focused political leadership for the task of managing change.”
Enda Kenny might present the issue as the outcome of some sort of fossilisation of the public services, although as any worker would tell you, the management of the public sector, not the workers, are responsible for the practices that go on there, after all according to them it is their “sacred right to manage”. But the truth is a little more clear once you read what the Troika are up to. RTÉ reported on Wednesday July 6th:
“On financial supervision, the Troika required a new bill giving extra powers to the Central Bank to be tabled in the Dáil. That was done last week. They also required legislation to progressively raise the pension age to 68 by 2028. That has also been tabled in the Dáil.
The agreement required the Government to establish a fiscal advisory council - a group of economists who would independently review and comment on government tax and spending plans - by the end of June. That council is almost established, with a last-minute hitch in recruiting the final member of the council holding back its announcement.
And that is, essentially, that. Will reviewing that really occupy the team for eight days? Unlikely. Once the formal work is out of the way the teams are likely to start preliminary talks on the next review, scheduled for September, which will be a much tougher affair as it will lead in to the Budget.
They will also want hard decisions taken by September on a number of controversial topics which are in Memorandum of Understanding, such as the reform of the Registered Employment Agreements and Employment Regulation Orders. They also want to see measures to introduce competition to get prices down in the medical legal and pharmaceutical sectors.
But the big fight in the autumn will be on the memorandum's call for tax raising measures to raise €1.5 billion in extra revenue, and spending cuts of €2.1 billion, including social protection cuts.
As the Taoiseach and Tánaiste stated on the 100th day of the new government, there will be no income tax rise nor cuts to social welfare rates, the EU-IMF team will be keen to know how the Government intends meeting the agreed targets “.
This is the immediate background to the ICTU conference that met last week in Killarney. But there’s more to the picture than that also. That is the ongoing crisis in the eurozone and the economic and political crisis in Greece. Ireland’s economic woes have not as yet reached the same depths as the Greek economy, but it has consistently lagged at the back of the eurozone economies and has come under enormous pressures from the speculators and sharks in the European bond markets. As such, the potential for Ireland to find itself up the same creek as Greece, without a paddle, is reasonably high, but not yet inevitable. However, the fact that default was discussed at all at conference shows the position that the state is in.
“Outgoing Irish Congress of Trade Unions President Jack O'Connor has warned the time may come when they will have to advocate default on Ireland's debt.
However, he warned that such a move could have serious consequences for jobs and public services.
Mr O'Connor said so far Congress had not supported calls for default on Ireland's debt as a way of escaping the 'straitjacket' of the Troika agreement. However, he said it may well come to do so.
Addressing the ICTU conference in Killarney, Mr O'Connor said opinion was divided as to potential consequences of threatening default.
Mr O'Connor cautioned that ICTU could not anticipate the response of the European Central Bank, which could withdraw support from Ireland's covered banks.
He said it could not forecast how default would play with global companies upon which so many people depended for their livelihoods.
However, he said he was pretty certain it would mean balanced budgets overnight, which would be devastating for working people and all who depend on public services.
ICTU General Secretary David Begg said the time might come when defaulting on Ireland's debt could be the lesser of two evils, but said that position had not arisen at this point in time”. RTÉ July 5th 2011.
There is a large degree of sleight of hand in this argument. Jack O’Connor while raising the prospect of default then spent the next few paragraphs arguing as to why his initial remarks weren’t such a good idea. Instead of default, O’Connor raised the prospect of a new bailout. The Marxists around Fightback would argue that default in itself is no solution, unless it was combined with the nationalisation of the banks and big industries under democratic workers control. Unfortunately Jack O’Connor limited himself to a purely Keynesian argument:
“He suggested a Marshall Aid-type strategy was now required to rescue Europe both economically and politically. Those in charge have, however, opted for “the shock therapy of a reparations course” instead.
Mr O’Connor claimed the ECB was applying a supply side remedy to a demand side crisis “aggravating the problem rather than alleviating it”. “They have reduced the once great institutions of the European project to mere debt collection agencies for the major banks, obstructing recovery and inflicting misery on the citizens of Europe,” he said”. Irish Times July 5th 2011
The small problem however, is: who would come up with the money for a new Marshall Plan? The US is in a terrible situation with huge debts from its own bailouts, while the major European economies are already massively in hoc already with the existing bailouts and a very uncertain future in respect of Greece. Ultimately the situation adds up to years of austerity. It is likely that Jack O’Connor’s call forpension funds to be used to develop the building industry will fall on deaf ears also, after all the priorities for the pension funds is to maximise their profits, why invest in the Irish building industry when there are thousands of unsold houses in ghost estates cluttering up the landscape?
The new McCarthy report into the sale of state assets represents another threat. Although the author of the “An Bord Snip” report was quite guarded in his proposals in the short term, the writing is on the wall for Bord Gáis, Dublin Bus, large parts of Bord na Móna and ESB, as well as the remaining state share of Aer Lingus. These proposals will have grave effects for the workers in the various industries. While Congress supported political lobbying and selective action in the various companies, it will take more than that to stop the attacks on the public sector.
All this adds up to precisely the sort of situation that Trotsky outlined in his article. The government is being propelled in the direction of more austerity. All of the existing agreements and the arrangements as to how the public sector services are delivered are up in the air. Eamon Gilmore underlined the situation that the government and the trade unions face over the next period:
“Mr Gilmore said the Government has always been willing to engage with the trade unions and employer organisations about the future of industrial relations in the country.
The Labour Party leader also indicated any social partnership agreement would not be the same as what was in place during the boom years.
“I think that there has to be an understanding which is about getting us to the point of recovery and which ensures that there is a stable industrial relations climate in the country,” the Tánaiste added.
“In order for that to happen I think there has to be discussions with trade unions and discussions with employers.” Irish Times July 4th 2011
As we have explained before the immediate crisis that led to the IMF bailout may have been averted for now, but at a tremendous cost. The full implications won’t become clear for a while. But that imposes a great responsibility on the leadership of the trade unions to explain clearly to the members a political and economic perspective. But far more importantly it requires them to prepare the membership to fight to defend their jobs, wages and working conditions. That will require far more than a strategy of social partnership at a time when the only defence that will stand up to scrutiny is the collective power of the working class. The demand of the trade unions at this stage must be “Not a cent off the pay, not a second on the day”.
Capitalism in Ireland on both sides of the border is at an impasse. The only solution is a complete break with capitalism and the socialist transformation of society on both sides of the border, leading to a Socialist United Ireland. Over the coming period the trade union movement will be transformed again and again. More young shop stewards and activists will come to the fore. Even the Labour Party will come under pressure from below. The ideas of Marxism will gain an increasing echo, James Connolly’s ideas, which are very fresh even today will play an important role in revitalising the movement that he struggled and sacrificed his life to build.