Ireland: Irish Ferries – Bosses let off the hook by bad deal

The Irish Ferries dispute ended in the early hours of the 14 December.

SIPTU claims that the deal maintains a “threshold of decency”. The deal brokered by the Labour Relations Commission allows Irish Ferries to outsource its crew to an agency; introduces a two-tier workforce with current staff remaining on the same wages and conditions but all new staff will be only paid the minimum wage and will have different working conditions; Irish Ferries will be “allowed” to re-flag its ships; a three year no strike agreement and all disputes to be settled by binding arbitration. Under this agreement the company will save €11.5 million a year from wage cuts alone. This is a bad deal and claims that it protects a “threshold of decency” are spurious. This agreement leaves the door open for Irish Ferries management to continue its fight for slave wages and conditions onboard its ships.

At outset of this dispute the leaders of the Seaman’s Union of Ireland (SUI) recommended that their members accept the company’s redundancy offer. Thus the SUI was accepting that outsourcing would take place and this was an immediate setback for the struggle of the Irish Ferries workers. However the action by SIPTU ships officers in occupying one ferry and preventing another from sailing, the refusal by SIPTU members in Rosslare to allow the MV Normandy to use their port and the magnificent show of solidarity by over 100,000 workers who demonstrated on the 9 December, stopped Irish Ferries from implementing its full agenda. Originally the company had planned to employ migrant workers from Latvia on €3.60 an hour. Industrial action has forced them to increase the pay of the migrant workers to a minimum of €7.65 an hour plus board and lodgings. Senior grades will get higher pay and newly appointed ships officers will have a paid week off for every week they work, and ratings will have one paid week off for every two weeks worked. This will possibly result in them having one months paid leave for every two months worked when originally the company wanted one months leave for every three months worked.

Turlough O’Sullivan director general of IBEC (Irish business and employers federation) said: "Those organising this march have lost sight of the real world…They are right that their members are under threat," O’Sullivan wrote, from "those who are producing similar goods and services in other countries and selling them at a cheaper price", Irish Times 9 December 2005. Turlough O’Sullivan and others justified Irish Ferries plan to pay €3.60 an hour on the basis that big business “needs” to maintain its profitability in the face of “competition” driven by globalisation. The Bank of Ireland was forced to distance itself from comments made in full support of Irish Ferries by its top economist Dan McLaughlin, because some of its customers closed their bank accounts and called on others to do the same. Prior to the Irish Ferries dispute the Irish capitalist class arrogantly thought that they could introduce their anti-worker agenda unchallenged. They believed that they had the “measure” of the working class, who they felt were no longer prepared to fight to defend their jobs and conditions. The struggle at Irish Ferries has proved them wrong and opened their eyes to the prospect of more resistance and struggle by workers against their neo-liberal agenda. Because of the stand taken by SIPTU members at Irish Ferries, in Rosslare and the working class in general employers will be more cautious in pursuit of this agenda in future.

The courage and fighting spirit of the SIPTU ships officers was however not matched by the unions’ leadership. Five days after the mass demonstrations in support of the Irish Ferries workers SIPTUs’ leaders backed up by the leadership of the ICTU squandered an important opportunity to drive back the attacks by big business on workers’ rights, pay and conditions. Rather than utilising the power of the working class through a 24-hour general strike and maintaining the industrial action at Irish Ferries down in order to defeat the company, the union leaders have done a deal to save “social partnership”. Irish Ferries management can now wage a silent war of attrition against their employees and they will attempt to re-introduce their original agenda. The scale of protest on the 9 December showed that the demand from the Socialist Party for a 24-hour general strike was not only correct but would have been met with huge support from workers if ICTU had issued the call.

The leadership of the Seaman’s’ Union of Ireland (SUI) has played a particularly treacherous role during this dispute having encouraged their members to take the company’s redundancy offer. Then after SIPTU members had stopped all of the company’s ships and even after the national day of protests the SUI leadership publicly stated that its members where not involved in the dispute and they hoped that the industrial action wouldn’t affect their members redundancy payments!

Despite it resulting in a bad deal, the struggle at Irish Ferries has signaled the beginning of a new period of struggle by the Irish working class. The Irish Ferries dispute has been a significant development and has had an important impact on the consciousness of the working class. During the last two months we have gone from a situation were it was taken for granted that the union leaders would enter talks on a new “social partnership” agreement to the leadership of ICTU (being forced by the working class) to organise the biggest trade union demonstrations in 25 years. Many people understandably had the attitude that these agreements are the norm and that talks and an eventually deal between the union leaders, big business and the government would take place as a matter of course. Yet, what has taken place in the last period shows that this is no longer the case. The Socialist Party has pointed out that there is a beginning of a change in the industrial situation in the South. The Irish Ferries dispute is a confirmation of our perspectives and analysis.

For 18 years the trade union leaders have been involved in an unholy alliance with the government and the employers. “Social partnership” has been consciously used by the employers and their political representatives to increase the amount of wealth going to the capitalists at the expense of the working class. Many union leaders have also consciously collaborated with this agenda in the bankrupt belief that there is no alternative not only to capitalism but also to capitalism’s neo-liberal agenda. These current union leaders are for the time being committed to the idea of partnership in the belief that it is the only way that they can maintain the wages of workers or gain any social reforms. However the Irish Ferries struggle has shown that “social partnership” can be broken and that it will eventually be defeated. During the Irish Ferries dispute the Socialist Party explained that betrayal by the union leaders was possible. Historically Marxism has explained that betrayal is inherent in reformism, because ultimately reformists are not prepared to challenge the capitalist system and reformism is based on compromise with the ruling class. Despite the nature of the union bureaucracy they were forced to move and take at action to defend the workers at Irish Ferries and the moves by the government and the employers in general to attack workers’ rights because of pressure from the working class. The Irish Ferries dispute once again shows that it is necessary to build campaigns of opposition to the right-wing union leaders in all of the unions in order to replace the current bureaucrats with leaderships that are prepared to defend and fight for workers’ rights.

The primary aim of the National Implementation Body (NIB) is to protect the governments’ and the employers’ agenda as well as “social partnership”. The NIB intervened into the Irish Ferries dispute and orchestrated the conditions for the talks between the company and SIPTU through the Labour Relations Commission. “The NIB has been monitoring closely developments in the dispute at Irish Ferries. It has done so with particular regard to the impact of this dispute on the wider climate of industrial relations and, in particular, on the capacity of employers and trade unions to promote industrial harmony as a critical element in maintaining confidence and stability in the economy, as provided for in Sustaining Progress” NIB statement 4 December 2005. It is also clear from the NIB statement that the government believed that the Irish Ferries dispute and the issue of the erosion of workers’ rights seriously jeopardised the future of partnership: “In particular, the NIB wishes to convey its concern that the situation which has now evolved has the potential to damage significantly the climate of trust and stability which has developed over the years in the context of social partnership”. The NIB’s “concern” is a further confirmation of the Socialist Party’s analysis that there are important political and industrial changes currently taking place in the South. The NIB as well as intervening to directly end the dispute at Irish Ferries was also simultaneously trying to create the conditions under which the union leaders can credibly enter talks on a new “social partnership” deal. Informal talks had been taking place behind the scenes between ICTU, IBEC and the government despite the decision by the special ICTU conference not to enter talks. According to the Industrial Relations News (IRN) 1 December 2005: “IRN can confirm that high level talks on the issue of employment standards have been taking place between Government officials, Congress and IBEC representatives. One senior Congress leader said that these talks have been “going well”. In effect, these are also ‘talks about talks’ in that the aim is to secure agreement on a basis for official national-level talks. They have focussed on the letter on employment standards sent to Congress in October by Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. The fact that informal talks have been taking place during the Irish Ferries dispute illustrates the fact that the three main social partners are extremely anxious to find a solution to the current impasse”. SIPTU and ICTU’s leaders will now enter talks on a new “social partnership” agreement and will probably do a deal, but this will not be enough to stop opposition from workers to neo-liberalism or the current wave of attacks on workers’ rights. The assault on worker’ rights and the neo-liberal agenda of the capitalists will be stepped up in 2006 if the EU implements the Bolkenstein directive on services. A European wide campaign against the Bolkenstein directive can unite workers all across the EU against this agenda and can limit its implementation or even defeat this directive.

The stand taken by the officers on board the two ferries and the refusal by SIPTU members in Rosslare to allow the MV Normandy to berth was an important act of resistance that gave confidence to thousands of others to take to the streets. It will also give confidence to others faced with a similar attack on their jobs, wages and conditions to take industrial action. Last year Irish Ferries re-flagged its ship the MV Normandy in the Bahamas and replaced its Irish staff with agency workers. This took place with virtually no resistance from Irish unions. One year on a similar move by the company resulted in a mass movement of opposition by the working class. This depth and breadth of workers’ anger forced the leadership of SIPTU to take a major stand, not only against the company but also the government and IBEC by refusing to enter partnership talks. ICTU was also forced away from the partnership talks and to call a national day of protests. This shows that even the most right-wing union leaders are susceptible to pressure from their members and the working class in general.

The Socialist Party has explained that the government and big business have consciously encouraged migrant workers to come to Ireland as a means to lower the wages of all workers. They are now attempting to implement a neo-liberal agenda to take back all of the gains made by workers during the Celtic Tiger. The capitalist class are implementing this agenda in order to protect their profits and as a consequence of the pressures on their “competitiveness” from globalisation.

Previously the government and IBEC spoke openly of the need for measures to lower the cost of labour in the construction industry, as well as manufacturing industry in general, and the service sector. This was the reason why Ireland gave workers from the 10 new EU states the right to immediately work in Ireland. The pressure to lower the wages of Irish workers has been slowly gathering, but more recently this process has become more widespread and has speeded up.

The GAMA dispute has had a major impact on this society. Working class people were outraged and disgusted when they discovered that GAMA was paying its Turkish and Kurdish workers only €2.20 an hour and at their working and living conditions. Our party has had a major impact on the consciousness of the working class. We not only exposed the GAMA scandal but we also played a fundamental role in the battle and the victory of the GAMA workers. The example of downtrodden exploited migrant workers, living in fear standing up to a multinational company, taking strike action and achieving a victory has impacted on workers consciousness and affected how workers have reacted to the Irish Ferries dispute. GAMA has also lifted the lid on the widespread exploitation of migrant workers and in doing so laid bare the exploitative nature of capitalism to many working class people.

As Marx said conditions and events determine consciousness. Increasingly the working class is affected directly or indirectly by the drive to use migrant workers to lower the wages and conditions of all workers. It is common place now for working class people to recount examples of how this drive has impacted on their wages and conditions or on the wages and conditions of relatives or friends. These practical life experiences have had an important impact on the consciousness of workers generally. Workers are now fearful that it is only a matter of time before their wages and conditions will be under attack.

The attacks on wages and conditions are not just confined to the private sector. The government’s neo-liberal agenda is being implemented in the public sector. This government supported in general by all of the establishment parties has a strategy to privatise and liberalise the public sector. Even Sinn Fein despite their rhetoric is supportive of this process as exposed by their willingness to go into a coalition government will all of the right-wing parties, with the exception at least so far of the PDs.

PPPs are now the norm in relation to development of the transport infrastructure – road building, the LUAS, plans for a new Dublin metro etc. Also in the health service and in education there is a greater emphasis on facilities being built and run by the private sector. The neo-liberal agenda has sharply hit home in the last period in the semi-state companies.

Despite the general lack of struggle in the last period there are other signs aside from the Irish Ferries struggle that workers are more prepared to resist attacks from the employers. A three-day strike at the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) was in opposition to the company’s plans to outsource even more of the work of its technicians to private contractors. Two wildcat strikes by Bus Eireann workers in Galway and Waterford were against the use of private operators for school transport. And the bitter dispute at An Post is ultimately about the government preparing the postal service for liberalisation and privatisation. There has also been a whole number of small disputes (some even involving occupations) by workers struggling for back wages, redundancy money, against wage cuts and to save their jobs. In the majority of these disputes workers have been victorious.

In an article on Socialist Worker online 14 December 2005, entitled “Mass action sinks Irish Ferries management” the SWP talk of “a stunning climbdown from the management of the shipping company”. Further the SWP comments: “While the union lost its fight to prevent the reflagging of the company’s vessels abroad, a legally binding contract guarantees the conditions of all workers for Irish ferries.” However the union leaders actually ended the dispute and agreed to a deal without any legal contract – negotiations on this contract are still ongoing. The SWP’s claim mis-reads a key aspect of the outcome of the dispute. That in the context of Irish Ferries re-flagging their ships a so-called legal contract is meaningless. Irish Ferries management will lead another assault on the wages and conditions of its employees with or without a legal contract.

In another article on 15 December the SWP says in relation to the new migrant workers to be employed by Irish Ferries: “These workers will be brought into the ‘threshold of decency’ set by the Irish labour movement.” In these articles the SWP echoes the claims from the trade union bureaucrats that accepting the outsourcing of jobs, and the employment of migrants on significantly reduced wages and conditions is an important achievement because it meets ICTUs new standard – a “threshold of decency”. Workers should reject ICTU’s “threshold of decency”, as it is an acceptance that the minimum wage is something to be struggled for rather than decent wages. This type of approach adds to the danger of the minimum wage becoming the maximum wage across whole sectors of employment.

It was inevitable that at some stage a confrontation of the character of Irish Ferries would take place. This battle is a consequence of the neo-liberal assault on workers’ rights an agenda which if anything will intensify in the period ahead, particularly during the next recession. Therefore further battles are also inevitable. The working class is learning many lessons during this period. They have seen the capitalist class bare it’s teeth during the Irish Ferries dispute, and heard it’s representatives defend slave wages as being justified in order to protect the profits of big business.

The impact of the exploitation of migrant labour on wages has to be put in the context of the crisis in the health service and the many pressures faced by workers such as houses prices, the increasing cost of living, stealth taxes, traffic congestion etc, as well as the political corruption and scandals in planning and construction. There is a cumulative effect from these events that will result in the politicisation of thousands of workers, many of whom will come to the conclusion that it is necessary to build a new mass party of the working class.

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December 2005