Ireland: After the biggest workers’ demonstration in 30 years…

…Build for an all-out 24 hour strike on 30 March!

One hundred and twenty thousand marched through Dublin in the biggest workers’ demonstration in 30 years. Following on from the success of the 21 February demonstration, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Executive Committee called for all of its affiliates to ballot their members in the South for a one-day national strike on 30 March.

AS ICTU General Secretary David Begg explained, the real purpose of calling the one day strike on 30 March, is to push the government and the employers back to the talks table with the first item on the agenda – ICTU’s three year “social solidarity pact” – a new ‘social partnership’ deal with the bosses and the government that are currently putting the boot into working class people – making them pay for an economic crisis not of their making.

Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands who have and will lose their jobs, for the workers whose wages are being slashed through government levies, increased taxes and employer imposed pay cuts – the 30 March strike call is not a serious attempt by the union leaders to defend them.

For 21 years the union leaders, through ‘social partnership’, assisted the employers and the government in a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich. During all of the years when the property speculators, the construction industry and the corrupt bankers, along with the multinationals, were making hundreds of billions in profits, the union leaders did their best to ensure there was industrial peace.

Paul Sweeney, the economic adviser to ICTU, wrote in the Irish Times on 31 January, “This global mess was generated by privatised, deregulated and ultra-free markets. All countries, including Ireland, must now abandon this redundant economic model.”

It is the height of hypocrisy that the ICTU leadership and its advisers should be coming out now attacking the “privatised, deregulated and ultra-free markets” which it helped to prop-up and support for the last 21 years, through its involvement in successive ‘social partnership’ agreements. The union leaders were in bed with the privatisers, the profiteers and the free marketeers!

Paul Sweeney also wrote: “…when the market comes out of rehab, it must be fundamentally reformed and learn to operate under greater public oversight, or we will have learned nothing”. It seems that the ICTU leaders are the ones who have precisely learnt nothing, if they believe that the “market system” can be reformed and that their ‘10 point plan’ will provide a decent life for working class people.

Union leaders forced to act

The anger that exists throughout the working class and in the ranks of the unions has forced the ICTU leadership to bring tens of thousands out on to the streets. However, the leadership are cynically trying to dispel some of this anger, to “let off steam” and in the process use the working class to further its ‘social partnership’ agenda. The ICTU leaders are like a whining dog that has been kicked out in the rain by its IBEC and Fianna Fail masters and is now begging to get back in again or else it will organise strikes!

Along with the economic crisis, there is also another crisis that is impacting on the lives of working class people and that is a crisis of leadership in the trade union movement. Faced with unemployment skyrocketing towards 500,000, €16 billion in public spending cuts that will decimate the health service, the education system, social welfare provision and a full scale ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of wages and conditions – the trade union leaders have raised the white flag of surrender before even engaging in battle.

Yet the message coming from many sections of the working class is that they are prepared to struggle against the impact of the recession.

The strike by 13,000 low paid civil servants in the union the CPSU, on 26 February, and the magnificent occupation by the workers at Waterford Crystal are examples that should be followed. The militancy that is growing in society is also expressed by the 120,000 who marched on 21 February, in the protests by the taxi drivers for a decent income, the protests by the Gardai [Irish police] against the public sector pension levy and the announcement by PDFORRA, the soldiers’ organisation, that they would not be used as strike breakers.

Empty rhetoric

This militancy is not matched by a response from the union leaders. In factory after factory, the union leaders have done nothing to fight job losses. In Bausch & Lomb, in Waterford, when management announced 195 job cuts, a representative of the union, SIPTU, stated: “Naturally we are disappointed, as we had hoped that the recent switch to short-time working would have avoided the need for job losses at the plant. We are also disappointed that the company could not rule out the possibility of further redundancies in the future.”

That was it! From the biggest trade union in southern Ireland just empty rhetoric, no plan whatsoever to fight the redundancies. The union had accepted the three-week month, in the hope it would save jobs. Now they are accepting redundancies in the hope it will save the rest of the jobs. Yet workers leaving the plant were more realistic, with one commenting, “The fear amongst the workers is that this is just the beginning …Everyone is very worried and upset.”

This example gets right to the heart of the problem. The union leaders are working at “assisting” the employers to get through the recession! Yet the reality is that the employers, who made mega-profits, are throwing workers on to the scrapheap to protect those profits and their accumulated wealth.

Instead of issuing words of regret about the job losses at Bausch & Lomb, a multi-billion dollar corporation, why has SIPTU not demanded that the company open up its books and show the workers where all of it profits have gone from the years of the boom? If SIPTU and the other union at this workplace, TEEU, do not fight to save these jobs it is possible many more, if not all of, the jobs could be lost.

As part of a co-ordinated strategy to drive down wages across the whole economy, starting in the public sector with the pension levy, the government and the main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, and IBEC, the Irish bosses’ organization, have been chanting the same mantra – Irish workers are “uncompetitive”.

The government and IBEC claim that Irelands’ exports have been falling because workers’ wages and the cost of the public sector are too high. These are myths peddled by the representatives of big business who can see an opportunity in the recession to lower costs, protect profits, lower public expenditure and even open up sections of the public sector to the profiteers. But already southern Ireland has one of the smallest public sectors and lowest levels of public expenditure of all of the advanced capitalist countries.

The Construction Industry Federation, who represent those who made obscene profits during the boom, is demanding that workers take a 10% pay cut. This has nothing at all to do with being more competitive – you cannot export houses – it is simply to protect profitability.

Irish exports have been falling and the main reasons are the world recession, with the fall in demand for commodities along with the fall in the value of the US dollar and sterling.

In the first nine months of 2008, Ireland had €65 billion in exports – 18.4% went to Britain, 19% to the US and 23% to other non-euro areas. Therefore the value of the euro versus these currencies has a huge impact on sales of Irish exports, as does the fact that Britain and the US are in the depths of major recessions.

According to the OECD, in a comparative survey of labour costs for 30 countries, Ireland (South) came 22nd. Irish workers are cheaper to employ than workers in Britain, the US and every other euro-zone country and they also have one of the highest productivity rates in the world, which has risen at three times the average rate of the eurozone countries over the last ten years.

The 30 March strike could be an important opportunity for all workers, in the private and public sectors, to unite and give the employers, and all of the right-wing political parties, a clear message – we are not going to pay for your economic crisis. It could be the start of a serious campaign by the trade unions to defend jobs and wages. However, there is a strong possibility the 30 March strike will not take place because ICTU will have entered new “partnership” talks and the strike will be called off.

For a 24 general strike

For the 30 March strike, ICTU decided to only ballot trade unionists that have not been paid the national wage agreement. This is another example of the lack of urgency and serious approach by the union leaders to the economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs. All trade unionists should be called out on 30 March and ICTU should also appeal to all workers who are not trade union members to join them.

A united stand by all workers in a 24-hour general strike on the 30 March should be the rallying cry from the trade union movement to stop job losses and attacks on pay and public services on the eve of the new government budget.

A new ‘social partnership’ deal will not stop unemployment hitting 500,000 or prevent the onslaught on wages and public services. David Begg, the unions leader, has told the government that ICTU does not want the public sector pension levy scrapped, just its impact on the lower paid “ameliorated”. A new deal means the government’s recent pension levy will remain.

It could not be clearer. In a new set of “partnership” talks, the ICTU leaders will accept cuts in public sector workers’ wages and spending cuts in public services (health, education etc.,), as well as extra taxes on workers.

The crisis in Irish society has exposed the failure of the market economy and the failure of capitalism. The rich made a lot of money during the boom. The top 1% own a combined wealth of €87 billion, while two thirds of workers earn less than €40,000 a year. The rich should be forced by the unions to pay for the economic crisis.

A struggle has to be waged to reclaim the trade unions from the current pro-partnership leaders, who are overpaid and out of touch with the lives of working class people. In every union, opposition is needed to mobilise members in campaigns to democratise the unions and transform them into fighting organisations to defend jobs, living standards and public services, and to defend working class people during this economic crisis.

Reclaim the unions!

Activists should unite around a programme for change that focuses on increasing internal union democracy. We must campaign for annual union conferences that decide policy, with smaller branches decentralised to encourage full participation by the members. We call fro the regular election of full time officials, with the right of recall by the members to ensure accountability. For all full time officials to be paid the average wage of the workers they represent, with only legitimate expenses paid. The days of union leaders being paid five and six times the wages of the members must end.

Instead of ‘social partnership’ the unions should adopt an action programme to defend working class people and to make the rich pay for the crisis.

This programme should include cutting the working week to 35 hours, without loss of pay. We say, share out the work and take people off the dole; investment in a massive public development programme to create tens of thousands of jobs; campaigns to fight the cuts in public services.

We call for nationalisation of all major companies threatening closure or redundancies, to be run under democratic working class control. For the nationalisation of all of the banks and financial institutions – but not the state capitalist style nationalisations that just saddle us with the debts of the rich, instead full nationalisation whereby these institutions would be democratically controlled to serve the needs of society, providing cheap credit and resources to help create jobs and fund public services.

The Socialist Party is campaigning within the unions for this type of radical change. We need a fighting leadership that always puts the interests of the working class first, that recognises that the capitalist system is at the heart of the problems facing workers and that a struggle for a socialist society is central to delivering decent jobs, wages and a future for the working class.

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March 2009