Ireland: Government announces further €3 billion cuts

Public sector workers under attack but union leaders’ strategy is a recipe for defeat

The Irish Fianna Fail/Greens government Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, has spelt out plans to make a further €3 billion in cuts in the next government budget. €500 million of these cuts are to come from public sector "reform" and if the unions do not agree to go along with this, Lenihan will impose further pay cuts.

The response of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) leaders was a threat to escalate public sector industrial action, to move things up a notch or two from the current ineffectual ‘work-to-rule’ to the possibility of selective strike action to "entice" the government back to the table for talks.

The Irish Fianna Fail/Greens government Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, has spelt out plans to make further cuts.

Union general secretaries have been lining up to present themselves to the media as reasonable and completely open to assisting the government in making necessary cuts in public spending for the "greater good" of the economy.

At a rally of 700 public sector workers in Galway, Jack O’Connor, President of the union SIPTU, did little to increase pressure on the government. He spoke of the need for a programme of industrial action "carefully and incrementally escalating and ramping it up in such a way as to minimise the implications for ordinary citizens of the country – to the degree that we can – and maximising the prospect of a negotiated outcome". Not exactly a call to arms!

The other union leaders who spoke were no better. Shay Cody, IMPACT’s General Secretary in-waiting, told the meeting that he thought the ‘public service transformation deal’ (i.e. sell-out) put forward by the unions last November "could be back on the table" and be the basis for a new agreement.

This is the bottom line for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) leaders. They are not out to defeat the Fianna Fail/Greens coalition government, to force a reversal of budget pay cuts and pension levies – they are trying to get back in favour with the government, to work as "partners" in implementing so-called ‘public sector reform’.

Rather than going after the wealth of the rich and the profits of big business, the Irish union leaders are prepared to accept the government’s strategy of making workers pay. ICTU believes that by agreeing to major "reform" in the public sector the government will "reward" them by doing a deal on pensions and re-establishing previous pay levels over a number of years – dependant on renewed growth and agreed ‘savings’ (cuts) in public spending.

This is pie in the sky. The government will never willingly reverse the pay cuts or the pension levy, because they view them as the first step in a process of driving down pay and pensions in the public sector – they want to totally re-define the public sector.

Crucial time for public sector workers – and whole working class

Pensions will be based on average pay over a working life, and instead of a defined benefit pension, workers will be thrown to the mercy of the casino stock exchange and risk the same fate as the Waterford Crystal workers, who were left with nothing after decades of service. The government will outsource work to the private sector and implement a programme of privatisation by stealth that will cost thousands of public sector jobs. The government’s strategy to force down wages, in order to improve competitiveness, as a way to lower the costs of exports, is based precisely on lowering the wages of public sector workers, and the cost of the provision of public services, by sacrificing tens of thousands of jobs.

Members of the public sector union, CPSU, recently voted 83% in favour of strike action and the prospect of rolling strike action in different regions and areas of the public sector is being considered by ICTU. When this will happen is unclear, as both David Begg, ICTU General Secretary and Jack O’Connor, President of SIPTU, have spoken of delaying escalating the industrial action for up to six weeks to allow the government time to begin talks on a deal.

This is a crucial period for public sector workers and the working class in Ireland, in general. The future of our public services, such as health and education, are under threat and the union leaders are offering themselves up as willing accomplices in the potential destruction of these services. The government can be stopped. But this requires militant mass action. Public sector workers in Greece have been joined by private sector workers in a battle to stop the Greek government and the EU implementing similar attacks to the Irish government’s.

Public sector workers in Ireland should demand that the campaign of industrial action be escalated immediately. As a first step, the date should be named for a 24 hour public sector strike, to be quickly followed by a 48-hour strike, as part of a concerted and determined campaign to reverse the pay cuts and defeat the government’s assault on the public sector. Victory is possible but only if militant action is taken – the union leaders’ strategy is a recipe for defeat.

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March 2010