Ireland: Union leaders try to sell rotten ‘Croke Park agreement’ to enraged workers

Determined struggle by public sector workers can defeat deal and weak government

In 2009, the Irish trade union leaders, despite their desperate attempts, were unable to hold the formal “social partnership” process together. The economic crisis has shattered “social partnership” and opened up a period that will be marked by industrial action, strikes and class conflict.

Faced with the worst recession since the 1930s, the basis for “social partnership” evaporated as big business and the government implemented their strategy of making working class people pay for the crisis.

Unable to devalue the currency, the government instead is fixed on a strategy of an internal devaluation based on lowering wages across the economy in an attempt to make exports more competitive. According to Brendan McGinty, Director of Industrial Relations for IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation), “If you look at some of the EC data since the end of 2008, we have managed to reduce labour costs by 6.8%. Across Europe, the expectation is that by about 2011 they will have gone up by about 3.3%” and by the end of the year he is predicting a fall in unit pay costs in southern Ireland of about 10%.

IBEC and the government are using the recession as an opportunity to drive down pay, eradicate hard won terms and conditions for all workers and prepare the public sector for historic “counter-revolutionary” changes. The “shock doctrine” being employed is based on the well oiled mantra of there being “no alternative” and that the “over bloated” public sector needs to be “reined in” and brought under control, as it is a “parasite” sucking the country’s finances dry. Wage cuts are a small sacrifice, they claim, that everyone must pay in order to preserve jobs and bizarrely, to stimulate economic growth.

Minimum wage under attack

Now they are coming after the minimum wage. The same Brendan McGinty said, “as a result of the rapid devaluation of sterling over the past two years, the national minimum wage in the UK is about 26% below that in Ireland. The living standards of those on the NMW are not under threat, as the cost of living will fall in 2009 and 2010 by over 5.5%”. The 10% cut in wages mentioned above is not enough for IBEC. McGinty argues that wages must fall even further, if “Irish competitiveness” is to be “restored” and he says that the minimum wage acts against the lowering of all wages, costs and prices.

The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) are seeking an across the board 20% pay cut and the introduction of a new starting grade for operatives of only €8.92 an hour – only 27c an hour above the minimum wage. Shockingly, representatives of SIPTU (Ireland’s biggest general union) and UCATT (construction union) at meetings of the Construction Industry Committee have argued that building workers should accept these pay cuts.

“Social partnership” exploded last year when IBEC walked away from the ‘Towards 2016’ agreement, having decided they would use mass unemployment and the threat of the dole queue to drive down pay. This was followed by the government walking away from talks with the unions and instead, imposing an across the board pay cut for public sector workers in the December budget.

The union leaders have been reeling from these blows ever since and have been doing their best to resurrect partnership, in any form they can. Now they have agreed to a “protocol on private sector pay”, that aims to “manage future private sector pay claims, while providing for the maintenance of several key institutional features of the social partnership system” – Industrial Relations News, 24 March 2010. Whilst Irish workers are suffering, ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) leaders have signed up to this protocol. The following quotes are taking from the text of the draft:

“2. The parties will work together to facilitate economic recovery through agreed strategies….

“6. The parties are committed to ensuring that their respective members do not engage in strikes, lockouts or other forms of industrial action in respect of any matters covered by this protocol….”

This new protocol is, of course, matched by its counterpart in the public sector and between the two, the ICTU leaders are attempting to recreate a form of social partnership or as they are calling it nowadays, “social solidarity pact”.

Industrial peace or an agreement not to engage in industrial action or strikes is a feature of both agreements and further confirmation of the bankruptcy of the right-wing trade union leaders. That they are attempting to lock both private and public sector workers into deals that aim to tie the hands of the working class at a time of unprecedented attacks from the employers and the government is scandalous but not surprising.

The trade unions and the state

During the 22 years of so-called “social partnership”, the leaders of the ICTU became entwined with the Irish capitalist state and successive governments, so much so that the union leaders were, in effect, at times, a wing of the establishment.

In a speech given by Professor Bill Roche (March 2010) on the breakdown of social partnership, he said the following: “Reflecting these developments, social partnership was viewed by some commentators in Ireland and internationally as a new system of economic and political governance in the broadest sense – the institutions of partnership having become powerfully – if to some menacingly – intertwined with the formal institutions of governance and state set down in the Irish constitution”.

And so the trade union leaders took on the role of “assistant managers” of the capitalist system, alongside the establishment parties in government, the ‘captains’ of industry and the bankers, and the speculators and developers – all of whom collectively govern this society. The role of the union leaders was not to defend their members against the impact of neo-liberalism or the orgy of speculation and profiteering that came with the property bubble. No, the union leaders viewed themselves as coalition partners of the elite during the boom years and as long as they could get some “social spending” increases, tax cuts and nominal pay rises, then the employers and the government could get on with the business of maximising profits. In reality, despite their protestations, the union leaders share some of the blame for the current economic crisis.

Now that the bubbles have burst and the recession has hit hard, the union leaders are all at sea, unhooked from the anchor of “social partnership”. This is why they are desperately trying to recreate something similar to social partnership to hold onto and they are also hoping to survive the storms of the recession. ICTU’s proposals for a “social solidarity pact”, last year, offered major concessions to the “social partners”. But these concessions were not enough. The government and the employers had the measure of the trade union leaders, who they have become well acquainted with during the last 22 years. True to form, the union leaders attempted to puff out their collective chests and act tough against the threat to introduce a pension levy on public sector workers. Then later they again tried to face down the government in the run into December’s Budget, to stop direct cuts in public sector workers’ pay.

The government saw through the ICTU strategy, which was not based on defeating the government’s proposal but rather the mass demonstrations and the one day public sector strike which union leaders called were merely an attempt to get back into “coalition” with the government. Knowing that the ICTU leaders would not engage in a full scale battle, the employers could walk away from partnership and the government, clearly seeing the weakness of the union leaders. The bosses went on a full scale attack, introducing the pension levy, pay cuts and other levies, which for public sector workers amounted to cuts in pay of between 15 – 19%.

Betrayal

The extent of the attempted betrayal of the ICTU leaders, last November, is quite staggering. Faced with the threat of €4 billion cuts in public spending, including €1.3 billion in public sector workers’ pay, the union leaders devised a plan to make the government’s job easier. In return for no direct pay cuts, the union leaders offered a temporary two week lay off, without pay, for all public sector workers. In the “Transformation Agenda”, they offered the government public sector reform on a plate! The government rejected this offer, introduced the pay cuts to which the union leaders offered no meaningful resistance and four months later, have signed up to a rehashed version of the public sector reform deal. The ICTU leaders have been well and truly suckered by their former partners.

All of this has been taking place against the backdrop of mass unemployment, which now stands officially at nearly 14%, and the return of mass emigration. While the trade union leaders have been making deals and attempts at protocols, workers have been losing their jobs or suffering major pay cuts and attacks on their working conditions. The partnership between the government and the employers has been based on the dual strategy of driving down public sector workers pay to prepare the ground for similar cuts in the private sector. As the earlier figures show, this has yielded them an across-the-board cut in wages of 10%. But it is not only workers’ pay that is under attack.

Workers’ instinctive resistance

Workers are also facing an attack on their trade union rights and their hard won working conditions. TEEU (Technical Engineering and Electrical Union) members at Green Isle (a multinational food manufacturer) were forced to go on hunger strike to defend their right to be represented by a trade union. When air traffic controllers went on strike in a legitimate claim relating to major changes in work practices, their action was met by hysterical calls for a strike ban. These calls were raised throughout the media by the usual suspects and were not just directed at air traffic controllers. Calls were made for a ban on the right to strike by ESB (state electricity company) workers, health workers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers and even some workers in public transport such as airline staff.

Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus managers have both been using the recession and the excuse of falling passenger numbers to cut routes, buses and to get rid of workers. In a country with a notoriously poor public transport system, what we need is more buses not less. With 435,000 people on the dole, the trade unions should not be agreeing to any redundancies, compulsory or voluntary.

Trade union leaders have now accepted that voluntary redundancies are acceptable. A job loss, whether it is imposed or as a result of a pay-off, still represents one less job in the economy and contributes to mass unemployment. It is particularly appalling that the trade union leaders are agreeing to such job losses in the public sector, in semi-states and unionised private sector companies, getting rid of what tend to be the better paid, pensionable jobs with trade union rates. Inevitably, in many instances, these jobs are replaced by “yellow pack” jobs in the private sector, as work is outsourced or contracted out.

Union leaders under pressure

In an editorial entitled “The Croke Park deal” (The Irish Times 15 April 2010), it states boldly and arrogantly: “The challenge will lie in pragmatic union leaders managing unrealistic expectations that this deal can actually be defeated and working to salvage the best they can to fight another day”. They are, of course, referring to the public sector agreement and they are not the only ones perpetuating the lie that public sector workers cannot defeat this deal and that nothing more could be achieved through struggle. PSEU (Public Sector Executive Union) President, Fiona Lee, speaking to her union conference claimed: “It is the view of our negotiators and of your Executive Committee that these are the very best set of proposals that can be negotiated in the present circumstances or perhaps that they are the least worst set of options available. They have been recommended to members on that basis”. That is some endorsement – “the least worst set of options”- but she is not the only one. Sheila Nunan, the new INTO (Irish National Teachers Organisation) General Secretary, said in a live televised debate on the deal, that public sector workers should vote “yes” because this was the “least worst option”. It is amazing how they can twist and contort the English language in their attempts to make this rotten deal more palatable.

Jack O’Connor, President of SIPTU, has attempted to attack the political and business elite for creating the mess, whilst accepting there is no alternative but for working class people to pick up the tab for the crisis. In SIPTU’s journal, ‘Liberty’, he wrote: “The alternative is to escalate the current campaign of industrial action and the outcome of such a confrontation would be difficult to call. It would certainly cause pain on all sides but it would also, inevitably, provide further excuse for the profit hungry privatisation lobby that seeks to outsource whole swathes of the public service”.

Shay Cody, General Secretary designate of IMPACT (the largest public sector union), is also an advocate of the deal. At a public debate he stated that, “the purpose of any industrial action is not to achieve disruption, it’s to achieve negotiations”.

Shay Cody, Jack O’Connor and all of the other general secretaries who signed up to this rotten deal has come up against a major backlash across all sections of the public sector workforce. Shortly after the deal was announced, the anger emerged and quickly union leaders like Blair Horan (CPSU General Secretary), who initially was waxing lyrical on the radio that this was a great deal, did a volte-face once they realised there was an avalanche of opposition developing amongst the membership.

Within days, over 600 emails flooded the CPSU head offices in an outpouring of rage, anger and opposition to the deal. A flavour of the mood can be seen in extracts from just five of these emails: “I don’t usually get involved in these emails but our members are very angry…”, “Like most who are responding I don’t normally engage but am so F****** angry at this point…”, “What an absolute farce! It does seem just from hearing from friends that members of other unions are just as pissed off as us…”, “Considering Blair Horan’s apparent betrayal of the union members….can we as the ultimate body of the union replace him?”, and finally “This is a manifesto of the rich with the less well off paying for it. This Croke Park agreement must be rejected! Where is Karl Marx when you need him?”

Faced with the prospect of defeat, SIPTU and IMPACT senior officials decided to put a distance between the recent bailout of the Anglo Irish Bank (which undoubtedly has added to the angered felt by public sector workers) by delaying their ballots on the deal. The public sector union leaders sought and received “clarification”, none of which has fundamentally altered the deal. These clarifications, plus a ruling from the Labour Court for health workers (who make up 50% of IMPACT’s membership), which seems to offer them job security against compulsory redundancies, is being used alongside a major propaganda campaign by SIPTU and IMPACT leaders to promote the message that “there is no alternative” to this agreement.

If this is not enough to sell the Croke Park deal to the members, then they may well come back, just as happened with the Lisbon Treaty, with a restructured deal and try to get it through a second time.

So far, seven public sector unions have rejected the deal – the nurses and midwives by 84%, and six unions have voted for it. The two biggest and decisive unions, SIPTU and IMPACT, are due to announce their ballot results in the week beginning 6 June and the Public Services Committee of ICTU is meeting on the 15 June to make a final decision on the deal.

Vote no to the deal

The battle to get a no vote is essential but so too is the longer term goal of defeating the government’s agenda. The public sector agreement can be defeated but that will not in itself stop the government from trying to implement its counter-reforms within the public sector. Nor will it stop further cuts in public sector workers’ pay, which are on the cards, whether the deal is passed or rejected. The depth of the economic crisis (which now sees Ireland with the biggest budget deficit in the eurozone – even bigger than Greece) will see the government try to take more from the pockets of the working class.

Contrary to the claims by the union leaders and the newspaper opinion writers, a concerted and determined struggle by public sector workers could defeat this deal and the government’s agenda. More, such a struggle could bring down this very weak government. It is a struggle of this calibre that is needed, for this government must be defeated or working class people and society will pay a terrible price.

The majority of trade union leaders are a barrier to this struggle. They are not prepared to fight, they do not believe in the fight itself – they support the government’s public service “reform” agenda and they accept the idea that there is no alternative but for working class people to pay for the economic crisis.

“Organise to fight, Fight to win”

Last year, Irish workers showed their power, both during mass demonstrations but more importantly in the one day public sector strike on 24 November. We need more strikes of this nature to defeat the government. In the event of the public sector deal being pushed ahead, rank and file public sector trade unionists should vociferously argue for a campaign of rolling strike action – of one day, two day, and three day public sector strikes – that bring this country to a halt until the government either scraps its plans or falls. Such a campaign can be victorious and would have a major impact on society and right across Europe, giving confidence and inspiration to tens of millions of workers.

The short term pain of losing pay during such a campaign of strike action would be rewarded by the long term gain of defending pay, jobs, conditions and services. A defeat of this government would send a loud and powerful message to Fine Gael (the main opposition party) and Labour – potentially the next coalition government parties – that public sector workers will not prepared to accept these attacks, no matter who is in power.

Successful GAMA struggle

The Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) is organising to defeat the attack on the public sector and also to build an alternative to the current trade union leaders. Already with some success, we are working with others to build “broad left” opposition groups within many trade unions. We need to build these campaigning groups, around a programme of struggle and for greater internal union democracy.

The regular election of full time union officials, to be paid the average wage of the members they represent, is not just a “nice” idea; it is a necessity if the grip of right-wing senior union officials is to be broken. Increased democracy within the unions is a necessity if working class people are to defend themselves against the employers and the government. Trade unionists are beginning to see during this recession more clearly that this is a society run in the interests of the rich and the capitalist class. Unfortunately, we have union leaders who are more on their side than ours. We need to get organised within all trade unions to build a major opposition to the current union leaders, we need to win back the unions to a programme based on a fighting defence of working class people.

The anger that is growing daily within the working class is pointing ever more clearly towards increased struggle by workers against the government and the employers attacks. The disgust at the continuing bank bailouts, of astronomical figures, whilst relatively speaking, much smaller amounts of money cannot be provided to fund public services and wages, is not lost on working people and can create the conditions for a political and industrial explosion in the South of Ireland.

In particular, in 2010, rising unemployment, mass emigration, and the historic assault on public services and public sector workers is taking place, alongside the multi-billion bank bailouts. Yet this year interest rates are set to rise, possibly between 0.5 – 1.5%, plus and further bank bailouts and at least €3 billion of further cuts are due. This will increase the burden on families struggling to make ends meet. The justification for these increases is bank profits. But low paid public sector workers, families who are dependant on one job or those where no one is working, will all struggle and buckle under these new financial burdens.

The widespread anger that has risen to the surface across the public sector is systematic of a process of political change that is occurring within the working class. Discontent is brewing and the conditions exist for sudden changes in mood and consciousness that can result in sharp struggles and even political and industrial explosions. Ireland is in a worse financial predicament that Greece, and it may not be too long until Irish workers are also, like their Greek counterparts, on the streets participating in national strikes that threaten to bring this hated government down.

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