Commentators across Europe, indeed the world, have marvelled at the ability of the Irish to suffer punishing austerity without strikes, riots and political convulsions. Local commentators have basked in their acclaim as the austerity poster-boy – in damning comparison to those Greeks and other southern Europeans. Instead the Irish voted for a European austerity Treaty and voted in a Fine Gael-led coalition with politics no different from the previous Fianna Fail led one. If opinion polls are to be believed, many have gone back to supporting the utterly discredited Fianna Fail. The recent Meath by-election saw the Fine Gael candidate handsomely returned and the particular local circumstances do not adequately explain it.
Irish workers accepted the tearing up of the existing social partnership deal and voted for a new one called Croke Park, which inflicted cuts in services and conditions, including yellow pack terms and conditions for younger workers, in return for no compulsory redundancies.
Unemployment however has soared, reaching over 14 per cent officially and, according to the IMF, over 23 per cent if the underemployed are included. This is despite emigration of tens of thousands of the younger generation to destinations across the world.
Yet still the ‘fighting Irish’ showed no signs of fighting.
This is the significance of the vote on a new Croke Park deal. Irish workers have said NO.
If it has been a surprise to many on our side it has been a shock to the Government who thought their threats, bullying and intimidation would work. Above all they thought the rotten leadership of the Irish trade union movement, which supported the new deal, would pull it through.
Its mouthpieces in the media reacted with denial. The ‘Irish Times’ journalist said “it was so close”, “if 1,000 members of SIPTU had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote – there was an extraordinarily low turnout of 45 per cent – the deal would have sufficient support to be ratified.”
There is a grain of truth in this but we will come back to this. Let us first note that the press and media betray once again their class character by agonising about how the democratic wishes of the workers can be subverted by ‘tweaking’ the deal to get it through. You will search in vain for commentary deliberating over how the workers’ majority can assert and validate their democratic decision.
The deal has been rejected but the vote is a mere inconvenience. It doesn’t count. The workers can say anything they want and will be listened to, but only if they agree. Like European referendums voting is to allow worker s to approve the plans of the capitalist class and its state. Again and again Irish workers are taught this lesson – voting is not a choice, it’s a stamp made of rubber.
Instead we are fed rubbish that a vote that saw the deal decisively rejected by a majority of two to one, 115,000 to 55,000, could somehow have been passed “if 1,000 members of SIPTU had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote.” The votes of those who didn’t vote are ‘virtually’ counted to support austerity while in fact the vote against will have awakened the many workers who didn’t vote to the possibility of voting against the Government, the State, the mass media and their own rotten leaderships.
But even these propagandists of the system couldn’t help but recognise that many workers voted no, not because they were personally affected very badly by the deal, but because they didn’t think they should vote for other workers to take a pay cut.
The grain of truth – that the result could have been very different – is a reflection of the bureaucratic nature of the trade union movement, where a majority of 60,000 might be reversed by 1,000 voting differently in the biggest union. This is only one illustration of what is now the biggest question that is to be answered, which is not the one asked in the media – of what will the Government do? The real question is – what will, or can, the workers do about their leaders who recommended and argued for and censored the opposition to this rotten deal?
The problem is neatly encapsulated by a report on the Irish National Teachers Organisation Conference at which delegates wanted to put an emergency motion calling on the leadership to have a strategy in place if there was a No vote. This was ruled out of order but a weaker one was allowed. Only when delegates booted this out was a compromise motion passed that called “on the central executive committee to urgently liaise with the executives of other public service unions with a view to promoting and planning a public service solidarity alliance of trade unions across the public service.”
What this episode reveals all too obviously is the restrictions placed on workers by union bureaucracy and this bureaucracy’s intention of relying on the Government to ‘tweak’ the deal so it can be imposed on the membership. It shows the awareness of trade unionists that a strategy is required and one that seeks the maximum unity. The obvious weakness involves relying on the same union bureaucrats to provide this strategy and implement it.
Putting together a convincing strategy will not be easy but the vote itself is a massive step forward, as is the appreciation of the need for a strategy and for this to be based on unity within the union movement.
Very early on in the current crisis the then Government relatively easily divided workers through claiming those working in the public and private sectors had separate and opposing interests. The union leaders seemed only too happy to walk into this trap. Their willingness to sacrifice services for short-term and increasingly illusory benefits for public sector workers has failed even these workers as their pay has been slashed and the deal they signed up to was torn up with union consent. Meanwhile the workers who use these services have had some confirmation that the quality of these services may suffer to defend the conditions of those who deliver them.
The initial reaction against this disastrous approach was recourse to an even more divisive one, with the creation of a Frontline Alliance that saw narrow trade unionism prioritise the interests of some workers who are on the frontline of some services, implying a common interest not shared across all workers. However I’ve yet to meet a frontline service that could operate without the support of rearguard(?) workers.
Even this signalled not some reduced form of trade union unity but the plaintive cries of the ‘special case’. I remember listening to an interview some months back on ‘The Last Word’ on Today FM with a group of union leaders from this Alliance. What was most striking was that when they were interviewed one-by-one there was hardly the slightest hint of a common grievance. They seemed totally ignorant of how narrow their complaints seemed and how stupid a strategy is which is based on claiming special treatment when such an all-engulfing attack is being meted out.
There are other courses of action and what might seem like alternative courses for workers looking to fight back are in fact the same struggle.
The view that it is impossible to get the union movement to fight back without first kicking out its rotten leadership replaces a task on which workers have just voted – rejection of Croke Park 2 – with one they have not had placed clearly before them, debated and decided upon. There is limited traction in simply claiming ‘betrayal’ and saying these leaders must be replaced now before a real struggle to give effect to the No vote can be realised.
The entirely justified and valid view that the current union leaders must be replaced can be achieved by demonstrating to the majority of members the practical effects of these leaders supporting attacks on their interests while frustrating any resistance. In the course of mounting this resistance the task of replacing these leaders can be posed but not as a precondition or prior requirement for such resistance.
The related questions of whether workers should demand that their leaders hammer out a united strategy or should unite at rank and file level to achieve this themselves are also not opposed. While rank and file workers must unite across unions to create their own structures this can only be in addition to the established ones. In this way they might demand that their separate leaderships take action and also advance towards an end-point where, if they do not, workers are in a position to pose this task practically themselves.
In doing so workers might learn that replacing the current leaders is not enough and that what is really required is an entirely rejuvenated trade union movement. One that is open, democratic and not in thrall to either bureaucratic leaders or bureaucratic structures and rules. A big step forward has been taken with the No vote and the Government is faced with the threat of resistance.
As this post is finished it is reported that the Government does indeed intend to ‘tweak’ the deal in what is called a “carrot and stick approach”. Since it still intends to make the same amount of cuts what won’t change are the pain and divisiveness of the tweaked deal and the threats that will accompany it. Like donkeys workers are expected to look at a carrot paraded in front of them while what they feel is the stick.