In August drivers at Dublin Bus went on strike in opposition to yet another proposed cost cutting exercise in the company totaling €11m. Subsequently a group comprising the Government, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the employers’ body IBEC, joined together to carry out an investigation into why Labour Court recommendations about cost cutting proposals had been consistently rejected.
From a workers’ point of view it is difficult to know where to start in responding to such an initiative. ICTU joined with those seeking to cut terms and conditions in order to investigate why workers hadn’t done as they were told by management. It might have been thought that unions were there to see how workers could defend conditions but the combination involved of bureaucrats, bosses and government have been engaged in a conspiracy against the decisions of the workers.
This is dressed up as concern for the drivers themselves – the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar and the Minister of State Alan Kelly have said that the investigators had worked independently “in an honest attempt to address the concerns of drivers”. But addressing the concerns of drivers for these independent experts means that “We ask the drivers to agree to the final proposals.” In other words the drivers are to do as they are told.
And if they don’t the workers are threatened – “We are clear, however, that the outlook for Dublin Bus and its employees is very stark if this final effort does not succeed.”
To appreciate what ICTU has done it is best to consider what it didn’t do.
ICTU didn’t commit itself to an investigation to ascertain if the claims by management about the financial position of Dublin Bus were correct.
ICTU didn’t investigate why the major concessions made by drivers in at least two previous productivity/cost-cutting agreements have failed to resolve the company’s financial crises despite management assurances to the contrary. Why are they threatened by yet another cost-cutting exercise? Has management lied about the promised effects of previous cuts or has it just been incompetent in developing a robust plan for the company?
ICTU didn’t investigate whether the support of bus services by the State was comparable to that in other states, whether the Government had any coherent transport plan for the capital or had taken adequate account of the role that transport plays in providing the infrastructure necessary for an efficient and prosperous society. Whether instead it had taken a narrow view of the company’s profitability without regard to wider benefits to society.
ICTU didn’t seek to collaborate with all the unions involved to determine a strategy that could assert and defend the bus drivers’ rights.
ICTU didn’t seek to rally together the bus unions, wider union movement and the users and potential users of the buses to initiate a campaign for an efficient, sustainable and decent bus service.
ICTU could have done lots of things and had plenty of alternatives but it decided to conspire with the bosses’ organisation and State to threaten the drivers. And it did it in plain sight.
When you think of it this way the actions of ICTU are shocking. But they don’t shock and they don’t surprise and they don’t do these things because workers have long got used to the fact that this is the way ICTU behaves. So registering anger and pointing out that ICTU are engaging in an act of betrayal is hardly enough.
Do socialists have an alternative?
The first and most important thing to understand is that socialists have no alternative unless workers decide to take matters into their own hands. The first step is therefore that workers fight to win ownership and control of their own struggles through ownership and control of their own trade unions.
In so far as the steps that ICTU should have taken are political ones, workers need to create their own political party. This of course is a longer term requirement only in the sense that it can realistically be achieved only over a number of years. And while the building of a genuinely democratic and militant trade union movement is also not an immediate prospect it is one that is immediately posed. In other words the fight to create it is always present, which means we must fight for it now.
These should be central tasks of Irish socialists and outside of them the debate about unity of the Left is pretty well irrelevant. If the Left wants to unite to build itself, unless this is a task to be achieved through the organisation of the working class itself, it will be sectarian. Left wing unity and political sectarianism are not mutually exclusive.
On the other hand genuine unity around such a task, achieved through democratic organisation, which alone can achieve it, would act as a beacon, however small, for workers in struggle.
In order to create it however we need to ask why we need such a movement. Why is the current movement inadequate, even treacherous, and what would a new one do? We need these answers in order to persuade workers to undertake the task of creating one.
So how do the ideas of socialism relate to the predicament facing Dublin’s bus workers?
First we should recognise that their repeated willingness to oppose management’s plans is the indispensable basis for any alternative.
Secondly we should inform workers that militant strike action by them will not be enough. As Marx and Engels repeatedly stated, strikes are often provoked by bosses in order to facilitate their own plans. Often they serve to save money, implement lock-outs and close workplaces. In Dublin Bus they will undoubtedly be used to blame workers for the financial difficulties the company is in. Strike action is insufficient and is not the only action that can be taken.
Do workers have an alternative solution of their own that could be put forward?
The first step in creating such an alternative would be to establish the real financial position of the company, which is what ICTU should have done. This would include an assessment of the support given to Dublin Bus by the state.
The second is to establish what sort of service should be provided and how it should be delivered.
The third is to determine whether the workers themselves can offer their own model of ownership to deliver this sort of service. Privatisation and continued state ownership both offer the same prospect of cuts in workers’ conditions. Reliance on state subsidy should be recognised as a weakness in the workers’ position. Dependence on the state, the ally and protector of the bosses, is reliance on precisely those that are insistent that the cuts be implemented. That these cuts must be made prior to privatisation is demonstration that both the bosses and state recognise that it is the latter which is best placed to reduce workers’ conditions.
The fourth is to publicise and win support among other workers and the travelling public. Other forms of action could be considered to achieve this such as providing ‘free travel’ days. Only a campaign structure going outside the confines of trade unionism could make such a campaign a reality.
It is no great feat of criticism to describe these steps as schematic or abstract. Only a really existing movement could make them anything else. Schemes, or plans, are there to be proposed and debated, discarded or modified as real, active workers determine. They sometimes abstract from the concrete realities of the situation, which give abstractions content, and become simply propaganda, usually when those with ideas lack the power to implement them. Propaganda however is almost everything when you have little else, which is where socialism in Ireland is at. Ideas are critical when an idea of how to fight back is the element that is missing from struggle.
The point of the commentary above is to inform workers and socialists that a certain understanding, class consciousness, is required to see any way out of the struggle that the bus workers find themselves engaged in.
One thing is for sure; the answer to the bus workers needs has been proved not to reside with management, the state or with ICTU. The second has yet to be proved – that it resides with the workers themselves and in the strength and solidarity that they can muster.