Masses force leaders to act

The difficulties faced by the Irish working class cannot be understated, writes Anne Mc Shane

Public sector workers in Ireland displayed a grim determination to resist further cuts when they turned out in their thousands on November 24.

The strike saw nearly a quarter of a million workers come out throughout the country. Many private sector workers refused to cross picket lines. The only state employees not joining in were emergency staff in areas badly hit by floods, who had decided to defer their action. Otherwise the strike was extremely solid - unsurprising given the overwhelming ballot in favour in every union.

From prison officers to nurses to clerical officers, the organised working class was out in force. The gardai, who are prohibited from striking, sent a message of support to the unions and refused to undertake many normal duties, including guarding the Dáil. They also declined to work overtime. The support for the strike and sheer strength of numbers showed the possibilities.

The main hurdle now to overcome is the cowardice and complicity of the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. While setting a second strike day on December 3, Ictu simultaneously announced a return to talks with government and employers to try to avert that action. David Begg, Peter McLoone and other union tops have openly stated their commitment to rescuing Irish capitalism. McLoone, chair of Ictu's private sector committee, has conceded that 'temporary adjustments' need to be made. He agrees that the public sector wage bill should be cut by '1.3 billion - but without reducing wages. This translates into a loss of overtime and shift premiums, unpaid holidays and job cuts. Ictu's Better, fairer way document sets out its alternative strategy - to extend the recovery period and implement the cuts more gently than planned by the government. Begg and others are now hoping the government has learned its lesson from the one-day strike and will be willing to play ball.

But taoiseach Brian Cowan has insisted that civil service employees will have their wages reduced - by at least 7%. He is 'not for turning' and is adamant in his refusal to give in to pressure from the unions. His government has been warned by the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank that €4 billion of cuts have to be made on December 9, as a precursor to even more severe attacks in 2010.

It is expected that Ictu will give ground on wages and come back with something less than a 7% cut. But trade union members are under far too much pressure, as they struggle to cope on incomes already slashed by almost 10% thanks to pension and income levies. There was fury in March when Ictu called off a national strike of public and private sector workers in favour of new talks. They produced nothing at all and it is clear that nothing will be gained out of continuing 'social partnership'. The only reason the November 24 strike went ahead was because of the mass pressure from below.

The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland - which has recently seen a damaging split based around most of what remains of its Belfast membership - has made some worthwhile, if limited, proposals. It has called for the formation of strike committees and for mass meetings leading up to a national demonstration on December 3. It also argues that unemployed and private sector workers should be drawn into the struggle. The Socialist Party agrees with the need for unity of the public and private sector and says that it stands 'for the establishment of a new party to fight for a left/socialist government that would end the dictatorship of the capitalist market and instead plan the economy for the needs of people, not the profits of the few'.

Discussion continued between both groups and others at the SWP's Marxism event last weekend. Deep-seated tensions were evident between the main protagonists, with little sighn of agreement beyond a possible commitment to work together on the December 3 demonstration. That is welcome, but hopefully it will be the start of a meaningful process which draws in others.

The difficulties faced by the Irish working class cannot be understated. The recent freak weather conditions have added to the economic stresses, causing social dislocation and homelessness. This has severely affected the rural community. But the sight of so many thousands taking action can only but give us tremendous hope. The raw material is there for the creation of a mass working class party but what is needed is a political programme for democracy in Ireland - curb the power and influence of the church and introduce the principles of secularism, a popular militia to replace the standing army, abolition of Seanad Éireann, the upper house of parliament, fight for a united Ireland with the right of self-determination for a British-Irish territory - and a strategy that links achieving this Ireland with the perspective of working class rule throughout the European Union.

For too long the left in Ireland has either mimicked the trade union bureaucracy or the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. Now is clearly the time for the politics of Marxism and working class independence.