Union bosses refuse to fight

Irish trade unions are tied to the establishment, writes Anne Mc Shane

The level of frustration at the cuts savagely imposed in the December 9 budget is huge. The poorest and most vulnerable in society have been targeted in across-the-board attacks. The unemployed in particular have suffered greatly and young claimants have had their benefits cut in half. Rent allowances have also been slashed, while child benefit is cut by 16%, further increasing the burden on families.

Public sector workers have also been hit with a further major cut in wages. Their salaries are to be reduced by between 5% and 15% - with the legislation due to be voted through on December 16. A whole raft of measures is being enacted whose effect will be to further impoverish the working class. Of course, that is precisely the intention of government. The current recession is being used as an opportunity to shift the burden of taxation away from welfare and make our class pay for the crisis. There are plenty of areas where cuts have not been made. These include ministerial perks, as well as (pertinently in the present political climate) the maintenance of an embassy in the Vatican.

The inability of the trade union leadership to resist - despite overwhelming votes from their members for action, mass demonstrations and a huge nationwide turnout on the public sector strike on November 24 - is loudly and rightly criticised by the left. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) called off the follow-up strike on December 3 amid claims that a deal had almost been reached with the government. And what a deal … public sector workers would have had to take 12 days compulsory unpaid leave in 2010.

Obviously this was a deal far more in the interests of the bureaucrats than their members. Crucially it would have allowed them to remain in social partnership, satisfied that their members were ‘sharing the pain’. But the government was having none of it. At the 11th hour it pulled out of talks and announced that there would be no compromise and the budget it had prepared would go ahead.

Union leaders are now out in the cold. Aggravated by such unfair treatment, they warn the government of a winter of discontent from January. Their members will not put up with the wage cuts. But their members are actually demoralised by their actions. Everybody knew the government wanted to make massive cuts. What they did not expect is that union leaders would be prepared to agree to them to the extent that they did.

But the role of the labour bureaucracy is precisely to compromise with capitalism. And the Irish trade union movement in particular is tied in very securely to the establishment and determined to stay there. The left must not sow any illusions in this leadership but aim to construct an alternative. Rank and file organisation in the unions is vital. But the essential question remains the need for a political party for our class. Such a party holds out the possibility of decisively shifting the balance of forces.

And while there is no doubt demoralisation, the struggle continues. For the first time in their history, the Garda Representative Association has balloted for strike action to resist the cuts. The ballot is illegal and any strike action would be unprecedented. But it is the first time in the history of the state that the gardai have faced a wage cut and they are defiant, despite severe warnings from government.

More struggles certainly lie ahead. The working class has shown its willingness to resist. But trade union struggles are not enough to win - this has been borne out by this latest debacle. We need political unity around a democratic working class programme.