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  Insignificance? Socialists and trade union struggles

Maeve Connaughton

Joe Craig’s reply, in the last Red Banner, to my review of his book on social partnership contains one phrase I wholeheartedly agree with: “readers will be in a position to form a judgement by reading it for themselves”. In reviewing his book I backed up my observations and opinions with quotations, page numbers and all.  Joe can evidently quote with the best of them, but his denials are just that: blank disavowals of what I had to say, with nothing to support the attempted refutation. More than once he has to resort to the defence of the adulterer with his pants down—that he has been caught out of context. But the best of it is that his reply proves some of my points further, digging the hole deeper still.

I pointed to a pronounced tendency in the book to belittle the everyday struggles of workers for pay rises and so on. Joe says that my point “really only makes sense if in some sense these gains are significant. But they are not” So there we have it gains in pay and conditions won by workers are not in any sense significant. Let’s look at this a second. Say someone takes home €250 a week, and wins a rise of 40%—a figure Joe’s book mentions as making no difference. Is it insignificant to now have €350 in your pocket on Thursday night?
Suffice it to say that if any section of the working class had ever adopted this point of view, the consequences would have been disastrous. Only for workers fighting battles to hold on to what we have and get a bit more, whatever standard of living we have managed to win for ourselves would have been worn down to nothing. As James Connolly wrote, in a discussion not unlike the present one, “the most effective temporary way to resist a lowering of the standard of comfort is to encourage the workers to strike for higher wages. And you cannot do that and at the same time preach that a rise in wages is no good.” (The Connolly-De Leon Controversy, p 29.)

Of course such a gain is “inadequate, insecure and always liable to be taken away”, as Joe says, and his point that “There are limits to what workers can achieve” within capitalism is stating the obvious. But these are arguments for going beyond basic gains towards a general attack on capitalism—not for dismissing such gains as insignificant. Joe’s approach is like telling your grandmother not to get her hip replacement because she’ll still suffer with the bad back.

I argued, against Joe, that free collective bargaining—re-establishing the formal independence of the trade union movement—would be a great step forward from partnership. Joe counters with a quotation from his book:
“socialists could not disagree with workers taking advantage of relatively profitable conditions to advance their claims”. Picture the scene if you will, gentle reader. A group of workers are taking advantage of relatively profitable conditions to advance their claim. They stand on a cold, wintry picket line, tired, frozen, wondering whether they will win or lose. A figure manifests itself on the horizon. Who is it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathises? Someone who wants to help? It is none other than Joe Craig, who comes up to them and announces: ‘I cannot disagree with what you are doing.’ Now, there’s solidarity for you!

Joe pleads guilty to my accusation that he puts the union leaders in the same camp as the bosses: “The labour bureaucracy... went over to the capitalist class wholesale a long time ago.” He tells us that “They oppose socialism because they would not exist under it.” It’s true that a society which had abolished classes would have no call for trade unions. But it would have no call for dole offices either does that mean employees of the Department of Social Welfare can’t be socialists? Come to think of it, neither would it have much call for people advocating socialist revolution: does that mean myself and Joe can’t be socialists?

The argument is not just illogical but contrary to historical fact. Jim Larkin, for instance: was he not some class of a socialist? The US ruling class seemed to think so, and threw him in Sing Sing prison for three years because of it. If only Joe had been in the court to prove that the accused, being a union leader of long standing, could not possibly be a socialist!

Which brings me neatly to D.R. O’Connor Lysaght who, in the same Red Banner, digresses from a review of Larkin’s life to point out the error of my ways. Any union leader who doesn’t ditch socialism “will be cast out” by the rest, he says, instancing two of them. But why does his list stop there? Readers of this magazine will be aware that Lysaght knows more than most about Matt Merrigan: didn’t he manage to combine the roles of socialist and union leader for decades without being “cast out”? How come Mick O’Reilly lasted so long as a union leader without being “cast out”—and why is there a possibility of him being cast back in again? Why has there been a veritable rash of left-wingers being cast into union leadership positions across the water of late?

These are the exception rather than the rule, of course, and there are definite limits to their radicalism. But they prove that the politics of the trade union bureaucracy is more complicated than Joe (or Lysaght) imagines, and lumping them in with the capitalist class is plain wrong. “If they can be pressurised, as Maeve believes, then there is no necessity for rank and file control.” But they can be pressurised, and often are. Why did the leaderships of several unions oppose the latest partnership deal? It wasn’t out of self-interest: social partnership, after all, suits the union bureaucracy down to the ground. They knew that they wouldn’t have got away with it: in other words, the pressure of their members forced them to oppose it. If the argument for rank-and-tile control was premised on Joe’s principle that the leaders can’t be pressurised, then the argument would fall with a thud.

But this isn’t the premise of the argument. Independent rank-and-file action is needed because the union leadership’s intermediate position between workers and bosses leads them to temporise and sell us short That rank-and-file action can often take the form of forcing leaders to do what the members want, of pushing them further than they want to go. Lysaght comes close to recognising this when he says that “socialists can work with such people on specific issues”—although, as long as the majority of the working class implicitly or explicitly follow their lead, socialists have no choice but to work with them. Joe’s approach implies that, when a union leader opposes a rotten deal, we should just denounce them as a running-dog of the bourgeoisie infiltrating our movement.

Socialists who strike a begrudging pose in the face of basic workers’ struggles condemn themselves to the role of the chorus in Greek drama, commenting on events they never play a part in. It is sectarian to regard these struggles as insignificant except in so far as they lead people to agree with your own programme. A socialist opposition to partnership will have to emerge from struggles against it and, while those struggles will have a lot to learn from socialists, socialists will also have a lot to learn from them. That two-way process can only take place if socialists take a wholehearted part in these struggles.

My review rejected the notion of “a self-selecting vanguard importing socialist politics into the working class”, to which Joe replies: “By definition, socialists are self-selecting”. Yes, socialists do select themselves, but a vanguard doesn’t: a vanguard is only a vanguard when it has an army behind it. Socialists who stand around with their own script in their back pocket, waiting until the working class learn the words of it, are unlikely to get very far. Joe concludes by reminding us of “the distance to be travelled and the scale of the obstacles to be overcome”. Fair enough, but we don’t make the journey any easier by starting from the wrong place.


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