Resistance and capitulation after the Budget
25 October 2008
Around 15,000 older people and 10,000 students demonstrated outside the Dail on Wednesday 22nd in angry protest against the measures in the budget which removed automatic qualification of the over 70s for medical cards, increased registration fees for university entry and cuts in other education services. This was a startling demonstration of deep anger at the range of measures introduced in the budget which crystallised particularly around the removal of medical cards. The government had expected that their significant concession on medical card eligibility would have neutralised the issue, which meant they were especially shocked at the size and visible fury of many of the elderly demonstrators.
This led one TD to venture that ‘maybe this is what the revolution looks like’, while Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny noted, less dramatically, that ‘in my long years in this house I have never witnessed what I saw on the streets today.’ Both of these remarks were way over the top, especially the first, and testify more to the continuing alarm of the Government and political class, evident since the bank bail out, than any sober and objective view of what is happening.
The demonstrations were nevertheless very significant. At root they reveal that the relatively long boom of the Celtic Tiger has not left everyone soporifically happy, and that many are more than ready to challenge what they perceive as blatantly unfair attacks on their living standards.
The two demonstrations thus revealed the true character of the government and the opposition. The government announced a mind-blowing guarantee to the banks and then turned round and made dozens of attacks on working class people with the cry that the country could no longer afford their ‘generous’ welfare. Their hypocritical call to patriotism has gone down like a lead balloon among many and the sheer scale of the double standards involved has even now yet to sink in. Many have gotten used to some reasonable living standards are not prepared to surrender them so quickly or easily. Meanwhile commentators bemoan the fact that the governing parties have not prepared their constituencies for the dire economic circumstances that have just arrived, or for the necessary sacrifices required, if not for the ‘nation’, at least for the ‘economy.’
The state of the government was well explained by the leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, who put his party on ‘election footing’ and predicted that the coalition’s days were numbered: “. . . we have seen the biggest budget shambles, possibly in the history of the State; the withdrawal of support for the Government by two deputies, and the resignation of a number of councillors from Government parties; a major retreat by the Government on two key elements of the budget; claims by the deputy leader of the Green Party that her party had threatened to walk out of Government last weekend; an unprecedented public backlash against the Government, manifested in the biggest demonstrations on social or economic issues since the 1980s; and an admission by the Taoiseach that his authority has been undermined.” The biggest problem now facing this government is that their swinging cuts are nowhere near big enough to pass the costs of the recession and/or the bank bail-out onto the working class.
The protests demonstrated a taster of the sort of opposition that exists and any new attacks will face – large and very angry demonstrations that are almost spontaneous, involving organisations that have not previously been able to mobilise such large numbers in the past. The demonstrations however have severe weaknesses, evidenced by the speakers at the demonstrations, meant to deliver their political message, which included leaders of the main Dail opposition parties, the same parties which in the recent general election had so little to differentiate themselves from the governing parties. In other words they represent absolutely no real alternative.
Thus we have seen the exasperated declarations of Brian Cowan that people have not internalised the gravity of the economic mess. In this he is most certainly including the opposition parties. It can be said without fear of contradiction that these parties would introduce their own attacks on working people just as severe were they now in office. We know this because we have seen it before during that period we are now reminded of so often – the 1980s.
Many demonstrators were quoted saying that they would never vote for Fianna Fail again, but a strategy of waiting to the next election to vote in another bunch wedded to the same policies, because they support the same capitalist system, is not a way forward. Unfortunately focusing on the next local and European elections is also the main strategy of the left organisations. Of course they also support demonstrations but the question is the same for both – voting for what and demonstrating for what? What do we do to organise now?
What we need is continuing organisation and mobilisation around a united opposition to the budget and an alternative guarantee scheme – not for the banks, but for the workers, the health and education services and the swelling ranks of the unemployed. This is not just an organisational task but a political one. How on earth could all those opposed to the various aspects of the current budget attacks be united except on some political basis?
Immediately however we face something blindingly obvious. Workers are already organised, or at least supposed to be, in trade unions. But where were they in last weeks’ events?
This brings us to the second very significant development during the week.
Two issues have dominated reaction so far, although the education cuts may soon also come to the fore: the attacks on entitlement to medical cards and the 1% levy on even the lowest paid workers. Massive public opposition to the former was reflected in pressure on and through the governing parties; through the media on television and radio phone-ins, and through public protest culminating in the demonstration on Wednesday. This did not reverse the abolition of automatic entitlement to a medical card, which thus lays the ground for further attacks, but it did force a significant retreat by the government, so that perhaps only 20,000 instead of 125,000 will lose their entitlement.
Contrast this with the opposition to the 1% levy on even the lowest paid workers which was led by the trade unions, especially SIPTU. While the elderly were united in opposition to the loss of universal access and protested angrily even when most still retained their entitlement, the trade unions divided over who they thought should escape the levy. ICTU stood for the levy to be abolished for those earning less than €23,000 a year, while SIPTU mentioned a figure of €38,000. No proposals were put forward to tax more heavily those earning over €200,000, €300,000 or €400,000. The government concession eventually announced was that the levy would not apply to those earning below the minimum wage of €17,542, proudly pointing out that this would thus exempt 36% of the workforce!
So after the many years of the Celtic Tiger over one third of those in work earn less than the minimum wage! How can this be? Why isn’t this an occasion for embarrassment? Even with government figures, while the hardly organised over 70s got over 80% of themselves excluded from the government’s attack, the unions got just over one third, who shouldn’t be so lowly paid in the first place. Why didn’t the superior organisation, numbers and economic power of the trade union movement achieve more than Ireland’s elderly?
We need look no further than the respective reactions to the government’s two decisions. While the elderly reacted with a large and furious demonstration, which shouted down and refused to listen to government spokespeople, the trade unions’ reaction has been quite different. Listening to the government is celebrated by union leaders as their crowning achievement, going by the name of social partnership. The major weapon they had to dissuade the government from its attacks was refusal to support the new pay deal which will seal yet more pay cuts after its predecessor did the same. Having been rebuffed in their meagre ‘demands’ the leaders of ICTU, SIPTU and Mandate have now all backed the new pay deal.
This is despite SIPTU noting that, in the context of the overall budget, the government’s move was ‘almost meaningless.’ They justified their support with arguments that are ridden with contradiction. They say that the pay-cut deal must be accepted because, if they rejected it, their members would still be stuck with “all the unsavoury aspects of the budget”, yet they deceitfully claim that they will still campaign against them. Inadvertently they admit their opposition will be a failure – no wonder the government retreated more in facing the elderly than in the front of the leadership of the trade unions! They have sat across the table from these people for two decades and they know their measure: if only some on the left, who think for example that SIPTU will lead a campaign against health cuts, were so awake.
No sooner had the union leaders signalled their acceptance of the deal than the government announced that the pay increase that had been allowed under it was not to be financed in the public sector, in other words it can be paid only by losing jobs. Let’s not kid ourselves that increased productivity will suffice; this does not lead to monetary savings in the public sector. So the excuse of the union leaders, that the deal must be accepted to ensure passage by the government of employment protection legislation, is blown out of the water. Not only will the budget lead directly to job losses, in education particularly, but the pay deal will also lead to job losses. The government will protect jobs by cutting them with the agreement of union leaders!
Neither can this move by the government have come as any surprise. The Health Services Executive had already indicated to the unions that the pay increase in the health service would have to be paid for by ‘efficiencies.’ The unions had responded that the health pay deal was like all the others in the public sector and in no other area had this been advanced. One can almost imagine the HSE bosses whispering under their breath - yes the health service will indeed be exactly the same as the rest of the public sector! If the union leaders didn’t see it coming after this then their claims to marvellous negotiating skills borne of extensive experience is akin to the expertise of the bankers who have brought their institutions to the brink of collapse. The union leaders’ claims that their expertise got workers as much as they could are again revealed to be undeserving self-promotion.
Despite the actions of the HSE the Irish Nurses Organisation has recommended acceptance of the deal. It joins many other union leaderships in doing so. Following the massive bail-out of the banks; the pay deal that introduces a pay freeze; the double standards of the budget in which workers have been clobbered and property developers rewarded, and now the proposal for workers to themselves fund their meagre pay increase, the actions of union leaders in still supporting the pay deal is surely conclusive evidence that these leaders are part of their opponents army.
Is this still too harsh a verdict for some? Are union leaders simply misguided? Are they simply too pessimistic about the ability of workers to change things?
The answer to the last two questions is NO. If the unions cannot win even the concessions won by the elderly, who are hardly organised, then those who excuse or minimise the treacherous role of union leaders have only one explanation left for the current rout of the unions – that the union movement is intrinsically too weak to resist. They are left with no other explanation. Far from Socialist Democracy being the pessimists, it is those who ignore or minimise the treacherous role of the union bureaucracy who are left powerless and at sea. They are left with hoping that the union leaders are simply misguided and can be persuaded to change their minds, which really counts on them simply being stupid.
The alternative is to decisively break from the union bureaucracy and to campaign among union members to show to them how their leaders are betraying them. They must do this under the banner of opposition to the new pay deal, opposition to the budget – all of it, and opposition to the bank bail out. Such opposition can only be based on putting forward a socialist alternative, not hiding behind vague populism about ‘people before profit.’ The biggest weakness of the angry resistance is that it thinks there is a ‘people’ unencumbered by irreconcilable class interests.
Class exploitation in current circumstances is not hard to explain. It is not difficult to elucidate the socialist alternative, yet too many on the left put forward only the mildest of arguments that many workers already can see perfectly for themselves. What they need is an explanation of what is wrong and what an alternative would be. They need to be told that this alternative lies with themselves not with future elections that even the left knows cannot provide an answer.
The actions of the elderly and students show that the working class does not begin and end in the union movement. It is necessary to unite this opposition to the budget and to realise the meaning of the bank bail out and the pay deal, that these too must be opposed. It is already clear that the elderly are not satisfied with the government’s concessions and all commentators are agreed that more attacks are on the way. It will not be possible for the government to exclude whole sections of the population from such attacks – except of course the ultra-rich and the multinationals for whom all this is being done.
Students will face further attacks through course fees and cuts in provision. The possibility immediately arises of unity with teachers facing cuts in numbers and increased class sizes. A tiny health campaign already exists, if it really means anything it too should be seeking to mobilise against the cuts along side those defending education services.
Opposition to the budget does not have
to be created, it already exists. What is needed is organisation,
mobilisation and radicalisation. For socialists the key to this is
having a political programme on which to unite and inform this opposition.