- here comes the recession
November 2001 recorded the largest monthly increase in unemployment on record in the South accompanied by a fall in manufacturing output of 7.1% in the third quarter of the year. This has affected tax revenues to such an extent that a forecasted surplus of £2.5bn turned into a deficit. One off measures in the budget have only postponed public spending cuts and/or tax increases to after the election. From being the world’s fastest growing, the Irish State is now widely reported as the world’s most rapidly slowing economy.
This means an escalation in attacks on working class living standards required to restore profitability to capitalist enterprises. It is an escalation the working class is ill prepared to resist. The left has criticised the failure of many working people to grab their share of the booming economy and has repeatedly called for strike action in pursuit of higher wages as the way forward. This was inadequate during the boom and will be even less useful now. Recessionary conditions will be less forgiving of poor strategies but may also compel a reckoning with the central issues.
The most important task facing workers during the boom was to use relatively favourable economic conditions as an aid to challenge their trade union leaders so that they were able both to make gains during the boom and be in a better position to defend themselves during the inevitable downturn. The task was essentially political because the trade union leaders as a group have swallowed whole the neo-liberal agenda that has been advanced by the State and employers.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Aer Lingus. The workers are faced with over 2,000 redundancies, a wage freeze and a marked deterioration in their conditions. All this before the airline is sold off to the private sector where its future is anyone’s guess. The response of the trade union leaders is not to close the airport through industrial action, easily possible as witnessed in the Ryanair dispute in 1998, but to demand 30% of the airline for employee share ownership instead of the 14.9% on offer. Privatisation is seen as the solution – not the problem!
The fact that workers are being asked to sell their pay and conditions for more and more of less and less goes without challenge. In fact the privatisation agenda goes back a long way to the original break-up of the company into different components including TEAM, airports and Aer Lingus itself. The strategy of diversification under state ownership in order to survive was abandoned and the result is the remains of the company being picked over by multinational capital. The reason now given for withholding state aid is that EU rules forbid it. What a sick joke. The whole Irish State is founded on subsidising private investment, including millions of pounds given each year in hand outs to multinationals through grants and tax concessions. And after all didn’t the Irish people reject the diktats of the EU bureaucracy in the Nice referendum anyway?
Six months ago the left was applauding the rash of strikes at Aer Lingus and the move of some workers from SIPTU to MANDATE. At the time we described it as similar to moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. So it has proved. The union bureaucracy was unchallenged and remains firmly in control. It does no more than appear on television bleating about saving a national asset and being ridiculed and humiliated by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. The Aer Lingus workers now face the same future as those of Eircom where Sir Anthony O’Reilly has declared that he will replace existing workers on civil service terms and conditions with flexible part time employees.
There is of course another alternative. It means rejecting the existing union leaders and rejecting pursuit of an increased share of a privatised and increasingly helpless company. It means industrial action demanding full state investment to keep the company viable and workers control of the company so that it is kept out of the hands of the so-called experts who, for example, could think of nothing better to do with Telecom Eirann than split it up and sell it off - at a loss to everyone but themselves