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Croke Park sell out: Time for a workers alternative!
12 April 2010
At first sight the round of public service trade union conferences at Easter gives reason for cheer amongst socialists. The majority came out against the sell-out proposed by ICTU. SIPTU confined discussion to the bureaucracy, with their executive crying crocodile tears while recommending the deal. Even the INTO executive, along with SIPTU the core of social partnership, held the line with only 4 votes - 308 to 304.
At last it appeared that a section of the working class were rejecting the policy of collaboration with Irish capitalism and calling for opposition.
The Croke Park deal really left little choice. The agreement gives away basic rights like the 8 hour day and the 5 day week, leading immediately to a pay cut for health workers as overtime and rota payments are withdrawn. It commits teachers to an extra hour unpaid work per week and introduces a ‘white employment contract – a blank sheet of paper where management may write what they wish. Croke Park promises massive cuts in pension rights and bans strike action against any further attacks the government may dream up. In return the government promises not to cut pay further or to impose compulsory redundancies. The government promises are conditional on there not being further crises. Given that the deal coincided with an unexpected call for a further £10 billion from Anglo-Irish bank, effectively the government is offering nothing at all and ICTU are simply calling for absolute capitulation.
Nothing could more clearly illustrate the differing interests of the bureaucracy and the workers. The Croke Park deal is, like the earlier pension levy, a proposal of the bureaucracy rather than an imposition of the government. It offers nothing to the workers and would represent a stunning defeat. However for the union leadership it offers the continuation of partnership and they depend far more on collaboration with the bosses than on any requirement to defend workers.
Yet an alternative current in the trade union movement has yet to emerge. In the vast majority of the unions the protests are being led by the bureaucrats who negotiated the sell-out in the first place. Returning to executive bodies that were uniformly hostile they have made 180 degree turns and are already bending every sinew to make sure that opposition remains responsible - so the TUI executive attempted to prevent a demonstration against the Fianna Fail minister and the ASTI secretary indicated that that union would not be "backed into a corner" (of strike action).
Much more problematic than the machinations of the bureaucracy is the reality that the program of opposition remains similar to that of the union leadership. Many speakers at conferences criticized the lack of guarantees and simply called for rejection of the deal and a program of industrial action. The aim of the alternative resolution presented at the INTO congress was for a "better fairer way''.
Few see that calling for a better fairer way of paying the tens of billions of debt built up by the bankers and speculators is just an agreement to pay and that tax systems are funded almost entirely by the working class. The better fairer program of ICTU led inevitably to Croke Park. Rewinding the film a few months will not lead to a better result.
Although some delegates made reference to the ease with which money could be found for NAMA and the zombie banks while the government was simultaneously demanding more from the workers, there was no call to oppose NAMA, even as the first tranche of bad debt was transferred from the banks and the government accepted that on one third of assets transferred offered any realistic chance of repayment. Behind the debates lay the hidden assumptions of nationalism - that we were all, bankers, bosses and workers, in the same predicament.
This political weakness was perfectly illustrated by a guest address to the INTO congress by David Begg, the secretary of ICTU and the bureaucrat's bureaucrat. Begg patronised the delegates unmercifully, yet much of his bluster met with applause.
According to Begg, the union bureaucracy were playing the long game. They were stepping in to deal with a corrupt right-wing government. They had advanced workers wages when times were good and now they were protecting us from pay cuts in bad times. As consultants is the process they would guide Ireland towards a Kensyian economic policy, which Begg seemed to believe was a form of socialism rather than an outmoded strategy of capitalism. The fact that this tosh was met with applause illustrates the level of confusion within the audience. The shock and anger produced by the Croke Park deal has not ended working class support for the bureaucracy. Protest has not yet become political opposition or a political alternative.
The INTO bureaucracy played on this weakness. They claimed that members were afraid of strike action, even though they had twice had ballots with large majorities and not acted on them. They claimed that further pay cuts would follow a rejection of the Croke Park deal. They appealed to nationalism - one speaker claiming the spirit of 1916 as a reason for donating our pay to the bankers! The links between the bureaucracy and Fianna Fail were exposed, with claims that they would deal more sympathetically with workers than other parties!
The sharpest point of the INTO debates came when a member of the executive contrasted earlier pay rises and recent pay cuts and argued that the bureaucracy had protected members and kept them ahead of the game. One delegate responded sharply that the proportion of national expenditure on wages had fallen steadily throughout the years of social partnership while the proportion representing profit had grown steadily - a process overseen by ICTU.
By far the strongest response to the Croke Park deal came at the TUI conference. Delegates there called directly for the repudiation of NAMA and for the defence of public services that could overcome the campaign to divide public and private sector workers.
A crucial point has been reached in the offensive against the working class. Public sector workers have rejected an empty offer and the strength of that rejection has forced a split in the bureaucracy.
The Easter conferences have caused deep concern in Irish capitalism. There really is no way that this is the last bite of the cherry. If workers are persuaded to vote for this then the resulting demoralisation will ease further cuts. The government have benefited greatly from a collaborationist trade union leadership and are concerned that it might fragment under pressure. The result has been a media witchunt and threats from Jack O'Connor of SIPTU that smaller unions would be penalized for opposition.
The immediate issue centres around the ability of ICTU to push the deal through, but it would be a tragedy if the opposition leadership was to remain with a section of the bureaucracy waging a half-hearted protest and if the program were to continue to be a fairer way to pay rather than an alternative program defending the rights of the working class. The demands for a workers bank and the repudiation of the bank bail-out must make there way onto the agenda in the nascent movement is to be born form the current struggle.
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