Return to Racism menu
Disgraceful trade union speech highlights growing threat of racism

Joe Craig

25 October 2006

Around ten per cent of the 2 million labour force of the Irish State is made up of migrant labour often subject to terrible levels of exploitation.  Even the legal rights these workers notionaly have are ignored and trodden on.  While much of this abuse is hidden from view it is simply impossible to hide the massive numbers subject to exploitation.  Everyone has some knowledge, directly or indirectly, of what is going on.  This means that in some way it has to be condoned and justified.  This is the role of racism and this was the role played by the racist referendum of 2004 which was endorsed by 80% of the voters.

This of course is not the whole story. The exploitation is often so shocking that its exposure evokes widespread sympathy from the Irish people. This was true of the Turkish GAMA workers and of individual cases of children suddenly lifted by the Garda and shoved onto planes flying to far away countries.  It is recognised that the exploitation of migrant labour is not just a question for migrant workers but is increasingly used as a means of pressing down on the pay and conditions of native workers. This led to the huge demonstrations against the sacking of the Irish Ferries workers in which around 160,000 took part.  This and expressions of private sympathy show the possibility of an alternative to the racism at the heart of the citizenship referendum.

Unfortunately widespread sympathy with individual cases and willingness to demonstrate against exploitation has coexisted with a clearly racist political agenda which attacks the rights of immigrants and assists in their exploitation.

Debate has raged about the extent of labour displacement by migrant workers but no one can be in any doubt that when, not if, the growth of the economy slows the effects will be greater.  Nor can we doubt that the pervasive racism will become more virulent and aggressive.  The victims will not just be immigrants or native non-whites but the rest of the working class.  The possibility of building resistance to attacks on workers rights and conditions, never mind creation of a working class political alternative, will be dashed if racism is not challenged and routed.

It is easy to see that private sympathy is not enough.  It was this type of privatised emotion that was employed by the opponents of the referendum which engaged in liberal talk of treating all children equally but never looked as if it considered the question as a class one.  That racism is a threat to workers, that it provides scapegoats for the ills of the current social system, and is therefore extremely useful to those who benefit from this system seemed to be lost on the campaigners.  There seemed no recognition that what was needed was a working class political opposition to the racist referendum.

The same is true of demonstrations.  These took place under the auspices of the trade union leadership who managed to lose the Irish Ferries dispute in the process.  The demonstrations entailed no real opposition to the government or its racist agenda since these leaders were looking forward not to opposition to the government but to a new partnership deal with it.  The government thus knew it could safely ignore the demonstrations.  It knew they presaged not the creation of a campaign against exploitation and racism but merely a means for the union leadership to allow workers to let off steam and the leaders to continue to posture as the workers defenders.  The union leaders knew this.  The government knew this and the bosses knew it.  What does it mean for us to know it?

Well, if we know that racism can be promoted and advanced even with private sympathy and trade union demonstrations we should know that we need a political alternative, a socialist alternative that answers the racist pursuit of scapegoats not just by saying you’ve got the wrong person to blame but makes this more convincing by identifying the real culprit.  This means it has to be a campaign not only independent of the trade union leaders but opposed to them.  This must be obvious since they freely declare they are partners of the government that introduced the racist referendum and the bosses who carry out the exploitation. 

Yet still we get some from the left saying we should ignore this and concentrate on the real enemy; or seek alliances with sections of the bureaucracy or oppose one variety of partnership and ask for a different variety. The fact that there is not even in embryo the basis of a working-class opposition rests largely on the refusal of existing socialist groups to break from the trade union bureaucracy.  The various groups:

· Work hand in glove with the bureaucracy inside the union structures.

· Cheer a glorious victory when ICTU sell out the workers at Irish Ferries

· ‘Oppose’ the partnership deals with the bosses by calling for the bureaucrats to negotiate better partnership deals

· Build ‘community’ campaigns that never cut across the bureaucracy because they never pose the question of working class leadership.

· Hoist Jack O’Connor of SIPTU onto campaign platforms, ignoring his partnership with the bosses.

· Will the left discard O’Connor following his recent racist outburst?  To ask the question is to answer it.

It should be obvious that what we need is a political campaign independent of the trade union leaders that can take advantage of the occasions when workers fight back to give them the leadership they deserve. The problem at the moment with demonstrations such as the Irish Ferries ones is not that workers continue to follow the existing trade union leaders but that the left is incapable of giving them an alternative.  The problem is not so much the workers, it is the left who continue to pursue lowest common denominator politics. They don’t tell workers to break with their leaders but instead simply calls on the leaders to do better, thus proposing nothing new to the workers and giving them no reason to seek alternatives.

The threat of racism is one more reason why workers and socialists must organise independently and against the labour movement bureaucracy. We have already seen Pat Rabbitte warn darkly about millions of Poles.  SIPTU President Jack O’Connor quickly supported him.  In fact these people have not so much been following a racist agenda as setting it.  The latest speech by O’Connor at the recent SIPTU conference confirms this.  It confirms that fighting anti-immigrant feeling means fighting him.  Those who doubt that the trade union leadership have sunk so low should read his latest words.  They are striking not just for their shamelessness but for their dishonesty.


O’Connor informs us of the recent history of the neo-liberal offensive and its attacks on workers yet not once does there appear even the slightest hint of shame or embarrassment.  He never pauses for a second to wonder whether he might lay himself open to the question how all this happened when he was in partnership with the same forces who brought all this about.  He protests against exploitative employers.  Who gave them the contracts?  He complains about privatisation.  Who privatised Telecom and Aer Lingus?  And who bought into the privatisation?

He buys into the capitalist philosophy of cut-throat competition lock, stock and barrel recruiting Larkin in the process!  ‘In building our union we must also place ourselves in the forefront of the drive for greater growth and productivity. Jim Larkin always demanded ‘a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work’. He understood that an enterprise, be it publicly or privately owned, had no future if it was not properly organised and run at all levels.’

He praises himself and fellow ICTU bureaucrats for having spent six months negotiating labour protection legislation as part of the new social partnership deal, safeguards that we have analysed as inadequate.  Then he admits they might not be enacted!

‘Let us have no illusions that the same forces which worked night and day to prevent us achieving these commitments will not be equally energetic in their efforts to prevent those commitments from being converted into legislation with effective policing measures over the next twelve months or so. For that reason we must insist that open border status is not extended to Rumania or Bulgaria until all these measures are implemented and seen to be effective.’

So the government and bosses break their word but East European workers must pay!  Not a hint that the deal should be repudiated.  O’Connor declares that these workers must be protected from themselves.  Their freedom to work is restricted but no mention of the free flow of capital in and out of their countries looking for the highest profit.  What used to be the job of trade unions - the protection of these workers - is handed over to the government and if they don’t do it, well, it appears the workers can get lost in their own country.

The underlying message is clear.  The fault of exploitation and low pay belongs to those who suffer them most, not those who pay the low wages and engage in exploitative practices.  Oh no, these are our partners!  On the same day as O’Connor’s speech IBEC, the bosses’ organisation, came out with the same demand – that Bulgarian and Romanian workers rights to come to Ireland to work be restricted.  In what looked like a pure example of partnership ICTU simultaneously called for restrictions and the government congratulated itself for having opened the doors to the previous accession countries while promising to close it for the new ones!

I said the speech was dishonest.  It was dishonest because it was laced with hypocrisy about defending workers rights, recruiting and organising to the trade unions: ‘The only instrument that we can ultimately rely on is our confidence in each other and in our collective solidarity to prevail. It is a solidarity that must extend to every worker in Ireland, regardless of their country of origin.’  All very well except that workers from other countries won’t be able to get into Ireland in the first place.

ICTU and SIPTU’s policy is based on supporting the establishment of factories from the United States but opposing workers from any other country working in them.  Their policy will not halt exploitation, it will make it worse.

Workers from Bulgaria and Romania will still be free to travel to Ireland and to live here once their countries join the EU.  Many will do so.  Instead of having legal rights however they will be denied the right to work.  This will not stop them, except that with the help of people like O’Connor they will have absolutely no protection from the law and will be wide open to the worst sort of exploitation.  They will be unable to complain because their illegal status will prevent them from doing so.

The speech of O’Connor is a disgrace on so many levels. It panders to racism and makes foreign workers a scapegoat for the problems created by his partners’ system.  It abdicates his own responsibility to lead the protection of workers and hands it over to those he freely claims have implemented a neo-liberal agenda.  His hypocritical call for increased labour legislation is a poor cover for the fact that his proposals will leave many foreign workers with absolutely no legislative protection whatsoever.  He claims to want to end exploitation but his alliance with the government and bosses and proposal that Bulgarian and Rumanian workers should have none of the protection of existing workers means exploitation will increase.  His speech shows that O’Connor and the trade union bureaucrats are not part of the solution but part of the problem.

Increasingly the failure to face up to this issue is undermining the socialist movement in Ireland and acting as a barrier to the building of a working-class alternative.


Return to top of page