The electricians strike – working class power constrained by the bureaucracy
21 July 2009
It has become the fashion to claim victory in the increasing number of industrial struggles facing Irish workers. Waterford glass, Visteon and now the electricians strike all are followed by plaudits from the left signifying yet another victory.
Why this global optimism surrounding every struggle no matter what the outcome? There appears to be three closely interlinked reasons:
One is a determination to declare anything that is not absolute defeat and obliteration as victory. One is reminded of the republicans in the mid 70s, who announced that the fact that they had not been defeated (yet) was itself a victory. Given that every struggle short of annihilation contains some sop to the defeated, it is always possible to make a claim of victory.
The private justification for this is an argument about morale. If the left keep talking up the outcome of these disputes they believe that this will help sustain the morale of workers and encourage others to take industrial action when they come under attack in turn.
A third, unadmitted element is the relationship between the left and the bureaucracy. The socialist movement, tiny to begin with, has shrunk to such an extent that many of its members occupy niches in the bottom ranks of the trade union movement or in the community organisations and charities increasingly interpenetrated with it. In hailing victory in each dispute they are reinforcing the slogans of the bureaucrats, who declare every struggle led by themselves a victory. By agreeing with the bureaucrats the left avoid the need to place themselves in opposition to the trade union leaders.
But why would a difference of opinion – one optimistic and one less so – matter to anyone? The reason is that the working class is the subject around which the socialist movement organises and it is the working class in action that informs socialists of the ebb and flow of the class struggle. It is by discussing the actions of the working class that we can learn lessons – discover what needs to be done, what is possible and what is necessary.
With those constraints what is to be learnt from the electricians action? The starting point of the struggle was a determined attack by the employers. Having failed to pay an 11% increase that was due, they were pressing ahead with a call for a further 10% reduction. This attack was seen off very rapidly by the workers. In part this was due to the unity and discipline of the electricians. In part it was due to the very high level of sympathy and the solidarity by other workers who refused to cross picket lines, especially as this was largely spontaneous and unexpected on the part of both unions and employers.
Almost immediately the employers retreated from the call for a pay cut. The rest of the dispute was a much more familiar performance by the union leadership. They agreed to meet the employers less than halfway up the stairs with a staggered pay increase of 4.9%. The dispute was called off immediately, even before the contractors had agreed to accept it. The first increase of 2.5% is to be introduced in September with the second to be implemented on 1 January next year. Given that the rates in use were based on comparators going back to 2006 and that the employers were in default of payment due in April 2008, this is a poor outcome for the workers.
So why were the unions so energetic in the first phase of the dispute only to quickly return to their usual form?
One reason was that the union leaders were dancing in the cracks of social partnership. ICTU enthusiastically supported ballots to support the dispute and instruct members not to cross picket lines, but this was simply to endorse what their members were doing anyway. Does anyone remember the outcome of their last ballot for action? The other reason was that the dispute is part of a triangular argument that has been going on for some time within social partnership. Many employers believe that it is no longer necessary to involve the union bureaucracy in negotiations and the attempted pay cut was a way to prove that in action. Conversely the union leadership wanted to prove that they still had the ability to mobilize workers – hence the seeing off of the cut – and the willingness to use that power to moderate workers demands – hence the minuscule settlement.
The end of the electricians strike overlapped with the report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, given the name 'An Bord Snip Nua' to disguise the savage nature of its proposals. The union bureaucracy had one simple response - that was to include them in the administration of the cuts so that they could find a better, fairer way of presenting the cuts to the workers.
Workers face into the biggest attack the
working class in Ireland have faced in generations. The electricians strike
tells us very simply that workers have at their disposal the strength and
solidarity to win through but that they must organize independently of
the union leadership around a working-class program that rejects paying
the bills of the banks and speculators, demands control of the assets they
still hold and the organization of state and financial resources to protect
the jobs and living standards of working people.