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ICTU call off strike day – will the penny now drop?

Joe Craig

30 March 2009

ICTU last week announced that it had called off the day of strike action planned for today in order to resume social partnership talks with the Government and employers.  It did so with the excuse that the government had signalled that it was not opposed to elements of ICTU’s ten point plan for economic recovery and that the employers body IBEC had announced that it was not opposed in principle to payment of the most recent pay increase agreed under the ‘Towards 2016’ partnership deal.

What this means is that the government is not opposed to the bit of ICTU’s plan which says that workers will pay their share of the bill for the economic crisis.  What it means is that those employers opposed to giving a pay increase will quote the inability to pay clause of the existing agreement rather than declaring that they are tearing it up altogether.  If you can spot the difference in what it means for workers then you have more imagination than sense.

Brian Cowen was quick to make clear what difference ICTU’s abandonment of any pretence at opposition meant. When asked if the unions’ move into talks would ‘tone down’ the tax increases planned for the budget he didn’t waffle, he simply said ‘no.’


In fact the tax increases planned have been hailed by the union leaderships, not just in ICTU, as the reason to abandon strikes and protests.  This, on the grounds that the tax increases will not just hit workers, but will apparently also be ‘fairer’ and will also target those better off.  As Socialist Democracy has said before, the government will eventually work out that it must make some gesture towards trimming the living standards of those better off.  This will apply mostly to better paid workers, will be used to sell and impose the much more drastic cuts on the whole working class, and will be applied to some income of the rich simply because the economic crisis is so enormous.

For all ICTU’s declaration of an alternative a closer examination reveals that it has none.  Its measures to ‘boost’ the economy are secondary and tangential to the main thrust of its ten point plan, which is to accept the need for draconian cuts in workers living standards – through wage cuts, welfare cuts, public service cuts, unemployment and tax increases.  For some time it has been claiming that tax increases are somehow more progressive than expenditure cuts but increased expenditure on bank bail outs and increased taxes through a bogus ‘pension levy’ leave this sort of claim rather lacking in credibility.

What we are saying is not news to ICTU.  It knows perfectly well about the brutal cuts in workers living standards that are about to be delivered in the next budget, and the one after it, and the one after that and so on, for – we are promised – at least the next five years.  No amount of camouflage will hide it.  The national accounts, also published last week, revealed figures which, if reported as they are in the United States, would have recorded that in the final quarter of last year Gross Domestic Product was falling at an annual rate of 25.5 per cent!  In such circumstances the cuts will be equally dramatic.

The significance of ICTU’s step is that it has signalled that it can no longer pretend to oppose the steps necessary for a capitalist solution to the crisis.  In other words, one in which workers pay.  They pay because a return to growth requires a return to profitability and this is not possible by getting the banks, property developers and big business to pay.  Economic growth under capitalism depends essentially on a growth of profits.  You can’t save this system by treating everyone the same.  In so far as capitalists lose out it only makes sense if they go bust in order to make the remaining capitalists more profitable.

The government, media, economic experts and commentators have been screaming that the situation is too serious to play games and fundamentally this is what ICTU’s opposition has been.  It is now going back into talks, which in fact never really ceased, with everyone involved having declared that there was no point in doing so unless there was already an agreement.  Cowen’s remark makes it clear on whose terms it is.


The role of ICTU will now be more openly to impede and kill off opposition to the government.  Its call for a strike was already called under a pretty uninspiring banner – opposition not to the ‘pension levy’ but just how it was implemented.  Not a call to defend living standards but a call for strike action only for those who had not had their pay frozen and then had a small increase under the terms of the partnership deal, or if this hadn’t occurred, hadn’t had some ‘alternative arrangement’ introduced in its place.  No wonder some workers showed less than enthusiastic interest.  The ballots however did allow the union leaderships to push more openly and vigorously their bogus ten point plan which will be the banner, or should that be the hood, that will be placed on workers to get them to accept or acquiesce in the government’s attacks.

It must now be clearer than it has been for some time that the leaderships of the trade union movement are not misguided, in need of pointing in the right direction (which assumes Forrest Gump proportions of stupidity on their part) but is implacably opposed to relinquishing its privileged role of partnership with, and increasing incorporation into, the State.  When faced with a bitter confrontation between its members and the Government it has signalled its intention to sit with the Government.

This will make it all the more difficult for it to play the role of fake opposition again.  It would find it very difficult to walk out of two partnership talks and claim then to be mounting an opposition.  Even the Grand Old Duke of York only went up the hill once.

The question however is whether this can work.  The budget will not only confirm the essentials of the pension levy but will introduce yet more swingeing cuts with the promise of more to come.  There is no reason to believe that workers will find these any more acceptable than the existing ones.  What matters now is ICTU’s ability to frustrate and defeat the opposition.  Almost by definition they too will only succeed if they do not face opposition!

This however is something of which most workers are not yet aware.  They still look on them as their leaders and if some are suspicious, many have not the framework to understand their treachery, or if they do, have not the confidence or understanding of how they could be defeated and replaced.  Lots of obstacles then, but one of the most important will be damaged by ICTU’s most recent actions – illusions that it sincerely represents the best interests of workers.

The left can have a role to play in this but only if it too drops its current policy of regarding ICTU as a completely secondary problem which can be ignored in the more important fight against the ‘real enemy.’ – the bosses and Government.  For some this policy has often degenerated into providing a left cover for union leaders’ bogus claims; capitulation to their support for partnership with the bosses and government, or a refusal to fight against it.

It’s rather like being in a race against your ‘real enemy’ and finding that the coach you pay to help you win keeps tying your legs together.  The first steps are to sack your coach and untie your legs.  Quite frankly, you should have been a little suspicious some time ago when your coach said he was in partnership with the competition.

General Secretary

This treacherous role is neatly personified in the personage of David Begg, General Secretary of ICTU, who has been a member of the Board of the Central Bank since 1995 (according to the ICTU website).  This involves regulation of the banks and thus makes him fully responsible for the complete and utter failure to prevent the crazy speculative mania that has contributed so much to the crisis and the attacks that now face the working class. That he is still leader of ICTU, having been so complicit in the economic disaster, is a disgrace.

Again only last week it was revealed, according to a former AIB internal auditor, that the scandal of overcharging of customers by Allied Irish Bank (AIB) in 2000 and 2001 was not dealt with by the Regulator when it was reported to it.  Instead the Regulator pretended it only became aware after the scandal became public in 2004.  Even when it became aware that AIB was overcharging its customers by about €65 million, for example by charging for managers playing golf, it still did not ensure that more than a small fraction of the millions was repaid to those ripped off.

It is now high time that ICTU was replaced and David Begg sacked.  If he is an incompetent regulator he is a much worse union leader.  Teacher union branches that have opposed ICTU’s sell out and called for Begg’s resignation should be supported and copied.  Preventing workers paying for the desperate crisis that they did not create demands that Begg and ICTU be sacked and replaced.  A prerequisite of defeating the attacks on the working class is ridding ourselves of our treacherous leaders.


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