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Irish Ferries: The significance of the December 9th mobilisations

John McAnulty

3rd January 2006

How was it that demonstrations of over 150,000 workers could be followed almost immediately by the defeat of the Irish Ferries struggle and the demobilisation of the demonstrators? 

Many saw the size of the demonstrations as by themselves representing the political mobilisation of the working class. In truth it only raised the question. The workers began by marching loyally behind the union leaderships. The issue is where they will end up.

The march demonstrated the potential power of the working class, but above all it demonstrated the continuing ability of the union bureaucracy to confine and limit that power. However, that ability of the union leadership is itself constrained by the pressure of events and dependent on the workers remaining passive.

The march was a testament to the power of the bureaucracy. Workers marched in their tens of thousands to protest the threats to wages and conditions, but they looked to their traditional leadership in the unions and political parties to defend them. Almost nowhere on the march was there the slightest sign of protest at the role of the union leadership in decades of social partnership or at their supine role in the Ferries dispute. No memory that it was the union leadership who had agreed the privatisation of Irish Ferries with ‘guarantees’ that wages and conditions would be protected!  There was no protest at all the scandals where the trade unions had signed up migrant workers and agreed wages and conditions lower than those applying to native workers. No-one seemed to notice that the bureaucracy had announced, in advance of the march, that they would accept the proposals of the National Implementation Board – themselves a capitulation to the demands of the Irish Ferries management, or even the boasts by SIPTU officials that their proposals would save even more money than the cuts demanded by management!

In fact the hymn of praise to the bureaucracy and the unfurling of their programme by the Labour Party in the slogan ‘Partnership not Piracy’ provoked no response. The size of the demonstrations and the lack of political consciousness drew immediate comparison with the mass popular mobilisation in advance of the Iraq war, this time with the working class rather than the middle class predominating.

However there was a debate at the Irish Congress of trade unions, where a large fraction of the leadership called for the march to be abandoned. The bureaucracy’s strategy had been to treat the Irish Ferries dispute as an exceptional case and to appeal to their social partners in the government and bosses to bring the Irish Ferries management to heel. The NIB proposals were the result of this lobbying, but so clearly contained nothing of substance that SIPTU felt it necessary to apply maximum pressure. They were particularly anxious about the issue of reflagging. As long as Irish Ferries remained under Irish jurisdiction SIPTU could claim partnership as a method of defending workers rights.

The result was a tightrope strategy, mobilising the sleeping giant of the Irish working class in order to gain advantage in a game of class collaboration. The December 9th march was called, but without a corresponding call for strike action that would have offered protection to workers leaving their jobs. In fact the unions did organise industrial action, but it was a weird and limited action within the confines of social partnership. Representative sections of the union movement obtained release in a series of local deals with mostly public sector managers. In one case this led to public dispute, with the government attacking teachers unions over their plans to mobilise, an issue settled by very large deputations appearing on the march, but with full cover of their classes by the mass of teachers remaining in work.

This explains the subdued mood of the march. If the trade unions had been confronting the bosses and government then the industrial action was illegal and would have led to a sharp conflict with the state and sequestration of union funds. As it was the march was a form of pressure within the confines of diplomacy and with the partial agreement of the bosses and government. It was a representation of working-class mobilisation rather than the thing itself. The majority of delegations had an excessive attendance by the rump of local union branch factotums and the bottom layer of the bureaucracy.

But the majority of marching groups were swelled by rank and file workers out to oppose the bosses, unaware of the role of their own leaderships. Other delegations such as transport workers or An Post workers, consisted of entire workforces or work sections, grimly aware that they were the next target on the bosses hit list

These elements were not under the direct control of the bureaucracy. It is they who face the brunt of the wave of privatisation and deregulation facing Irish workers. Few would view the settlement as anything but a sellout.

How are they to respond? Despair and demoralisation leaves the bureaucracy free to justify further sellouts as an inevitable result of worker's disinterest. Anger, politicisation could be the basis of a new rank and file regroupment to reclaim the unions and declare the aftermath of December 9th a Pyrrhic victory for Irish capital.

See also:
Irish Ferries: The ‘race to the bottom’ continues
Irish Ferries: The role of the left


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