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Irish Ferries: The ‘race to the bottom’ continues

John McAnulty

3rd January 2006

No sooner have the Irish working class registered the stunning blow of the defeat inflicted by Irish ferries on December 14, than a coalition of the bureaucracy and ‘left’ allies such as the Irish Labour Party and Sinn Fein follow up by throwing dust in their eyes. ‘Victory!’ they all cry – a cry even parroted by groups claiming to be revolutionary socialists. This, despite union capitulation to management demands for the replacement of the current workforce with migrant workers on minimum wage!

SIPTU Vice President, Brendan Hayes claimed: "The Union has been successful in ensuring that the threshold of decency has been defended and that vulnerable migrant maritime workers have the protection of Irish law… One of our key objectives was the payment of the Irish minimum wage and this has now been achieved.”

"The terms and conditions for both officers and ratings will far exceed those originally proposed. A framework agreement which will legally protect all employees - irrespective of the flag under which the company registers its vessels – has been agreed,” Collins added.

All of this is a definition of victory as anything less than what the company first demanded. For the union bureaucracy and their supporters ‘victory’ is wages slashed in half, conditions of service torn up, the company offering a redundancy (in reality a worker replacement) deal that had been on the table from the beginning, the reflagging of the ships with the ‘legally binding’ guarantee that Irish employment law would apply.

Only the last element could be thought of as any kind of defence for workers in the company, but it has all the signs of a face-saver for the unions. Why would Irish Ferries fight to the death to reflag and then give up the very thing that reflagging gives them – the ability to drive wages and conditions to their absolute minimum? A similar settlement with Ryanair promised no victimisation, only to be followed a week later with two leading militants sacked. An unpublicised 3-year no-strike clause puts the remaining workers in the company in handcuffs when the company move to redefine the deal later on.

How could such a situation arise immediately following the mass mobilisation of Irish workers on 9th December? To answer that question we have to understand the nature of the mobilisation. It showed the deep concern of a large section of the Irish working class about the significance of the ferries dispute for working people in general but in the absence of any political opposition, the mobilisation was a form of lobbying in support of, and under the control of, the union bureaucracy and sharing the illusion, peddled by the bureaucracy, that appeals to the Irish Government and employers to ensure ‘decency’ in employment could be effective.

The political line of the bureaucracy was perfectly expressed by the Labour Party, who marched under the banner ‘Partnership, not piracy’ – ignoring the fact that it was the decades of partnership that had weakened the workers movement and created the piracy.

With this perspective, the union leadership were not adopting mass mobilisation as a strategy, nor moving into conflict with their partners, but using a tactic of limited and tightly controlled mobilisation as a counter used in their real method of operation – behind the scenes diplomacy with government and bosses.

In the event the partners of the union leaderships knew them too well to take them seriously. They refused to believe that the bureaucracy would unleash the working class – a force that represented a more immediate threat to ICTU than to their partners. 

The concession on reflagging was refused and the bureaucracy capitulated, with a binding ‘legal clause’ to cover their shame.

So the immediate outcome of December 9th is straightforward – a major defeat for the working class, made worse by an announcement by Jack O'Connor of SIPTU that he would support a new social partnership agreement that protected wages and conditions – a clear indication that the bureaucracy would cooperate in a process that could only end in the Irish Ferries defeat writ large.

But that's not the whole story. The march was a real mobilisation. Many of the workers can be under no illusion about the sellout. Will they be able to organise independently of, and in opposition to, the union bureaucracy? This question will prove decisive as the bosses move to write the sort of conditions applied in Irish Ferries across the whole of the Irish economy.

See also:
Irish Ferries: The significance of the December 9th mobilisations
Irish Ferries: The role of the left


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