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Smaller but wiser: Is a rank and file fightback in the trade unions on the cards?

Kevin Keating

7th November 2005

A meeting of Trade Unionists Against Social Partnership took place in Dublin on Saturday 5th November to plan a new campaign. Never have the signs showing the necessity of such a campaign been move obvious or the role of the trade union bureaucracy more clear.

The meeting was dominated by the Irish Ferries dispute and by the looming An Post strike. On the one hand Irish Ferries are smashing up pay and conditions by an outsourcing operation that would replace existing workers with new workers on €3.50 an hour. On the other hand An Post are refusing to pay increases agreed under the existing partnership deal and enforcing a regime where workers will have to agree to speed-ups in order to achieve even cost of living increases. The management offensive is part of the run-up to privatisation – the union leadership agreed not to oppose this as part of the last partnership deal.

The Irish Ferries dispute has seen a ‘militant’ response from SIPTU – but the plan they advance is for a legal ban on outsourcing by the government that’s not going to happen. Wriggling on the An Post issue, union leaders have suggested a distinction between major and minor change – clearing the way for a sell-out where workers accept ‘minor’ speedups in exchange for their pay standing still!

Despite the large demonstration against Irish Ferries during the week there was a small turnout for the meeting – about half the size of its May meeting. This was offset by something of an advance in its policy. The May meeting had tended to stress lobbying the trade union bureaucracy and had involved left bureaucrats like Mick O’Reilly. At this meeting there was a level of cynicism about the ‘left turn’ by Jack O’Connor and the SIPTU leadership and some determination to campaign independently and to build at rank and file level. It was decided to begin by organising a public meeting around the issues presented by Irish Ferries and An Post.

There are still a number of glaring political weaknesses in the group. One member was involved in organising a debate between Jack O’Connor and Mick O’Reilly. The usefulness of such a meeting depends to some extent on the audience who attends, but it seems to show that the old strategy of lobbying the bureaucracy has yet to be abandoned. Much more worrying was the position of an SWP member who argued they we should downplay opposition to social partnership and focus on solidarity with Irish Ferries. Part of the rationale was that that we should orient to Paul Smyth, a SIPTU official who supports social partnership but, according to the SWP, is somehow ‘OK’ on Irish Ferries. A further argument justifying this position was that under social partnership Irish workers had not been dealt the crushing defeat faced by British miners – precisely the argument for partnership but forward by the union bureaucracy!

We in Socialist Democracy would argue that the fact that the Irish trade union movement surrendered without a shot being fired is the cause of much of the demoralisation that is the chief characteristic of trade union organisation today. The possibilities are there now for regroupment, but the workers who attempt it will not be walking hand in hand with the bureaucracy.



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