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Left campaign for a ‘better’ pay deal – in reality move right to unite with the bureaucracy

2 October 2008

Kevin Keating

An SWP meeting in Dublin on Saturday 20th September, with the declared aim of setting up a national rank and file trade union movement, gave the first indication of a left response to the massive sell-out by the Irish trade union bureaucracy – confusion, retreat and capitulation. As the paraphrase of an old Irish joke has it – if I wanted a rank and file movement, I wouldn’t start from here.

The conference was preceded by a sharp dispute between the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, with an appeal by sacked airport worker Gordon McNeill. The substance of the complaint was the inclusion in the list of speakers of Jimmy Kelly, a longstanding member of the SWP and current leader of UNITE. A secondary issue was the failure of the SWP to invite trade unionists supporting other socialist groups.

Although both these issues are issues of concern, they are not the fundamental issues when we consider what needs to be done to defend workers against the current offensive. 

So, if a genuine grassroots movement were being built, no one would have waited for an invitation. Working class militants from around the country would have made it their business to be there.

Similarly, the debate about Jimmy Kelly's presence implies that, in his absence, the conference would have been a success. But Jimmy wasn't the only bureaucrat there and the terms of the debate were a million miles from the issues to be considered in building rank and file resistance. 

In the final analysis the meeting was an amalgam of the SWP, lower and middle layers of the bureaucracy and 'lefts' noted for their subservience to the union leadership - the antithesis of the grassroots meeting it claimed to be.

For all that, Kelly's presence was a litmus test. This 'grassroots' conference ruled out of order any discussion of his presence and his role in the repression of the airport workers protest - the very grassroots that the meeting was claiming to organise. Also absent from the discussion was Kelly's presence at the partnership talks. So the idea is that we are to organise opposition to the partnership deal arm in arm with those who negotiated it! UNITE and Kelly call for a no vote while David Beggs, his partner in the talks, indicates it will go through.  The issues that concern Kelly are the issues that concern Beggs – not the living standards of members, but the rights of the unions to collect dues through formal negotiating rights backed by government legislation.  In this vein, we are treated to the most vacuous forms of defeatism, with Kelly’s predecessor Mick O’ Reilly arguing that to defeat Aer Lingus and their programme of massive cuts we must first be in a position to defeat Ryanair – presumably through the good offices of Fianna Fail giving the unions negotiating rights.

There is no dispute in the bureaucracy between UNITE and the ICTU leadership, so all that is happening is that UNITE are taking on their traditional role as the left of the bureaucracy, ready to smother with a wet blanket any genuine radicalisation, while the socialist currents trail behind, offering unconditional support. 

It's hardly surprising if all the issues already conceded by the bureaucracy hardly registered in the discussion - massive budget cuts, privatisation, hospital co-location, the union sell - out on the Lisbon vote and the upcoming jobs butchery in Aer Lingus.

Neither did there seem to be any consciousness that collaboration on these issues would make further capitulation a formality when the Irish banks proved just as venal and corrupt as their Wall St. counterparts. The agreement that has been put forward is an attempt to convince workers that the capitalists cannot afford to pay them.  The fact that it takes place against a background of unlimited state guarantees to the banks means that socialist should not be demanding a slightly better deal but instead putting forward a programme of working class demands on health and education as well as wages based on the bourgeois confession that they can now afford a decent society!

The SWP meeting did not indicate a new grassroots movement. Rather it indicated its opposite - the collapse of sections of the left into the arms of the bureaucracy and their support for class collaboration.

Many will see the weaknesses of the new ‘Trade Unionists Before Profit’ campaign now launched by the SWP but will be tempted to support it on the grounds that any form of trade union activity is welcome.  This is not the case.  The workers need to break from the bureaucracy and the greatest likelihood of action is to be found in the workplaces themselves.  This movement ties them to the bureaucracy, is organised around the demands of the bureaucracy and will be fought in dusty union halls filled with loyal timeservers. A new movement will have to be built from the real grassroots and not from the decay of the left.


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