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New campaign for the Trade Unions

Over 100 trade unionists met in a one-day conference in Dublin on 10th February to discuss setting up a rank and file campaign against social partnership.  As the publicity material correctly emphasised the task of ordinary workers is to reclaim their unions from the rotten bureaucracy that presently misleads the movement.  This bureaucracy has presided over nearly fourteen years of social partnership deals in which a neo-liberal agenda of deregulation, privatisation and wage restraint has been implemented by an assault on trade union democracy.

The meeting had been called by the Campaign Against a Partnership Deal, which had last year organised to oppose adoption of the latest partnership deal – the misnamed Programme for Prosperity and Fairness - by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  This in itself was a step forward.  Previous campaigns had arisen just before votes on new deals and this had had hampered consideration of what was needed to build a long-term alternative to partnership and the bureaucracy.  The leadership of the campaign against the PPF pushed aside the question of political strategy with the justification that what was needed was to get the vote out.

This had led to serious mistakes in the campaign, which had concerned itself solely with the demand for higher wages and had effectively ignored the wider agenda that has always been part of partnership.  In fact the campaign had called for the ICTU leadership to go back into negotiations to get more money.  In other words the demand was for a better social partnership deal not total opposition to it.  As Socialist Democracy has pointed out this was effectively an oblique vote of confidence in the present leadership.

It wasn’t clear therefore that lessons like this had been learnt and for ourselves this was key in judging whether a new campaign would be up to the tasks facing it.  In particular the opposition to social partnership had to understand that partnership agreements were not simply pay deals.  That in fact the most important aspect of the deals has been a political attack on workers involving acceptance of the whole agenda of the most right wing social and economic policies, now known as neo-liberalism.  This is usually sold as ‘competitiveness’; in other words Irish workers should not join in solidarity with workers elsewhere in Europe and beyond but compete with them to see who can work hardest and for least reward.

The outcome of the meeting showed some indications that these lessons were at least up for discussion.  This debate was kicked off by Socialist Democracy member Kevin Keating who pointed out that just because Oliver Twist asked for ‘more’ didn’t mean he wanted to overthrow the whole workhouse system.  Other speakers mentioned the importance of privatisation but this view was not universally accepted.  A member of the SWP claimed that the demand for higher wages was key because it ‘went to the heart of the system.’  It was particularly disappointing that a Marxist should claim that the price of exploitation would actually challenge it, placing it above the more political attacks that workers face.  No doubt this debate will go on but the fact that it started is in itself a step forward.

The resolutions passed by the conference near the end also showed some positive movement although their manner of introduction left much to be desired.  Three pages of resolutions were only distributed at lunchtime leaving little time to read and absorb them while listening to speeches from the platform.  Only the last session was devoted to addressing the resolutions, which, as the primary outcome of the meeting, was the most important thing about the conference.  This left little time for their consideration and discussion.  Fortunately this did not prove a major problem as the resolutions did not cause major division. In fact they reflected an advance on the political basis of previous campaigns dealing with the question of privatisation, anti-union laws and unspecified policies for ‘the transfer of wealth from the Golden circle to the workers who produce it.’  Clearly here at least there is room for elaboration and clarification.  The organisers should ensure that such a procedure does not happen again especially where resolutions may be the cause of differences.  In a campaign devoted to democracy we should all ensure we practice what we preach.

Particular resolutions were passed on trade union recognition and recruitment, against benchmarking in the public sector, supporting the anti-capitalist movement, pay claims and a workers charter in the upcoming referendum on the Nice Treaty.  The last resolution was remitted when it was pointed out that while the idea of a workers charter was a good one, the adoption of such a charter would not turn a reactionary treaty into a good one that could be supported.  A resolution on the minimum wage was also remitted when the conference could not agree at what level it should be set at.  The resolution on the Nice Treaty had particular significance because, if implemented, it would involve a campaign inside the union movement on an explicitly political issue.  The short time for discussion was unable to bring out just what relative importance each resolution or part of a resolution had.  Only time will tell whether the political aspects of the resolutions passed will achieve the prominence they deserve.

The aims of the conference are clearly very ambitious with a resolution passed calling for the setting up of an office and a regular bulletin.  The overall role of the campaign has still to be clarified and it would be a mistake to see it as purely one of organising solidarity that really should be, and at present could only be, carried out by the trade union movement itself.  The real value of a rank and file campaign at present is to bring the lessons of previous struggles against partnership to groups of workers who are engaging in new struggles.

The campaign elected a committee to oversee its organisation and includes Mick O’Reilly of the ATGWU, Des Cahill of ASTI, independent campaigners such as Des Derwin and Eddie Conlon and members of the SWP and Socialist Party.  All in all the conference was a positive start to the crucial task of winning workers to oppose partnership and fight for a genuine alternative.  The conference reflected the first moves to greater co-operation on the left and hopefully will go on to demonstrate the benefits of such unity.



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