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SWP conference: 'A New Trade Unionism' 
‘Facing reality’ means unity with a sellout trade union bureaucracy

Kevin Keating

12 February 2006

On 4th February the Socialist Workers Party held a conference to define 'A New Trade Unionism' in Ireland. The result was a revealing glance into the union bureaucracy and into the thought patterns of the SWP.

The centerpiece of the conference was a debate between Jack O'Connor of SIPTU and Mick O'Reilly of ATGWU. O'Connor is the leading proponent of social partnership with the government and bosses, while O'Reilly was removed from his post for a time because he criticised social partnership - as was the previous critic - John Mitchell, permanently removed as secretary of IDATU.

O'Connor's defence of social partnership was a masterpiece of dishonesty.

  • There was no social partnership - only a wage agreement.
  • If there were such a thing it has delivered a sustained improvement in living standards.
  • If there were any bad aspects such as privatisation, deregulation, wage cuts and job displacement, the bureaucracy were not to blame. It would be the fault of a right-wing neo-liberal government - that is, O'Connor's social partners!

Mick O'Reilly had some trenchant criticisms to make. Social partnership had seen a massive transfer of wealth from labour to capital. The Industrial Relations Act (which the bureaucracy had given way to whilst in partnership), made solidarity action illegal. The agreements had led to mass privatisation.  ICTU had imposed a Stalinist level of control to prevent dissent in the unions.  The massive gain for the government had been to be able to claim trade union support for a whole series of right wing social and economic policies.

However Mick’s criticisms were those of a loyal opposition. He agreed with Jack, contradicting his own analysis, that social partnership was just a wage agreement and said that he was not in principle opposed to them.  His solution to the cul-de-sac that social partnership had imposed was to urge a campaign of recruitment to the unions.  More members would make the unions stronger and presumably more militant and able to strike better bargains.

This, it turned out, was also the policy of the SWP.  When I criticised their constant clappy-happy assertions of victory in the Irish Ferries dispute I was rounded on by leading figure Kieran Allen. I was a ‘miserocrat’.  We shouldn’t depress the workers by being negative.  There had been a big mobilisation and the task now was unity.  It appeared this unity was to include the very people who had led the workers to defeat!  We had to face reality said Kieran, at the recent SIPTU conference that had endorsed a return to social partnership only a handful of delegates had opposed the turn.

Debates are usually about counterposed positions.  This debate was about unity. Left bureaucracy, right bureaucracy, revolutionary left – we were all to unite around a new trade unionism.  We could all have different opinions about social partnership, but we wouldn’t fall out about them.  The new unionism looked remarkably like the old sellout leadership. What was new was the savage shift to the right by the SWP, placing their organisation behind the bureaucracy and making the organisation an obstacle to the self-organisation of workers – something that must involve a savage struggle with the bureaucracy the SWP now support.

There could not be a clearer statement of the SWP’s opportunism and economism. Never able to look ahead to the tasks of the struggle and the next phase, they are always happy to lead the workers from behind and adapt to whatever they believe is the current mood.

Unusually for these gatherings they were a number of trade union activists in the audience.  Their reality was quite different.  Members of the TEAM Aer Lingus group, still awaiting compensation for the loss of their jobs, criticised the ICTU sellout of their struggle.  A former member of the ASTI executive recounted how he had resigned from the union in disgust at the ability of the bureaucracy to look after their own interests at the expense of the rank and file members. These are elements of reality that the SWP are now unwilling to face.

SWP reality is that the bosses were defeated in an Irish ferries struggle that saw wages slashed to the legal minimum, the current workforce replaced, a no-strike clause for those remaining and Irish ferries with the right to reflag and then write whatever terms and conditions it likes – Yeah, Sure, Victory! Let’s face reality!



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