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  The state of the Trade Union Movement in Ireland Part 1 – The Fight against Transport Privatisation

Joe Craig

22nd March 2004

The decision of SIPTU President Jack O’Connor to over-rule at the last minute the wishes of bus and rail workers and call off the national strike planned for Thursday 18th March sparked furious anger among the workers concerned, who described it as ‘treachery’.  It followed hard on the heels of O’Connor’s earlier decision on Tuesday to call off a six-hour stoppage at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports.

Union Strategy

The government is planning to break up the semi-state companies CIE and Aer Rianta, build a new privatised terminal at Dublin Airport and open up 25% of Dublin Bus to private contractors as well as introduce privatisation in Bus Eireann.  Commentators had questioned the wisdom of transport minister Seamus Brennan opening up a fight on so many fronts in what is obviously a serious escalation of the drive to privatisation.  Their concern was misplaced.

Events of the last week have shown that the government has a far more acute appreciation of the nature of Ireland’s trade union movement and its leadership than many workers and the left.  O’Connor’s decision was no bolt out of the blue, nor a change in tactics, nor a repudiation of strategy.  It is a faithful reflection of the real policy of Ireland’s trade union leadership to privatisation.

The so-called union campaign gave up any principled stance a long, long time ago.  Brennan announced his plans in November 2002 but the union leaders have suffered the humiliation time after time of going into negotiations while Brennan made public statements making clear that he was going ahead regardless.  The bitterness between the union leaders and Brennan is thus purely personal.  He was making it clear that the negotiations so loved by trade union bureaucrats were a sham.

Time and time again they have called off action despite massive mandates in May 2003 for industrial action - 82.2% in Irish Rail, 90.6% in Dublin Bus and 87.9% in Bus Eireann.  Strikes were deferred on November 4th 2003 and in January this year as SIPTU’s Aer Rianta branch called off a two-hour stoppage. This was on the strength of a letter from the government that promised to provide the financial information on which the company’s break up is based, ‘further progression ‘ on the issue of Shannon airport, delay in finalising the legislation providing for the break-up and assurances on jobs and terms and conditions.  The union vowed that ‘we must emphasise our determination to defend our member’s right to take industrial action when necessary.’

The industrial action on 18th March has just been called off after almost identical promises from Bertie Ahern.  These commit him to furnish the financial information – whatever it is, nothing at all on Shannon, delay on the legislation that was happening anyway and nothing on terms and conditions.  The sense of déjà vu was complete when O’Connor issued almost exactly the same statement as well.  He welcomed Ahern’s concern that there would not be a ‘race to the bottom’ as Bertie rushed off to Washington to kiss Bush’s posterior for St.Paddy’s day, and called on his member’s to unite and to use ‘the union’s extremely democratic procedures – probably the most democratic of any Irish trade union – to resolve any differences we have.’  This after he had used a ‘little used rule’ to over-rule his members express wishes to strike.

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me is of no application to the union bureaucrats who head the movement – they have no shame.  The union demands are so pathetic and useless to strike over them is almost as bad.  What difference would good financial or bad financial information make to either government plans or job security and conditions, or promises from the government that they would not be torn up after break-up and privatisation?  Who on earth would trust a government which lied to win the recent general election or Bertie Ahern who claims he opposed the war against Iraq while opening up Shannon to the US military?  The attitude of this government to privatisation could be seen not a week earlier when it brokered an EU deal to open up rail freight to privatisation across Europe.

After the January debacle one source (government?) claimed that ‘The unions have brought the troops up the hill twice now – in early November and on Wednesday.  It will be very hard to get them up a third time.  This week has changed things and the unions are weakened’ (Sunday Tribune 25/01/04)

After the March fiasco SIPTU’s aviation branch president, Barry Nevin, said that its leading officers had ‘done more damage to the union than (Michael) O’Leary and (Seamus) Brennan could have done in a lifetime.’  The union’s campaign he said was ‘finished.’


In reality the unions’ real weakness has not been lack of action but lack of a principled reason to take action.  In January O’Connor made it clear that he and the union were not fighting privatisation: ‘While strongly opposed to the break-up of Aer Rianta..we are not and will not be seeking to obstruct the implementation of that decision by means of industrial action.’  The unions have accepted ‘regulated market opening’ of bus transport according to a government spokesperson (Irish Times 30/01/04) and apparently favour opening up new bus routes for a set period allowing private operators to establish themselves.  They have already accepted that a certain percentage of the market should be given to private operators. 

The real purpose of the dispute has not been to stop privatisation.  Not from the start has the union held up a banner that could win it support from other working people in defense of a proper and adequate public transport system.  Ostensibly it has all been about the jobs and conditions of the workers directly involved, which is fair enough – as far as it goes – but is inadequate to win popular support.  The failures of the campaign thus have political foundations.

The newspapers have speculated that SIPTU called off the strike because it feared a Ryanair case against it which claimed that the proposed strike action was really political and not ‘in furtherance of a trade dispute.’  Nothing could be further from the truth.  O’Connor is quite happy to accept Socialist Workers Party requests to speak on platforms saying that ‘another world is possible’ but this is only for the consumption of the gormless left.  The trade union leadership signed up for privatisation in the transport sector through the social partnership process two years ago in the National Partnership Transport Forum.  It has no fundamental objections to it and without them its demands for promises are irrelevant.  There is no point knowing the precise molecular composition of the poison if you have already decided to swallow it.



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