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Despite criticism, Union bureaucracy survive Easter conferences 

John McAnulty 

28th April 2009 

Following the mass demonstration in Dublin on 21st February, it was easy to believe that a spontaneous workers opposition to the savage attack on their class would be built quickly. It appeared that the call for a day of action and what seemed to be plans for a one day general strike were going to lead to substantially increased levels of mobilization, the opportunity for militants to communicate with the mass of workers and the opportunity to build rank and file structures.

As it turned out, those hopes dissolved in chaos. One union IMPACT had rules requiring a two-thirds majority which the ballot fell short of and the voting process was dragged out to the point where the levy had already been imposed and many workers lost faith that there would be any fight against it. Above all, it became clear that the union leaderships were applying the 'Irish Ferries' strategy. They had no intention of mobilizing against the government and were using the workers supporting action as a counter in a game of bluff with the government.

The unions used the strike ballot paper to register a bogus retrospective endorsement for ICTU's '10 point plan' - a program designed to produce a 'better, fairer way' of implementing the cuts rather than a program of opposition. The pattern became one of hide and seek. Talks, then the unions withdraw. The levy is introduced. The unions return. The unions withdraw. The budget is introduced. The unions return as a freeze on recruitment and promotions in the public sector is announced. And so on. Each turn of cycle leaves the workers worse off.

The first wave of mobilization having waned, the Easter conferences of the teaching unions became a way of judging the mood of the trade union base. Would a new mobilization begin? Would trade unionists turn on their leaderships?

By and large the answer was no. A mobilization by workers needs more than hard times and anger. It needs a political alternative that would lead to a break from their existing leaderships. The bureaucracy did not have it all their own way, but a rank and file movement is some way off.

The bureaucracy was at its strongest in the INTO  (Irish National Teachers Organization) congress. The keynote motion called for the day of strike action to be reinstated and for further protest action, but it was completely uncontroversial because it did not open up the question of the leadership’s abandonment of earlier action and their return to talks. 

In fact the union leadership were able to make a series of bombastic speeches denouncing the cuts in education services and the pay cuts and gain a series of standing ovations. Quite clearly they had escaped blame, even though they had been part of the negotiations that led to the cuts and had failed to carry through industrial action for which they had received a massive mandate. A similar pattern emerged at ASTI and TUI conferences, with TUI president Don Ryan receiving five standing ovations.

That does not mean that there was not opposition. There were gasps of amazement at the INTO conference when the executive announced constraints on the forms that industrial action would take. Tellingly, one of the constraints was that the executive would not risk the loss of pay built into the benchmarking agreement - they plan to 'fight' the government from inside partnership!

Faced with a concrete situation where the promise of a fightback was proving illusory, a minority of delegates became much more critical of the executive, but without the opportunity of re-opening the discussion.

The criticism of the bureaucracy was much sharper in the conferences of TUI and ASTI. In both conferences anger at the government was matched by denunciation of the role of ICTU, condemnation of ICTU secretary David  Begg and some criticism of their own leadership. Angry ASTI delegates threw out a leadership resolution on the cuts and forced its replacement with stronger proposals for action, nonetheless they were able to hold part of the conference in private to prevent the press noting any further embarrassment of the leadership.

An emergency resolution at the TUI conference is a useful platform for campaigning against the bureaucracy and for building a network outside their control. 

Congress rejects the cuts in education, the pension levy, the income levies, the draconian measures contained in the budget and the bail out of the banks and speculators. Congress commits itself to actively campaigning against these attacks on member’s living standards. 
The budget and the debt burden associated with the National Assets Management Agency will consign generations of young people to unemployment and low pay. 
Congress demands the ICTU immediately end talks with Government and campaign against the attacks on worker’s living standards. 
Congress calls for a Special Conference of the ICTU as a matter of urgency to address these issues.

By and large the bureaucracy survived. There was criticism, but there was no alternative to channel the anger of workers. In part this was a failure of the left, who showed a high level of political confusion and an unwillingness to oppose the bureaucracy, worse still in the run-up to the conference at meetings of the Public Services Alliance they opposed every attempt to prioritise the need to fight the bureaucracy.

This was most clearly expressed by left support for ICTU's '10 point program'. The program was put forward as a basis for unity by the Independent Workers Union at a meeting held just before the Easter conferences and was also the central element of a leaflet by 'Teachers United', a front organization of the Socialist Workers Party. 

The 10 points are not in any sense an alternative or an opposition to the capitalist offensive. Rather they are the cover from which ICTU offers support for the government and bosses. Organizations which support the ICTU platform are declaring themselves a loyal opposition and acting as an obstacle to the development of a workers program.

Political capitulation to the bureaucracy was matched by organisational capitulation. The keynote resolution supported by the left at the INTO conference called for discussion groups and a union paper to be organized by the leadership in order to mobilize resistance - this in the face of open betrayal and the sabotage of workers action!

As the debate advanced many workers across all the teaching unions took a much more radical and clear-eyed view of the role of ICTU. The difficulty at the moment is that the clarity of sections of the rank and file is handicapped by a lack of a political program and national organization while the tiny left organizations are left far behind, handicapped by a reformist accommodation to the ICTU leadership.


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