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Vote for Kieran Allen for SIPTU General Secretary?

Joe Craig

2 April 2008 

The trade unions are just about to decide whether to enter into negotiations over the new pay element of the latest social partnership agreement – ‘Towards 2016.’  Now is therefore an opportune time to campaign in the largest union, SIPTU, against social partnership, which has been a disaster for the working class inside and outside union ranks.  This makes the announced candidacy of Kieran Allen from the Socialist Workers Party for SIPTU General Secretary so important.  In the past SWP candidates have done well in SIPTU elections and have had the potential to rally angry and militant workers against their current misleaders.  Kieran Allen’s candidacy offers another opportunity to do this – or does it?

In his election literature and web site Allen has called for wage increases to be indexed to price rises, thereby protecting workers living standards from the ravages of inflation.  The last pay round demonstrated how important this is.  He also calls for workers in profitable companies and those in the public sector to have the ability to put in claims for additional pay increases – again a perfectly legitimate demand.  He also announces his opposition to outsourcing, redundancies, privatisation, benchmarking, attacks on pension rights and the two tier health system.  These are all extremely important attacks on the working class and he is right to highlight them.

In various articles he has lambasted the fruits of social partnership.  Yet his condemnations are no more radical, in fact less so, than those of previous trade union bureaucrats who have negotiated the deals they condemn and then go on to negotiate even worse ones! Nowhere does he come out and say he opposes social partnership!  In fact, while he calls for SIPTU to leave the benchmarking process he very clearly does not say this about social partnership.  This is clearly no oversight and it is not a minor detail.   How does he think all these attacks have gotten so far?  It is precisely through social partnership that they have succeeded.  Failure to oppose partnership can only lead to failure to stop these attacks.

Social partnership is simply the unity of trade unions with the bosses and State to further the economic, social and political agenda of the latter.  This means reactionary social policies on taxation and welfare spending; reactionary economic policies on flexibility and support for corporate interests and reactionary political policies such as support for the neoliberal agenda of the European Union, precisely at a time when we face a new referendum on its onward march.  So why can’t all this be pointed out and explained?  Kieran Allen knows all this.  It’s hardly news to him.

Why can’t he make the perfectly obvious demand that SIPTU break with social partnership, condemn and pull out of ‘Towards 2016’ and repudiate the rotten surrenders it contains?  In fact why can’t he put forward an alternative to social partnership?  When ‘Towards 2016’ was first agreed all he could call for was that union negotiators bring back an ‘improved version’ of the deal.  This is now clearly what his current demands signify.


He calls for unspecified action to resist outsourcing and redundancies but ignores the fact that this was agreed by the current leadership of SIPTU in ‘Towards 2016.’  He laments that the workers on Irish Ferries will, in December, face wages of only €4 an hour.  Yet it was his organisation that claimed the action against Irish Ferries was a success despite arguments from others and copious evidence it was not.  One hell of a recommendation for a left union leader - who cannot even recognise a sell out when he sees one.

He asks why nothing has been done about a SIPTU conference call to hold a national demonstration against the scandalous state of the health service.  Isn’t it obvious?  Trade union leaders including those of SIPTU endorsed the two tier health strategy and the limited funding of the health service a long time ago.  If they now endorse limited action it is simply as a bargaining chip and, like the demonstration against Irish Ferries, a means to let angry workers let off steam.  He is like someone who condemns the results of criminality but refuses to condemn the crime or the criminals.  And this is the key to the political significance of Allen’s candidacy.

He is not stupid. Nothing written above is, or at least should be, alien to him.  If he chooses not to attack the trade union bureaucracy for their crimes it is because he consciously chooses not to.  This is why we get phrases which speak only of putting ‘real backbone into the leadership’ instead of clearing it out and building an entirely new movement.  This is why we get nonsense about the union having gone soft.  When is this supposed to have happened?  SIPTU has been ‘cosy’ with the bosses in social partnership since its creation in 1990.  When exactly was it ‘hard?’

What Allen offers is not therefore a break with the union bureaucracy but a left wing appendage to it.  This is not a step forward for workers or socialist politics in the unions, but a step forward for the bureaucracy in making rotten the socialist opposition - in very much the same way they went rotten themselves.  Like them it is speeches about socialism for the converted and watered down politics for the masses when faced with the bosses.

In the past Socialist Democracy has criticised sections of the left for the nature of its opposition to social partnership; for not appreciating its importance, for not having an adequate strategy to fight it, or alternative to it, and not organising effectively with the strategy it had.  It has become clear that these differences hid more fundamental ones.  All along some on the left wanted to save the unions, including their current bureaucratic structures and leaders from the failures of partnership while we wanted to save the workers from the bureaucratic structures and bureaucratic leaders.  For us fighting and beating the union bureaucracy has been central to advancing working class interests, we have not been interested in saving the bureaucratic structure from itself.

The left represented by Allen has followed the logic of failing to fully break with the union bureaucracy by advocating unity with them inside the social partnership process.  This is unsustainable.  Unity with the bureaucracy means unity with the bosses and government since this is where the union leaders are at.  This is not an ‘opposition’ that can be endorsed and it is not an ‘opposition’ that can win workers’ demands.


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