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Where will the resistance come from?

Joe Craig

23rd January 2004

In March a new pay deal is due for negotiation as part of the latest social partnership deal, Sustaining Progress.  As usual the leaders of the trade unions have been thumping their tubs and rattling their sabres.

Joe O’Flynn, the general secretary of SIPTU, has claimed that there has been a breach of trust on the part of the government and employers and that this may have ‘put paid’ to the prospects of a new deal.' The trust which underpins all such national agreements has been breached and is no longer evident from either the Government or the employers’ side at this stage.I believe the forecasts regarding the end of social partnership may well be realised and we may end up in a free-for-all situation if this is to continue. Indeed it may well be that a free-for-all would greatly enhance the standing of the trade union movement with our own members.’

Of course if partnership deals are going to end it is much more likely that the government and bosses will break them rather than the union bureaucracy will start to genuinely represent the interests of their members. So where will resistance to wage constraint, privatisation and attacks on welfare and social services come from?

The first candidate might be expected to be the left but their stop-start campaigns in opposition to each new deal have been getting weaker, not stronger. They have consistently failed to understand the political nature of the attacks workers have faced, failed to organise a democratic and therefore lasting campaign, and have rather sought to develop links with the left of the trade union bureaucracy. The left’s lamentable leadership of campaigns plus its opportunistic electoral interventions have been well documented on this website so there can be but little hope that the current leaderships will break from their current political approach.

A second candidate for resistance might be well-organised groups of workers with a higher level of militant consciousness prepared to resist attacks on their rights and living standards. Such a group has been the train drivers in the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association, which was prevented by the government, in alliance with ICTU and other unions, from achieving recognition as a separate trade union.

It was compelled to seek a home in the ATGWU led in Ireland by Mick O’Reilly, foremost representative of the left within the highest ranks of the trade union hierarchy. Following an attempt to expel him from his position for allowing ILDA to join the ATGWU, O’Reilly was demoted. The ATGWU belongs to a group of unions that organise mainly private sector workers, some of which have claimed that social partnership benefits mainly public sector workers, pointing to the payments under the benchmarking process as evidence.

Again this is an old refrain from those who have opposed the deals. Their perspective has never been one of uniting all workers against the attacks involved in partnership and which affect all workers. Their approach has been the purest trade union sectionalism which, like the left, ignores the political dimensions of the deals and is determined to play by the bureaucracy’s rules – which usually means opposition to partnership disappears after the vote on a new deal has taken place.

In other words, while the left has sought links with the left of the trade union bureaucracy this bureaucratic ‘left’ has consistently made it clear it will not break with the right of the bureaucracy which in turn has clung to partnership with the bosses and state.The limits imposed on workers resistance by unions supposedly opposed to partnership can be seen in the recent experience of the ILDA workers.

Before Christmas they voted by a 92% majority for strike action in defence of negotiating rights and in opposition to new roster arrangements. The ATGWU then stepped in to prevent a strike and to try ‘to resolve matters through the courts.’The union leadership thus joined the management of Iarnrod Eireann and ICTU in opposing and successfully preventing the ILDA workers from taking strike action to defend basic rights. The workers have therefore been compelled to work the new rosters.

This is not the first time relations between the ILDA drivers and ATGWU leadership has come under strain and the home provided to them by the ATGWU has begun to look more like house arrest. However the courage and determination of the train drivers is manifested in their continued organisation and struggle.Their continuing fight is rich in lessons for others: workers seeking to organise resistance have many obstacles to overcome, and high on the list are their own unions and their leaderships.


A new resistance will not drop from the sky. It will be made up from elements of the most militant and organised workers and from the most serious and determined left militants. Both groups are bigger than they seem. Many workers are imprisoned by the union bureaucracy – one of the reasons for the ICTU offensive against Mick O’Reilly was the frantic determination to prevent workers from following a traditional route of resistance by swapping unions. The bigger left organisations are sectarian, opportunist and dogmatic.The smaller groups tend towards a libertarian unity in action which many see as non-sectarian but is in reality tends to denigrate political principle and leaves them towed in the wake of the opportunists. While rejecting the larger groups’ organisational sectarianism they fail to understand the underlying political conceptions of these groups and accept, albeit unwittingly, many of their political claims.However many individual leftists are extremely determined at what they do and there is a border of ex-members and independents, many of whom would support a more coherent and principled movement.

Even the left bureaucracy and its manoeuvres reflect workers’ dissatisfaction. The mistake of many is to imagine that they will act spontaneously without the threat of independent action from rank and file workers. Their interests will always tend to act as a brake on forward movement, and it is essential that workers understand this if they are not to be stabbed in the back at the first opportunity.

The main problem however is neither the sectarianism of the left groups nor even the limitations of the left bureaucracy, though the latter is important.It is the negative spiral of a long retreat and its effects on workers consciousness. Union and political betrayal demobilises workers and in turn there is more retreat, which leads to a feeling that resistance is impossible, futile or misguided. We may now be at the bottom. There will be no more feelgood factor from government or employers. Benchmarking settlements, stretched out over years from first negotiation, are now to be paid for by redundancy! So the attacks will continue and eventually the growing gap between the bureaucracy and rank and file workers will become clearer to the latter, notwithstanding the confusion of the left. When this begins to happen workers can engage in struggle with a clearer idea of who their friends are, who the enemy is and how they can win. The ILDA workers are an early herald of this process.

One victory, one group of workers escaping the clutches of the bureaucracy, can shift the economic and political landscape.



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