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London, Dublin, Belfast:

A tripod of protests as unions react to low pay and high prices

5 July 2022

Demonstration in support of striking railway workers.

Late June saw demonstrations in Dublin, Belfast and in London protesting the high cost of living. To some extent all represented the potential for a working-class mobilisation, but they also expressed a reluctance by trade union leaders to strain the links with government or to consider a radical agenda. The chief area of tension lies in Britain, with rail workers moving into action and representing a direct challenge to the government.


The Belfast Demonstration of 1000 trade unionists, held on June 25th, organised around what was the most rightward of the various political programmes. It demanded that the Stormont Executive be reinstated and that it get back to work to solve the cost of living crisis. It's true that this is the general sentiment, reflected by the media and the majority of political parties, but it has no connection with physical reality. Stormont is a sectarian dogfight and a colonial administration that rubber stamps British policy. The idea that it can work in the interests of the working class illustrates the low level of political consciousness in the North.

The Stormont Assembly, alongside its dysfunctional forced sectarian coalition, applies a low level of local taxation and is reluctant to extend those.  Its main income is a block grant from Westminster and its main activity, when it is operating, is the division of patronage.

It's worth noting that, at a rally based on getting politicians back to work, there were no politicians speaking. That's because The Northern Committee - Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) looks to neutrality between Orange and Green.  They protest "the politicians" when they mean the Democratic Unionist Party, and that means that it becomes impossible to invite Sinn Féin to the platform.

The current union positions became cemented with their acceptance of the "Fresh Start" Agreement of 2015. The argument then was that it was better to reluctantly accept an austerity programme than see the local assembly fail. Nine years on and we have full throated support for a revival of the decayed institution based on the unlikely premise that a junior regional capitalist assembly, having imposed austerity, will restore prosperity.

The aftermath of Fresh Start saw a period of purdah for the Trade Unions. Demonstrations were infrequent and the city centre abandoned to make room for loyalist demonstrations. A positive view off the new campaign is that it forces NIC-ICTU from its shell and allows the possibility of greater activity, political consciousness and radicalism.

There is however another element, the industrial struggle against austerity. The demonstration follows strike action against the bus service, Translink. Rejection by the workers was followed by cancellation of strike action, more negotiation and a settlement that many workers were clearly unhappy with. Further progress will depend on the level of independence and action by workers as the crisis unfolds.


Demonstrations by the Cost-of-Living Coalition in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Sligo, with a linked demo in Belfast, were relatively small. There was a token presence from Sinn Fein and some union leaders, but nothing remotely approaching a mobilisation.

Dublin march co-ordinator Eddie Conlon said the cost-of-living crisis was deepening and that urgent action was needed. Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald said: “People are suffering now, we need a response from Government now, we need an emergency budget now.” But what happened was the opposite. The left, following the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ lead, immediately pivoted to organising for September and the October budget.

A more accurate assessment came from housing activist Fr Peter McVerry; “I am in despair. We have had a housing crisis for several decades and it’s simply getting worse.”

The reason that it is getting worse is that the billions in the last housing budget were aimed at private developers and the union reaction was to call off housing protests. They now sit on bodies implementing this policy. The industrial background to the protests is the "Building Momentum" public sector agreement and the Public Service Stability mechanism. Essentially, pay is largely frozen, strikes are outlawed and the union bureaucracy, joined by ex-bureaucrats now in government service, police the agreement.

ICTU initially looked to invoke emergency provisions in the partnership agreement but were rebuffed. Within days they attended a National Conversation organised by the government in which they, representing the working class, were reduced to an interest group among dozens of others. It is within this framework that they swung towards lobbying on the October budget. The long tradition of partnership tells us that the bottom line will be affordability rather than the needs of workers. In fact, the situation is much worse than it appears. The government have used the national conversation to set an overall budget of €6.5 billion on expenditure and to reserve €1 billion of the total for tax breaks. The unions and left, as in the past, will focus on lobbying for specific issues rather than challenging the overall defence of the capitalist economy.


As is to be expected given the greater size of the British workers movement, the biggest demonstration came in London, with many thousands attending. There was also a significant turnout of younger workers, with a much more radical approach. None of this had any significant impact on the ingrained conservatism of the TUC leadership. The TUC brought demonstrations to the capital from across the UK, called for measures including “a decent pay rise for public-sector workers.”

The main speaker, TUC leader Frances O’Grady's contribution focused on a fair pay system and on welfare increases, a familiar tale of listing harrowing cases of privation in the expectation that the Johnson government would respond.

She said; “If we don’t get pay rising across the economy, we will just keep lurching from crisis to crisis. This cost-of-living emergency has not come out of the blue. It is the result of more than a decade of standstill wages.” O’Grady said it was “gut wrenching” to hear how workers were struggling, with no safety net to fall back on and the pay slump showing little sign of slowing.

Just what the TUC had done over more than a decade of standstill wages was hard to discern, as was their plan to reverse the situation. The TUC have the advantage of a mass party historically linked to the working class, illustrated by the presence of the Labour party deputy leader, Angela Rayner, at O’Grady's side. Yet the Starmer project is to crush the left and present Labour as irreconcilable defenders of capitalism. The TUC remains loyal.

However, the industrial context in Britain is very different from the situation in Ireland. There the massive cost of living crisis has provoked a mass rail strike, with many other unions warning of forthcoming action. The government has been taken aback by the level of public support for the rail workers. Starmer's refusal to support it has left him exposed and facing his first challenges from within the party.  RMT leader Mick Lynch has given fresh morale to workers and to socialist militants through his no-nonsense dismissal of government ministers and their foot soldiers in the media.

Weaknesses remain. The RMT demand for direct talks with the government is unlikely to be successful.  Lynch himself recognises that a broader and more generalised strike action across industry is necessary, but the battle against legal constraints and the inertia of the union bureaucracy is in its infancy.

We are seeing the first shots in a new and even more vicious attack on the working class. The union bureaucracy has been jerked from their slumber and have organised a walk in the park. Motion instead of sleep is an advance, but it is still tightly constrained. The outbreak of industrial warfare around the RMT is a much sharper jolt in nudging the working class into action, but it will require substantial reorganisation at both the industrial and political level to carry the struggle forward, prising the majority of union leaders away from capitulation to government and building a workers’ movement that can confront the many legal shackles on industrial action, and with a political programme that puts workers needs front and centre.

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