A better, fairer way
It is now generally forgotten that the bank bail-out was followed by mass demonstrations and by a public sector strike. The initial protests were not all unsuccessful - pensioners and students forced retreats on the first austerity plan. It was notable that the further one got from the trade union leadership the more successful the protests were.
There was a pretty simple reason for that. The trade union leaderships had been locked in social partnership with government and bosses since the 1980's. Wage freezes were punctuated by cost of living rises and compensation in the form of tax cuts. Even while economic growth took place wages as a proportion of the economy fell sharply and profits rose equally sharply. Strikes were largely unknown but the union bureaucracy gained new status, ensconced in partnership committees at every level of society, sympathising with their members at changes to working conditions they had agreed in solemn conclave.
As this model of business unionism gained ground the salaries of union bosses, appointed for life, swelled - John Carr of INTO, with an enormous salary and pension package, become the highest paid union executive in the British isles, his pay dwarfing that of union officials in British unions with ten times the membership. He was closely followed by Jack O'Connor of SIPTU.
So when the credit crunch broke the concerns of the bureaucracy were not identical to those of their members. Ordinary trade unionists worried about jobs, wages and pensions. The bureaucracy worried about maintaining their place in partnership, including the acceptance of austerity. They had, however, to sell a policy of collaboration to their members.
The outcome was their policy of a "Better, Fairer Way". The policy was misnamed. In reality it was a better, fairer way to pay the bondholders. Essentially there were two proposals. One was to take longer to pay the debt. In essence the Irish government has been forced down this path. The outcome is even higher interest payments and austerity stretching beyond 2025.
The second proposal was that, in addition to paying the bondholders, the government should have adopted a "countercyclical" Keynesian programme of investment to stimulate the economy. Again this would have involved a bigger debt and more interest payments, but that didn't matter. The fact that government and employers rejected their programme did not affect its usefulness in providing cover for a policy of support for austerity.
It is important to remember that, even if sincere, the “better, fairer way” would not have amounted to an alternative. It is firmly rooted in a Keynesian past and is essentially an appeal for an alternative, gentler capitalism. None of the major powers say that such an alternative exists. When the Greek people vote against austerity the capitalist powers tighten the financial necktie around their throats, when Hollande proposes investment for growth he does so on top of the continuation of austerity. Socialists should not find themselves putting forward a left version of the bureaucracy’s programme. The question is not what capitalism will do to help the workers. It is what the workers will do to fight back.
The union leaders called for a better and fairer way, but caved into savage wage and pension cuts. This collapse was followed by a new partnership, summarised in the Croke Park agreement , where the unions not only accepted cuts, but worked to agreed targets to impose them. The arrival of the troika saw trade union collaboration written into the memorandum of understanding.
There are a number of key elements in the discussion about the Croke Park agreement that remain important. One is the claim that the pay of public sector workers would be protected. Almost immediately that narrowed to cover existing members. New teachers, for example, work at a lower rate with very poor pension provision. That makes the agreement not a temporary shelter, but a mechanism for restructuring pay and conditions. Even in the case of existing workers pay rates are maintained via extra unpaid work and mass redundancies. Allowances, we are now told, are not part of our wage and can now be slashed.
A second point is the role of "left" trade union leaders. Although a sizable section of the trade union leadership opposed Croke Park, that opposition was purely formal and never involved putting forward an alternative or mobilising workers in struggle. Following the vote Jimmy Kelly of UNITE called on members to reverse their no vote, effectively turning a 60% victory for the right into a 100% victory.
Throughout the discussions about partnership, austerity and Croke Park one thing stands out. If the union bureaucracy stood by a single word of their "better, fairer" alternative then we would be facing into an indefinite general strike. At the very core of the Financial Stability Pact is the outlawing of any Keynesian “invest for jobs” alternative. So when ICTU shrugs their shoulders, when Jack O'Connor mumbles weasel words, they are simply confirming the policy of David Begg and the majority of the Trade union leaderships - there is no alternative to sacrificing the workers to save capitalism.