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Jack O’Connor, Irish Water and the Troika 

How do we explain Jack O’Connor’s apparent equivocation on the water charges? O’Connor only recently advised the people of Ireland to pay the charges because failure to do so would lead to the even worse option of increased taxation. Following the exponential growth of the anti water charges protest movement he reappeared saying he now supported the Right2water campaign—although this “support” still involved payment.  

To understand O’Connor’s role we have to look back in time. In November 2012, following a couple of well attended demonstrations, the Dublin Council of Trade Unions fronted an anti-austerity demonstration around the 2013 budget. It was at the launch of this demonstration more than anywhere else that the true strategy of the Irish labour movement’s leadership was laid bare.  Jack O‘Connor   announced; 

“We will be encouraging members to come out on the 24th to prioritise an agenda of growth within the narrow parameters of the Troika program”. 
It is almost incomprehensible that, accompanied by the sage silence of the reformist left, while launching a demonstration against the government’s economic policy the leader of the country’s largest union went so far as to make the case for that policy, stating that the Government had “very limited space to manoeuvre”. O’Connor has never strayed from this position.

At the demonstration itself a section of workers and youth, some of which broke the discipline of their political organisation’s official position, booed the union bureaucrats and chanted slogans for a general strike. The organisers of the rally moved to protect O’Connor and quell the protesters’ enthusiasm and proceeded to allow UNITE’s Eugene McGlone, then ICTU chair, to taunt the vociferous youth with a cynical version of how to organise a general strike; “if youse want a general strike youse call it!” Consolidating this attack Jack O’Connor later referred to the young workers as ‘fascists’, a disgraceful slur by a Labour leader on class conscious activists. The entire episode was a microcosm of the relationship between capitalism, the trade union leadership, the reformist left and the working class.
Given this previous contempt for anti austerity demonstrators and his blatant attempts to undermine the water charges campaign O’Connor’s recent attempts to get on board the Right 2 Water campaign could appear to suggest a movement to the left.  His tentative moves are laced with caveats however, and his strategy has remained consistent. His demand that the campaign agrees to a payment per household based on the promise of a referendum on the issue of privatisation is an attempt to distract and confuse the popular campaign. If we abolish Irish Water no referendum would be necessary as without Irish Water it would be impossible to privatise the water service. The problem for O’Connor is that this campaign is genuinely spontaneous and cannot be controlled in the same timeworn way that union bureaucracies control their members, so in order to prove his usefulness to capitalism as a negotiator Jack must try to get his foot in the door of the water charges campaign, control and demobilise it and install the bureaucracy as the arbiters of class peace. 

In fact Jack O’Connor as leader of SIPTU could put an end to Irish Water’s  misery and end the water charges campaign by instructing those workers who are SIPTU members to return to their contracted council jobs and the government and Irish Water, would be defeated. The fact is that O’Connor and the entire union bureaucracy are ideologically supporting the privatisation and there is strong documentary evidence to show that the whole union bureaucracy were in on the ground floor, helping to set up Irish water with their only concern that their members transfer over and union subscriptions be kept up.

From the beginning of the economic crisis the trade union movement’s leadership have been content to maintain the relationship with capitalism that they had   consolidated during the Partnership years. With the arrival of the crisis this   relationship did not change. The union bureaucracy still looked for the least worst deal, agreeing to large pay cuts, closure of key industries and job cuts in the hope of a relatively rapid economic recovery.  Where the workers disagreed they were walked around the park and asked to vote and vote again until they came up with the right answer. Seven years later the union leader’s strategy remains exactly the same. 


It is no accident that the entire bureaucratic leadership failed to recognise the fundamental nature of the crisis that afflicted capitalism with the collapse of the banking system. ICTU were never going to agree with Marx’s explanation for capitalist crisis being based on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, instead, their strategy was born of the reformist notion that successful trade unionism required the existence of a healthy capitalism and concessions should be made by the working class to ensure that health. 

With  the advent of the crisis, which they  believed would be short term, they fell back on their default position; they would continue with social partnership at all costs, making themselves indispensable to capitalism as crisis managers and facilitators of an organised surrender of workers short term interests in order to facilitate a capitalist recovery. The problem is that the depth and fundamental nature of this crisis demands the complete crushing of workers living standards in the hope of restoring profitability.

Despite the long duration of the crisis and evidence that the austerity is to extend into the foreseeable future this approach was maintained.  As it became increasingly apparent that the attack on the working class was intensifying the union bureaucracy became increasingly shrill in its calls for a Keynesian answer to the global crisis when no capitalist was talking about such a scenario. It is this political line that defines O’Connor’s position. 

O’Connor has spelled it out; 

“The problem with our economy is not that wages or spending is too high. It is that consumer demand continues to fall through the floorboards precisely as a result of the pursuit of this nonsensical approach which reflects an on-going attempt to resolve the problems created by those at the top of    society through crucifying people on middle and low incomes. The one-sided austerity agenda is not working. Indeed it cannot work”.
He was not against austerity, as long as it was shared by the ‘top’ of society. This despite the fact that the austerity is designed to transfer wealth from the working class to the huge glutted institutions of capitalism in an attempt to restore profitability. His idealist vision of a fair Keynesian capitalism meant he was against what he saw as the one sidedness of attempts to resolve the catastrophe which had befallen capitalism and believed that he was best placed to advise the capitalists on how to resolve their crisis, through the “Better Fairer Way”. He did not for a moment oppose the very unfair concept of the working class shouldering the banker’s huge debt, or the idea that what had been private banking debt had been shifted on to the shoulders of the working population of Ireland for generations to come. It was essential to the solution of the crisis. According to his interpretation his job was to prevent unscrupulous self interested immoral bourgeois individuals from acting against the best interests of capitalism and thus the working class.

A corrupt political ideology

At the bottom of this betrayal of the working population lies a debased and    cynical corruption of socialist ideas based on Keynesian economics and Fabian gradualism which denies the source of profit in human labour, sees profits as dependent on investment, rather than the other way around as explained by Marx, and which holds an idealised view of social ‘justice’ within capitalism, the     theoretical basis of ICTU’s “Better, Fairer Way”. O’Connor had explained this position well in a speech at the 2011 SIPTU Biennial conference; 

“Capitalism is experiencing one of the most profound crises in its history. The great irony is that it can survive only if it repudiates its most essential characteristic – exponentially growing inequality. 
Yet– the survival of Capitalism is ultimately dependent on restoring the  purchasing power of working people in the US and in Europe.  This was clearly grasped by people like Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR), who also understood that the key to it is strong trade union organisation to ensure effective collective bargaining to redistribute wealth and restore purchasing power.  F.D.R. understood this clearly and supported the Labour Relations Act (or Wagner Act as it was known) during the depression to provide a legal framework for trade unionism to grow stronger, equipping workers to engage in Collective Bargaining with employers …… So there it is.  Trade unionism is key to the socialist transformation of society. However, it is also essential to the survival of capitalism.”

There it is indeed! O’Connor’s Keynesian theory flies in the face of Marxist analysis. Michael Roberts, the Marxist economist, presents the case for Marxism. 

“For Keynes, the causal direction is simply that investment creates profit…. For Marxists, it is the other way round: investment depends on profit. And profit depends on the exploitation of labour power and its appropriation by capital. Thus we have an objective causal analysis based on a specific form of class society, not based on some mystical psychoanalysis of individual human behaviour. The Keynesian causal direction leads to a cockeyed understanding of the laws of motion of capitalism.” 
What O’Connor seeks to do is to present Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s as an example of a successful Keynesian intervention and a solution to the crisis of capitalism today. But the poverty and degradation of the working poor in 1930’s America isn’t much of an    advertisement. Leaving the way in which the workers had to suffer for that ‘cure’ to one side for a moment it is also important to point out that it was ineffective. He ignores the fact that FDR’s New Deal did not   restore capitalist fortunes which was boosted only by the arms economy, the military destruction of the means of production throughout the world and by the shedding of millions of gallons of blood in world war. He also neglects to  mention that the New Deal was only resorted to in the first place following a wave of determined militant strikes across America with two general strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco.

The real reason for the US capitalist recovery was quite different. From 1932 FDR’s New Deal tried to rejuvenate capitalism “but as soon as he took his foot off the Keynesian pedal in 1937, the US economy slipped straight back into slump”. The switch to military investment, the forcing down of wages and  enforced investment in ‘war bonds’ which was then handed over to industry for military investment in the means of administering death, led to the upswing in profitability. Workers were subject to reduced wages, increased exploitation, their savings were taken by the government in the form of ‘savings’ bonds and they were sent out to die. The barbarous destruction of the means of production cleared the decks for increased profitability and investment, not Keynesianism. 

A Fabian left?

Jack O’Connor’s blatant class treachery does not exist simply because he is a particularly degenerate trade union bureaucrat. It is there because he sticks resolutely to a reformist political perspective, one that dominates the Irish left. He is no fool awaiting in a state of ignorance for the intervention of a gently spoken leftist to enlighten him, he knows and has chosen his political point of view well, 

Based on this corrupt ideology, O’Connor now seeks to make himself and the bureaucratic SIPTU leadership relevant to the water issue because the position that they occupy as mediator between capital and labour has been rendered    useless by the water revolt’s independence and spontaneity. He seeks to control it and to bring it in to line with their perspective for healing the capitalist system. 

It is the political responsibility of Marxists to loudly and publicly oppose Jack O’Connor, the bureaucracy and the politics they adhere to but the leadership of the left are married to his reactionary Keynesian ‘Better Fairer Way’ through their refusal to do so. Attacking his personality is not the same as attacking his politics but they fail to confront his politics because they are smitten with the same   disease, failing to grasp the systemic nature of the capitalist crisis and finding themselves sharing the reformist perspective of the union bureaucracy. 

O’Connor has the temerity to lecture trade union conferences on the need to save capitalism because his ideology is facing little opposition within the labour movement. This must change. A trade union leadership that places the survival of capitalism before the interests of its members betrays those members and must be removed.  That will not happen to any meaningful extent by means of a bureaucratic manoeuvre, or an alliance with the next bureaucrat in waiting. Such an approach does not confront the political basis of the bureaucracy’s treachery. A real rejuvenation of the trade union movement can only happen when, as with the water charges, those effected most by austerity, the rank and file, mobilise on their own account. The existing leadership can only be definitively outflanked by a fighting trade union rank and file organisation across all unions which fights  austerity, and the ideology that justifies it. 

The anti water charge campaign as it struggles to become nationally organised has provided    inspiration to trade unionists on how to begin a fight back. Trade unions already possess the level of organisation that Right2water aspires to but the trade union leadership is unaccountable and  politically degenerate. While the anti water charge campaign is focussed on a single issue and lacks a democratic structure, it still provides a service to the working class by asking the question; Should we have to pay for our water in order to balance the books for the Troika? The   workers reply with a resounding No!  The trade union leadership, based on their degenerate reformist political theory answers a resounding Yes!  

The establishment of a national grass roots democratic body opposed to water charges and austerity would be a step forward and would pose to the many    thousands of trade unionists involved in it the immediate task of democratisation and radicalisation of their unions.

The establishment of a fighting rank and file organisation across all unions, linked in action with communities defending themselves against austerity, would  immediately strip the bureaucracy of the control and arrogance that allows them to lecture the labour movement on the need to make sacrifices to save capitalism, to order their branches not to oppose water charges or to refer to left wing youth that criticise their betrayals as ‘fascists’ and it would ultimately free the trade union movement from the leaderships reactionary political perspective.


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