Return to bulletin menu

Greyhound dispute: Lions led by Donkeys

After a long period of retreat the struggle of the Greyhound waste workers marked an intense and violent struggle between capital and labour in Dublin that put to the test the workers, the unions and the socialist groups.

The workers showed great bravery and determination, firstly in standing up to physical intimidation and a lockout, secondly by standing firm in a long war of attrition when they faced scabs, the Garda and judicial threats of jail and seizure of their property.

The SIPTU bureaucracy provided the formal protection and formal structures of an official industrial action. However this was in the context of industrial relations legislation that they had accepted as part of social partnership. This limited pickets to an informational role and emasculated the action. The workers would also have been aware that union bosses have been accepting and enforcing pay cuts as partners in austerity with the government and bosses.


The struggle saw a significant mobilisation by the Dublin left. However there were significant restraints on the campaign due to their fixed determination to avoid any direct challenge to the union bureaucracy.

For the socialists the struggle began with a lockout by Greyhound in June. Faced with a lockout, the task was for workers, union leaders and socialists to unite together in a common struggle. Insofar as there was any criticism of Jack O'Connor and the other union leaders, it was a call to do more rather than any critique of their role.

But this dispute did not begin with lockout. It began much earlier when Greyhound approached SIPTU with a proposal to cut wages by 33 %. In a standard response the union went to the Labour Court, even though they know that it regularly finds for employers.

True to form, the court found for the employer. The unions did not contest the finding. As explained on the SIPTU website, their case rested on a section of the court ruling calling for negotiation. In a carbon copy of the recent Dublin bus dispute, the unions took action to protect their role as negotiators, rather than the rights of workers - in the bus dispute the drivers were forced to vote 5 times until they accepted the cuts package.


The left decided to leave the role of the union bureaucracy to one side and to act as auxiliaries, enforcing a blockade that the union refused to attempt and eventually winning sections of the workforce to the tactic.

This was a necessary but not a sufficient approach. As the dispute intensified the judiciary moved in and imposed an injunction against the blockade that applied to "the whole world." The end result was the union officials and the Greyhound bosses hammering out a deal in a back room, out of the reach of the workers.

The role of the left has changed little since the bin charge struggle of a decade ago. Then they shouted ''bin tax," ignoring the privatisation process and the fact that a partnership deal had been struck with the unions.

''People Power" did not work then, but by building the campaign in electoral districts the socialist groups were able to win seats in the Dail and at council level. This, they argued, would give them influence and a platform to argue the case for socialism.

Ten years on from the bin charge campaign little is said about socialism and it turns out that elected representatives have no control over the economy at any level. The most that Dublin councillors can do is ask the city manager to "review" the Greyhound contract with the council.

Claims of victory

The SIPTU - Greyhound deal involved some of the workers retaining their pay rate as long as they worked a contract with Dublin council, a number took redundancy and the remainder accepted a 15 percent pay cut.

The left have claimed a victory, but to do so they have adopted the definition of the union bosses - not as bad as the initial demands of the employer. From the point of view of the working class basic wage rate has fallen in Greyhound and the downward pressure on wages and conditions continues.

What can we learn from the dispute? Many of the tactical elements were there. In any strike it is essential to close down the employer and prevent scabbing. It is important to build unity between workers, socialists and the community. The absence of a struggle to break the grip of the union bureaucracy was a weakness.


One lesson of the dispute is it again clarifies the role of the union leaders in the class struggle. What was demanded of the workers was a complete defeat, impoverishment and total humiliation. They said No as they should be able to, given their union membership held for just such eventualities.

But he role of the bureaucracy is to negotiate defeat not to oppose it. They sugar coat the bitter taste of defeat and that is their useful role to capitalism.

The most treacherous and insidious role the bureaucrats play is that by negotiating defeat is that the working class assimilates defeat. Workers face defeat by increments and become acclimatised to having every accumulated right and benefit disappear.

Ignoring the union bosses role led to a deeper political weakness. The socialists focused on the local issue of the lockout rather than a broader programme around privatisation and wage cuts. Once the struggle became a confrontation with the state it had to become much larger and it could only do so around a more general programme.

What that programme should be is discussed in the companion article.


Return to top of page