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On socialist strategy in the unions - a reply no a non-answer

To end a recent debate on the stated subject in Red Banner, Maeve Connaughton used her clout with the editorial board to have it closed at the point where she had the last word. There may be some, otherwise rational people out there who believe that she could not be answered. What follows may enlighten them.
Maeve Connaughton objects that the present author ‘ignores what [she] is saying.’ So, what did she say?  Her own words seem to summarise her argument: ‘Rank and file activists building an independent resistance will have to apply…pressure [on] the trade union bureaucrats [for] an end to partnership in itself, even if it goes no further than restoring traditional trade union activity.’ If this is not what she means, she should say.

Assuming that she does mean it, there is at least one conspicuous omission in her analysis. She does not explain why ‘an independent rank and file resistance will have to apply pressure’ on the fakirs for anything beyond the democratic control of the unions by the memberships. Of course, ‘Mick O’Reilly is not Tony O’Reilly’ (Nice soundbite, Maeve!), but who said he was? The point is that that he is also not any Reilly or O’Reilly that may be an ordinary union member. This is even truer of David Begg and Jack O’Connor and the vast majority of union officials. No, they are not capitalists. They have usurped an intermediate role between their union members and the capitalists. Moreover, most of them aspire to be capitalists and, more immediately, even more fear to do what is necessary to challenge the capitalists, lest they imperil their organisations and the status and perks they get from them. Worse still, this attitude makes it impossible for any more enlightened official to go too far in challenging the system, since such a person knows that such a move will be an isolated one. This inhibition can only be shed by the independent rank and file resistance leading the rank and file to discipline the fakirs: to dictate union strategy to their officials and, if those officials prove recalcitrant, to fire them. This will not happen overnight, but leading the fight to democratise the unions will give the rank and file leaders a moral authority necessary for leading the memberships to challenge the system. After all, Ms. Connaughton knows that, in the present union structures, ‘pressure’ is never enough. 

This debate began by her reviewing Joe Craig’s book which contains all too many examples of ‘pressure’ being brought to bear on the bureaucrats. Presumably, she would argue that the pressure of the Aer Rianta workers and of the nurses was merely inadequate and badly organised: that ‘an independent rank and file resistance’ would have been successful. (There is no evidence that she would offer another excuse.) It remains true that a successful resistance could render such pressure irrelevant, because the workers who would lead it could write their own programme of attack on the bosses for whom the fakirs are just the front cover.

As matters stand, the bureaucratic role remains the same whether capital rules with or without partnership. In calling solely to restore free collective bargaining ‘even if it goes no further than restoring traditional trade union activity’, Ms Connaughton avoids the fact that, in the real Ireland of today, ending partnership will leave such activity hobbled by partnership’s residues. Any rank and file campaign worth its salt must attack the Industrial Relations Act and privatisation. Ms. Connaughton enjoys herself counterposing “Socialists calling for No votes to partnership deals” to the writer’s ‘stumping the country with the slogan “Vote No, although it makes no real difference”’. 

She must have been a powerful student debater, but she has yet to distinguish between propaganda and agitation, or else she is too fixated on the single issue of partnership to see beyond it. In this she is at one with the ‘Socialists calling for No votes’; she ignores the fact that this approach has weakened their credibility over the last seventeen years. The rank and file cannot fight successfully on one issue. It needs a programme of demands. In its agitations, it must have placards besides those attacking partnership.

Last and least: Ms Connaughton complains that the author accuses her of being ‘essentially reformist’. This is simply untrue, as is clear from this open letter to her. He does not know her well enough to judge her totality, but he has read other articles by her that contrast with her approach on the trade union issue, the only issue on which he considers her reformist. To describe her overall position as such may well be as much of a caricature as her metaphor of the author as a small boy, save in one important respect. 

He will never be a small boy again, but it is likely that if Maeve Connaughton persists in her views on partnership and union bureaucracy they will pollute her approach on other matters so that these become, too, ‘essentially reformist’. 


D.R.O’Connor Lysaght 



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