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Clerys and vulture capitalism

"Someone should help the workers" 
No – the workers must help themselves!

23 June 2015

"Someone should help the workers" That was the universal view of the Irish political parties and trade unions when 130 workers in the iconic Dublin department store, Clerys, and 300 franchise workers in sublet units, some with 43 years of service, were ejected unto the street and told that the company had been liquidated, that they would not be paid, that they had no rights and that any minimal redundancy payment would come from the state.

It quickly emerged that the workers had been the subject of a complex shell game. A series of company setups, sales and asset transfers had left Clerys' assets on one side of the line with a company called OCS Holdings and debts and obligations on the other with OCS Operations. That line between assets and liabilities can not be crossed even though both companies are jointly held by another company called Natrium.

Trade unions and politicians expressed outrage. They quickly agreed that, apparently, the actions of the vulture capitalists were not illegal. They were certainly immoral. The law must be changed to prevent this sort of sharp practice and to protect workers' rights. 

The wave of indignation grew until it reached the Taoiseach, who expertly diverted it. He expressed confidence in existing law, but promised a review. The “left” view, from labour partners in the coalition, was that the law could be rejigged to allow workers to claim some compensation. As far as the separation of assets and liabilities went; “You can’t abolish capitalism”.


But how realistic is it to call on governments and judiciary to restrict capital and protect the workers? They are after all capitalist organizations, required to ensure the right to profit.

It is true that, in the past, national governments would sometimes outlaw the most extreme forms of exploitation in order to protect their own markets, but current international agreements explicitly forbid such restriction.

When we move from generalisation to the specificity of Ireland, calls for legal change become even more ridiculous. There is no Irish capitalism struggling valiantly to preserve a national market. In fact Ireland has voted at the United Nations against attempts to hider the operation of vulture capital in expropriating the assets of the poor. The alliance of US vulture capital, British hedge funds and local gombeen speculator found inside Natrium is the standard operating mechanism for our local mafia. Clerys is unusual in the blatant aspects of the smash and grab and in the fact that many smaller capitalist firms were stripped of assets but is actually the standard operating procedure in Dublin for releasing equity and avoiding liability.  Nor is this some private club of individual capitalists. The whole operation of the state since the bank bailout and before has been to join with European capital in plundering the country and impoverishing the workers.

Rather than operating to protect workers, the state, judiciary and media operate so enthusiastically as agents of the Troika and local capital that a question mark hangs over the right to report the "private citizens" who operate hand in hand with bankers and government and are able to resource state funds at rates they set themselves. Not one media outlet dared report the proceedings of the Dail in relation to billionaire Denis O’Brien without the clearance of a court – and even then accepted restrictions. 

Over the period of austerity state structures and laws have been changed to enable the joint plunder of public resources by local and international capital. A modernisation agenda is part of the programme of government and promises mass privatisation of services and resources. Water becomes a private commodity and the law is changed to force payment from the workers. 

At the time of writing the government are celebrating a windfall from the sale of the state airline, Aer Lingus, which will be used as a war chest in an attempt to bribe their way back into office in the coming elections.  The sale was accompanied by worthless assurances on strategic air routes and assurances about workers' jobs and conditions that were exposed as lies before the deal was closed.

Union role

When the state and the law fail to protect workers they look to the trade unions.  The response of SIPTU is enlightening. They plan a meeting to organise state benefits, a discussion with the liquidators, a meeting with labour minister Ged Nash to look at a future tweak of the law, a demand that the vulture capitalists meet with the workers and respect their rights, a rally and an online petition. The petition is a call on the vulture capitalists to meet with the workers. SIPTU Campaigns and Equality Organiser, Ethel Buckley, said; “The petition makes a simple demand, that the new owners of Clerys meet the workers. At this meeting the workers will discuss face to face with them what they could do to go some way in making up for the hurt they have caused when putting into action this heartless scheme”.  

This is representative of modern Irish trade unionism. They plea that capital should show some mercy.  The pleading is a direct outcome of years of social partnership with government and bosses and of working within a programme of austerity set by the Troika. The union leadership have no choice. They have signed up to the Lansdowne Road agreement that commits to decades of privatisation and asset stripping. They are constantly dancing in the cracks. Mandate have a petition asking Dunnes stores to show humanity after strike action was followed by sackings and intimidation. Left bureaucrats set up right2water demonstration while simultaneously agreeing the setting up of Irish water and the transfer of their members from local authority contracts.

The workers should help themselves

In this environment the call for someone to help the workers is misplaced. We need to turn the question on its head and decide what the workers can do for themselves. The shock waves from the assault on Clerys workers have spread far. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see that the vast majority of Irish workers are at the mercy of the local gombeen vultures.

Despite what is written above, the workers should use the law, wherever possible, to obstruct, delay and harass the employer. They should use all the resources of the union that they can gain access to to organise themselves and fight back. What they should not do is believe that the law is on their side. Nor should they believe that union bureaucrats are acting in their interests when they so clearly have an agenda of their own. The major weapons in their armoury are direct collective action and solidarity.

In the case of Clerys, the collective action required was self-evident. The Clerys building and stock have been maintained by their labour over decades and the first task was to occupy and seize these assets. The speculators understood this very well and their first act was to expel the workers and secure the building and stock. 

Solidarity action means industrial action and direct action aimed at the speculators and at the political parties and state institutions that hold up the gombeen republic, no matter their claims to the contrary.

Of course solidarity action by workers is a very hard-headed matter. It is not a matter of someone doing something for the workers but of acting together in a common interest. It means putting forward an alternative to a Dublin privatised and sucked dry by the speculators - a Dublin of public housing, co-operative control of retail, tied together by free public transport.

In turn that means beginning to put forward a new movement, a new party of the working class. The unions call for someone to do something is based on the reality that, through the Lansdowne Road agreement, they have signed up to a programme of speculation and privatisation across the whole country.

That's why we need to start asking what workers will do for themselves. No-one else will defend them but themselves. It is the steps that we take now; to unite, to explain, to act, that will gradually turn the self-organisation of workers into a reality.  

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