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Correspondence: ICTU’s “Stark Warning”

A letter from a UNITE activist

11 December 2012

Recent events provide socialists and the working class with stunning examples of the vacuous bluster that passes for leadership by the ICTU. Any trade unionists seeking signs of a fight back coming from their leadership had their hopes dashed not once, but twice in succession. The first was at the October 20th demonstration against austerity in Belfast. Thousands of workers have been paid off, pushed into early retirement, have taken pay cuts or are facing the threat of redundancy. On top of this the Welfare Reform Bill will see people forced from family homes that the government deems to be underutilised or face losing up to 25% of their benefit payments. Education and health provision are suffering also, so this should have been a major event. It was the first demonstration for almost a year and the first trade union gathering since May Day.

The demonstration was organised by ICTU and was intended as a mobilisation that could be used as a bargaining chip, cashed in return for a fig leaf, by the bureaucracy in concession bargaining with the Stormont executive. The result was a complete disaster. Out of the possible 250’000 members of ICTU, organised in 36 unions in the North, only around 1000 people attended. No serious attempt was made by trade union hierarchies to mobilise support and at no point was any emphasis placed upon the demonstration as an important event, nor was it considered a priority to campaign for a good turnout. One trade union member complained that he had received notice of the march only two days in advance of the demonstration. 

Even worse than the quantity was the quality of the day’s events. Of the 1000 who did turn out only about half stayed for the speeches during which they heard Eugene McGlone, in fine rhetorical style, issue a “stark warning” to the Stormont Executive that if they did not “tackle the jobs crisis, child poverty and boost the local economy” they would “find a reaction against you [them] when we next go to the polls”. The absence of any threat of industrial action, it was after all a union rally, was covered by the bluster of McGlone’s “warning” which in essence was a complete abrogation of the role and duties of a trade union leadership. Instead of using the tools that lie obviously at their disposal, industrial action, they threatened to use the ballot box - to vote for who exactly? Images were conjured up of a new partitionist labour party, cowering before the imperialist partition of Ireland but at the same time able to confront the world crisis of capitalism. All that was required was a vote.

A considerably larger crowd turned out in Dublin on November 24th. Gardai first estimated the crowd to be 18,000 at the outset of the march but later revised this down to just 8,000 at the GPO. Both figures are most likely correct as once again a large section of the crowd did not feel obliged to listen to the speeches. Again the President of the ICTU was available to speak. Eugene McGlone’s preference for a protest vote, however, did not cross the border with him and he did not repeat his Belfast performance by issuing a “stark warning” to the government, the reason being of course that it is the Irish Labour Party that is imposing the austerity and the logical thing to do is to tell them to stop it immediately and withdraw from the government. 

In Dublin the abrogation of duty became even more apparent and the President used irony, perhaps sarcasm, to express more clearly his vehement opposition to any organised strike campaign being embarked upon by the leadership of the organised working class. In response to heckling by protesters calling for a general strike he taunted them with the power of the bureaucracy, telling them they could have a general strike if they organised it themselves. This would require that they attend branch meetings, put forward motions, have them passed, take them to conferences, have them passed there and then, as usual, the executive would decide whether or not they would act on the passed motions and take them to the ICTU. The same procedure would need to take place in the majority of ICTU’s affiliated bureaucracies simultaneously and still the ICTU executive would decide whether or not to act. Providing they do, the end result, many years down the line, would be a single day of action. All this bureaucracy before a single defensive action occurs.

In the present conditions the working class cannot afford the luxury of moving at such a snail’s pace. There is a difference between working in trade unions and allowing ourselves to be controlled by the bureaucracy’s pace and methodology and in one sense Eugene McGlone is correct, we must organise the fight back ourselves. But a different kind of intervention is required. Rather than limit ourselves to trying to whip an unwilling bureaucracy into action our opposition must be practical, organised across unions, and above all it must confront the cutbacks and austerity in practical ways, catching the bureaucracy in the crossfire. For example union members will have to defy the State, and indeed their union leadership, and refuse to administer the household and water charges. What every bureaucracy fears the most is initiative and in this situation the leadership would either fight with you or against you. This would be the litmus test of whether they will fight or not and the adage can then apply; ‘critical support for union bureaucrats when they fight, condemnation when they sell out’ but in order for this adage to mean anything the fight must be real, not implied or imagined. Our existing leadership, however, is not a bureaucracy that is showing the slightest sign of ‘fighting back’, not by any stretch of the imagination, evidence to the contrary is stacked against them.  Their strategy is a blatant betrayal of workers’ interests and to “march” with them without clearly and vociferously criticising them is to run the risk of being implicated in their crimes against the working class. They must be exposed and opposed. 

Eddie McLaughlin.


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