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February Trade union demonstrations

Sham protests end in chaos

John McAnulty

21 February 2013

The threatened leak of the details of Ireland's second bailout upset the Dail and forced a chaotic overnight sitting, although it later turned out that the terms of Ireland's second bailout had not been affected - simply the speed of introduction.

However what was an embarrassment for the Irish bourgeois proved to be a catastrophe for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

The reason?  They had planned a mass "protest" mobilization, the first national mobilization since November 2011, after remaining quiescent through 14 months of grinding austerity. The idea was to appear militant by blaming the Germans for our troubles while in fact joining with government partners in pushing forward austerity.

The explanation for the 14 month break in activity was the role of the Irish trade union movement in a formal "social partnership" with the Irish bourgeois, an arrangement stretching over decades and, with the acceptance of the Croke Park agreement, extended to include the imposition of the austerity.

The 9th of February marches in the main cities were very much in line with the concept of a popular front with the Irish capitalists. Under the slogan "lift the burden" their focus was on an arrangement with the European Central Bank to reduce the impact of the Irish state's guarantee of banking debt.

It's worth going into this in more detail. The trade union leadership still have a great deal of influence and can still mobilise and direct tens of thousands of workers. For this reason trade union and socialist activists are unwilling to discuss the role of the bureaucracy.

Yet that role is unmistakable. The Croke Park deal froze the basic pay of existing public sector workers but left everything else in free fall - including massive staff reductions, cuts in services and the entry level pay of new teachers and nurses - cut by 20%.  More recently extensive cuts have been imposed on transport workers.

Because of the existing social partnership mechanisms the union bureaucracy sat on implementation bodies that agreed where cuts would fall and helped carry them out.

In November the bureaucracy participated in limited protests against the budget - their participation was entirely fake, as union boss Jack O'Connor made clear when he explained that their protest was situated "within the narrow confines" of the Troika programme demanding a further €3.1 billion in cuts. Further statements after the budget explained that the union leaders had been lobbying for a wealth tax element in the budget, having discussed the contents with their social partners and agreed the overall austerity. 

In the aftermath of the budget the central activity of the union leadership was to take part in negotiations around Croke Park II, designed to strip a further €1 billion from the public sector pay bill.

The "Lift the Burden" march marked the possibility of simultaneously presenting themselves as protectors of the workers while continuing their alliance with the government. The problem arose when the march occurred after the deal was announced. It was simply unfeasible to present the extension of the debt to 2054 as a victory for the working class. 

The bureaucrats had a secondary and more minor problem. Since 2011 it had been impossible for them to appear at any sizable demonstration without being exposed to catcalls from a section of the workforce. They were determined to prevent any public opposition.

The result was farce, mixed with a dose of thuggery. At the Dublin demonstration union bosses ran away and hid while conspiring with the police to 'kettle" sections of the protest. 

They ran away in the sense that the main speaker, David Begg, began and ended his speech while the first contingent was still entering the square. He spoke in tongues, focusing on the need for national unity in a further diplomatic drive to sort out an outstanding €31 billion bank recapitalisation debt. There was no mention of bus workers who had just had their wages and conditions cut back or of the negotiations to remove €1 billion from public sector pay. 

The platform was hidden both physically and politically. The speakers faced the Dail, but were hidden from the march by a large video screen set at right angles to the demonstration. The political cover was provided by a stand-up comic famous for impersonating Angela Merkel - hammering home the message that workers and capitalists stood united against the Germans. A third line of defence was provided by a rock band, playing at maximum volume.

The November budget demonstration had seen the most vigorous criticism of the union leaders coming from the activists of the campaign against household and water charges (CAHWT). At the Dublin demonstration stewards led the contingent down a side street. Barriers were then closed behind them and the Garda then intervened, preventing them from returning to the march. A similar collaboration between union stewards and the state blocked CAHWT demonstrators from regional marches.

In Dublin the CAHWT militants were blocked in. The body of the march arrived at a platform abandoned by the main TU leaders, blocked by a video screen and dominated by an overwhelming volume of rock music. Their reaction was to turn and walk away and the demonstration disintegrated in confusion.

The whole fiasco demonstrates a number of things. The union leaders have a wide freedom of action because the sentiments of class unity, of lobbying the government for a less oppressive approach, of standing together against Europe, all are widely shared, especially within the trade union movement itself, where members have adapted to decades of social partnership.

Decay has also effected the radical and socialist movement. The main socialist groups avoid conflict with the bureaucracy and, rather than present a socialist programme, offer a left version of the Keynesian economics used as cover by the bureaucracy with the addition of a meaningless call for a general strike. What are workers to make of calls for industrial action that don't involve breaking the unions from social partnership or offer a socialist alternative to austerity? The Socialist Party website simply ignored the demonstration. The Socialist Workers Party had a fatuous call for “more action” from the union bosses. Both call on the unions to protest an incoming property tax, as if this could be extracted from the torrent of austerity in which the union leaderships are complicit.

The major socialist initiative of recent years, the United Left Alliance, has collapsed to such an extent that even the small layer claiming still to support the project chose to march separately on the demonstrations rather than attempt a common intervention.

As has already been noted, the most radical critique came from the CAHWT, but it is itself in crisis and a long way from having a consistent orientation towards the organised working class.

So the demonstrations were relatively subdued, marchers saw the chaos at the Dublin rally as due to poor organization, the kettling of demonstrators received little coverage and the leaders face no opposition as they negotiate the €1 billion pay cut in Croke Park II.

That doesn't mean that union leaders don't feel fear. The fact that they are spearheading the austerity is understood by many workers. They have to try to disguise this with the semblance of protest.  However bringing large numbers of workers onto the streets carries the danger of the mobilisation turning against them. The fact that a large delegation of police officers joined the demonstration has obvious risks, as does the fact that the police have withdrawn from the Croke Park talks.  Frontline unions from the emergency and medical services accuse the major unions of supporting cuts in shift allowances that would beggar their members.

The situation is explosive.  It’s the task of socialists to provide the detonator in the form of a rejection of the debt and a socialist alternative based on self-organisation of the workers.


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