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ICTU: No Going Back?

12 August 2020

The coronavirus and the underlying capitalist crisis has already devastated hundreds of thousands of lives and plans are in place for further attacks on the working class, especially the most marginalised and vulnerable. It is clear to those most affected that nothing structural has changed and we are destined to 'go back'. Further evictions are planned and, reflecting the desperation felt by many, a wave of suicides and suicide attempts has been reported by a homeless group in Dublin in what they describe as both a housing and public health crisis.

To widen the circle from the most vulnerable and homeless there are thousands struggling to keep a roof over their heads and homelessness will return with renewed ferocity as the impact feeds through of the ending of the evictions ban, which saw new cases of homelessness drop by 56% in April.

Further job losses are also inevitable when the pandemic unemployment payments disappear. Hundreds of airline workers have already been laid off and the remainder have had their contracts torn up. Workers are already being dispensed with by major corporations with more payoffs widely accepted as being in the pipeline.

The National Electrical Contractors of Ireland have initiated an attack on electrical workers by having Sectoral Employment Orders, agreements that govern the pay and conditions of building workers, declared 'unconstitutional' by the High Court. This is part of a generalised attack on pay and conditions for electrical and building workers but typifying the demands of profitability is the disgraceful mistreatment of Debenhams workers by a multi billion corporation with millions worth of merchandise laying in the very stores the workers were sacked and evicted from without even the modest pensions and redundancy they were due.

Despite the fact that there is little activity working class discontent is smoldering. Teachers, nurses and non medical staff previously hailed as heroes, the meat plant workers that walked out spontaneously on their own initiative and who once again are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus, airline workers, bank workers that have been dumped. Add to this the thousands facing eviction from their homes, the homeless in shelters, the people suffering direct provision, the busworkers who also struck over unhealthy practices and in the recent past against privatisation and all the others who have been mistreated over the last decade and whose mistreatment in the interests of profitability has been left unresolved by deal after deal made with the government.

The paralysing fear among the social partners, the labour bureaucracy and the government, is that any mobilisation will allow anger to be expressed towards a government that is already among the most unstable the state has ever experienced.

During moments like this we see the stasis afflicting the Irish trade union movement, and reformism in general, more clearly. Despite the fact that workers responded enthusiastically and spontaneously to the miserable efforts at providing safety measures to the covid virus and clearly indicated what effective trade union action looked like through walkouts nothing happened to build on the initial walkout strikes. The result of that failure is now clear with further serious outbreaks of the disease in food plants.

ICTU's plea

In an article to the Irish Times Patricia King spells out the ICTU position. King compares the amount of revenue raised by Government in Ireland to that raised in continental European countries and concludes that clear shortfalls emerge. She argues; “As we prepare for economic recovery we need to plan to raise more revenue. We need to move over the medium term to standard European levels of revenue-raising. This would enable us to put a new, and better, social contract in place .... On average, employers in these countries pay more in social contributions than employers in Ireland, and reap the rewards, including in the form of a larger and a more highly skilled workforce.”

Fine. A reasonable reform. But historically it's one that hadn't been conceded, even by a comparatively healthy Irish capitalism. Why? Because Ireland is a tax haven! Moreover, hasn't the Irish state only recently fought hard to maintain that status by refusing to collect taxes from Apple that would have boosted the “European levels of revenue-raising” she seeks to emulate?

Despite the title of the ICTU paper it is merely a continuation of policy, the same one espoused by O' Connor in Tralee a decade ago when he elaborated on the theory that trade unionism needed a healthy capitalism in order to gain concessions. Par for the course for reformist organisations but concomitantly, beyond the realm of 'affordability' the trade union bureaucracy will not trespass.  Now the call is for a deeply indebted capitalism, with global profitability through the floor, to invest through taxation and a wider state expenditure. ICTU still agrees that in order to achieve reforms that the system must ultimately be returned to profitability but profit is derived from the exploitation of human labour and the extraction of surplus value.

As the Marxist economist Michael Roberts puts it; “Under capitalism, value is not created by the state issuing money; instead, money represents value created by the exploitation of labour power.  Printing more money so that governments can spend more money will not produce more value unless labour power is exploited more by capital as a result”. So in order to return to the kind of profitability that will produce reforms workers will have to be ferociously exploited!

Oranges with pears

King also compares oranges with pears. Her European comparitors are “wealthy, western European countries”; independent countries or imperialist powers. Ireland's status is that of a neo colony, directly dominated by Britain in the north, reliant upon Britain's handouts, while the southern economy is betroathen to the ECB and IMF. The southern economy is dominated by tax avoiding corporations to such an extent that a new measure for growth, Irish GNP, had to be devised to take their money laundering into account and avoid ridiculous growth figures for the southern state of over the 20 % mark. Much of the distorting effect on the figures is produced by tech and pharma giants who practically dictate whether they pay tax or not.

ICTU argues that “International experience suggests we can raise more from passive income, taxes on assets and levies on environmentally damaging activities.” All very worthy but again this leaves the door ajar for manipulation. Raising more revenue could easily be agreed to by the Irish state, so long as it is the working class, as usual, who pays it and complaints about low pay and a gig economy can only be hypocritical when we consider we have had more than a decade of austerity, which included a deliberate lowering of income, partly through pension theft and two tier pay in health and education, which was tacitly agreed to by ICTU.

What is coming our way is another version of the last ten years with no carrots and bigger sticks! ICTU are vainly calling for some carrots. They are also signalling to the government that they are willing to carry on in the same old furrow if only the state will extend the courtesy of a few investment programmes, possibly funded by a series of grants and loans from EU funds. There is no indication that the government will fund anything beyond propping up the employing class and facilitating more state sell offs. In fact the opposite is the case. Plans for ongoing health privatisation through 'Slaintecare' is already committed to by Stephen Donnelly and there is no change at all in the dominance of housing provision by the needs of the Vulture funds and the banks efforts to shed 'non performing loans' - with the spin off going to developers.

The “old ways” decried by King, the homelessness and the housing and health waiting lists, the privatisations, the two tier pay, faced no consistant strike mobilisations by ICTU over the last twelve years but there is no getting away from the fact that they are needed more than ever and conditions demand that they must be prolonged and determined given the severity of this iteration of the capitalist crisis. The attacks on the working class are across the board and ICTU, as the overarching body of Irish trade unionism, had a duty to organise and coordinate actions in defence of all workers. What we get is this document - and since its production? Silence and inertia! Debenhams strikers stand almost alone, apart from left groups and individual union branches, outside company stores that are gradually being depleted of their contents while the leadership of a trade union movement with upwards of one million members sits perfectly motionless providing funding tips and tax advice to a government committed to the defence of tax avoiding global corporations.

What do we expect?

But do we expect too much? Maybe the working class get the leadership they deserve? The problem with that theory is that the bureaucracy is strengthened during downturns in working class activity and once ensconced in power they are consciously proactive in maintaining both their control and their relationship with the bourgeoisie. They are not like some passive weathervane signaling the militancy or health of the working class which will swing left when the militancy of their members increases, although in some individual cases that might be possible. As a whole they are a consciously self interested layer formed like a crust over a mass membership of varing and fluctuating levels of activity which is constantly disappointed and demoralised by bureaucratic control and compromise. Working class self confidence is undermined by their lack of control and indifference and passivity is encouraged.

The problem for the bureaucracy is that its dependence on a capitalist recovery to produce even the most piecemeal reforms during this systemic crisis is not showing results. The problem for the working class is that while they are being attacked by the state and employers their actions are controlled by a bureaucracy that is committed to maintaining a steady ship in exchange for those very piecemeal reforms that are failing to appear - hence their pleading for investment.

Bypass them?

Trade unions still largely maintain their position as the day to day leadership of the working class and no recent upsurge, no matter how impressive in its form has challenged that position. The bureaucracy still presides over and arbitrates on working class resistance in the workplace. To attempt to bypass them is to attempt to ignore the fate of around three quarters of a million Irish working class people.

On the other hand many on the left attempt a shortcut and emerse themselves in the search for a 'left' bureaucracy. Simply infiltrating the unions, seeking places among the petty bureaucracy, keeping your head down and 'waiting' for an opportunity for promotion without building an open, and vociferously critical, left wing rank and file base is ineffective and moreover can be percieved by union members as dishonest. The eternal wait for favourable conditions means these socialist activists invariably fall victim to their own bureaucratic practices and always end up being absorbed or leaving in defeat without leaving so much as a slogan behind.

At its most successful, individuals and even on occasion individual unions, half hearted attempts at radicalism always disappoints and they find themselves isolated by the rest of the bureaucracy. To oppose the bureaucracy by bureaucratic means is self defeating and is doomed to failure as history has shown. Change at the top is dependent upon change at the bottom and as Trotsky pointed out, 'the end depends upon the means and in the final analysis is conditioned by them', so the means of opposing them must change.

Tall Order?

This may appear as a tall order but the discontent is there and it is only a matter of time until the next upsurge. Fragmentary as they are, the outbreaks of wildcat action increasingly show us that frustration exists among rank and file workers. It is not overwhelming but it is there and the recent spontaneous walkouts in the food and transport industry points to the potential for increased rank and file action. These walkouts were largely the result of informal workers' groupings sometimes with the support of friendly shop stewards, sometimes without. These are, in a weak but nevertheless significant way, nascent workers' rank and file committees and should be encouraged and developed by all union members who are critical of the leadership as the antidote to falling victim to pessimism and inactivity.

Immediate walkouts and stoppages have proven themselves to be the most effective way to fight back and the compromising leadership of the union movement will not be challenged until there is a mobilisation of rank and file members that takes an organisational form. One that can respond rapidly to calls for practical solidarity in the face of attacks by business and the state and that unites, in action, working class opposition both inside and outside the unions especially with the increasingly determined revolts by youth, anti racists, and low paid un-unionised workers. Such upsurges have already produced alliances between organised and unorganised workers in the US and in France; during the Paris rail strike union rank and file workers united with non union workers, communities and anti racist committees taking action independently of the bureaucracy.

Burgeoning crisis

The crisis of capitalism is burgeoning, that means more and more open attacks on the working class.  The trade union leadership are in a quandary. The reforms they need to assure class peace are increasingly unattainable and are being replaced by large scale economic collapses and ruthless layoffs. The gradual capitalist road to recovery they as reformists are committed to is being replaced by a system driven to take drastic measures. Even at their very best the trade union leadership reacts to attacks slowly and inevitably in a limited way, bureaucracy is the irreconcilable enemy of all initiative, it stifles participation and weakens our unions in general.

For workers locked in dispute against these drastic measures the question of self organisation and active participation is increasingly being posed, in turn, the root of these attacks in the capitalist system itself is increasingly being exposed. We need a trade union movement that will openly confront capitalism, asserting that workers' will not just walk away when capitalism dispenses with their labour power, as Debenhams did, and in the event of corporate collapse, in the event of poor profitability, they will seize the tools of production to produce for necessity, not for profit.

The inspiring defiance of James Connolly must be revisited by Irish trade union members; 'We defy you, do your worst' and in this struggle his internationalism must also be remembered. The actions of workers in the US and France and around the world provides important lessons that is pointing towards the inevitable conclusion that only workers internationalism can combat global capitalism.  The conclusions are revolutionary, not reformist!

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