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Report on anti-austerity Day of Action
18 March 2015
The 13th March saw strikes and demonstrations across the north during the trade union organised Day of Action against the cuts announced in the Executive budget and the Stormont House Agreeement. Up to 90,000 workers in the public sector - in education, transport, health and the civil service - went on strike while thousands attended rallies in towns and cities across the north.
The biggest rally took place in Belfast. An estimated 6,000 people marched on the City Hall where they were addressed by a number of speakers. These speakers very much represented the trade union leadership view of the campaign. The tone was set by Brian Campfield of NIPSA. According to him the strike and the protests were about sending the message to local political leaders that people would not accept the decimation of public services and jobs. His focus was on the upcoming general election - calling on the MPs elected to declare that they would refuse to support any government that did not stop the cuts. He said the likelihood of a hung parliament meant that MPs from the north could play a “critical role” in reversing the “UK Government’s unnecessary austerity programme”. Patricia McKeown of the health union Unison told the crowd that Northern Ireland was seen as “threat” to the Government and multi-national corporations because it still retained many of the elements of the welfare state - such as health service, social care and education - that had been dismantled elsewhere. She said that the only reason these had been retained was because people had “fought for it for decades." Jimmy Kelly of UNITE touched on the issue of sectarianism, arguing that austerity would “only exacerbate sectarian divisions, pitting one community against the other in a desperate contest for resources.” All of the speakers emphasised that the the Day of Action was just the start of the campaign, that there would be further industrial action and protests and that the campaign would continue until austerity had been defeated.
Despite this militant rhetoric the trade union leadership essentially remains in lobbying mode. Its whole strategy is based on persuading the parties in the Executive to adopt an alternative policy to austerity and for their representatives to manoeuvre within the Westminster parliament in order to secure a better financial deal for the north. Yet this completely misunderstands both the general nature of the capitalist crisis and also the particular restraints of the Stormont House Agreement. If the crisis was just a question of debt or low growth then the Keynesian policies of the Better Fairer Way being put forward by ICTU might have some currency. Yet they have not been adopted by any government in Europe. This is because they fail to address the key issue in terms of the functioning of capitalism - that is profitability. For the capitalist class the recovery rests on the restoration of profitability. From this perspective the policies of austerity - of reducing wages, slashing public spending, privatisations and cutting business taxes - make perfect sense. They make perfect sense for the current British government and any future government irrespective of the party it is led by. They also make perfect sense for the recovery of capitalism in the north of Ireland - this is why they are such a big element of the Stormont House Agreement. The other critical point about the Agreement is that it makes the continuation of the political institutions dependent on the implementation of austerity. So for the local parties it is not about policy options but self preservation. Within this political framework the prospect of persuading the parties to take a alternative course (even if one were available) is non-existent.
The distinction that the trade unions leadership between the politics and economics of the Stormont House Agreement is a false one. They go hand in hand and one is just as rotten as the other. The political elements of the agreement - which seek to accommodate the most reactionary elements within unionism and entrench sectarianism even further - are as much (if not more) a threat to the working class as the the policies of austerity. This failure of the trade unions to challenge the Stormont House Agreement politically - even at the level of backing anti-austerity candidates in the forthcoming elections - massively weakens the opposition. To a large degree this arises out the continued illusions they have in Sinn Fein. Though the appeal on the Day of Action was to all of the local parties it was clear that there was an expectation that Sinn Fein would be the party most likely to be sympathetic to trade union concerns. It was more explicit at the Sinn Fein ard fheis just a week earlier when ICTU president John Douglas described the party as “anti-austerity” and praised its “progressive” approach. Such views are completely consistent with the social partnership approach of ICTU which places utmost importance in having “friends” in government. In the past such friends have included Fianna Fail and the Labour party - now they are cosying up to Sinn Fein. Of course Sinn Fein will prove no more reliable than the others. They are a party that is completely committed to working within the framework of austerity, whether that is the Troika programme in the south or the Stormont House Agreement in the north. That the ridiculous spectacle of Sinn Fein representatives turning up at demonstrations and picket lines should go without comment really shows the weakness of the trade union opposition.
Another weakness of the Day of Action was its sectional nature. It only involved public sector workers - and not even all of them. There was no attempt to include workers in the private sector and people on benefits . There was also no serious attempt to build campaigns in working class communities where all these elements could have been brought together. This gave the appearance that the trade unions were only interested in job cuts in the public sector. Yet the impact of austerity is much broader than this and has to be fought on a broader front. That requires the creation on an open and democratic campaign that organises across both workplaces and communities.
Despite all its weaknesses the Day of Action was still a positive development. The strikes and demonstrations that took place, while at a low political level, do raise class consciousness as workers see themselves as having an interest separate from that of employers and the government. Undoubtedly many in the trade union leadership will view the Day of Action as token gesture before they get back to negotiating over cuts. However, the scale of the cuts that are to come will make this a difficult task. We are entering a period in the north in which the impact of austerity will provoke an intensification of class struggle and running courter to this a rise in sectarian sentiment (we can already see it in the election campaign). This it why it is so important that socialist and trade union activists take up both the political and economic arguments. Austerity and the political structures that maintain sectarianism are one and the same and must be fought as such.
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