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Theatrics as ICTU withdraw from Low Pay Commission

10 November 2020

The top leadership body of Irish trade unionism, ICTU, has withdrawn from the Low Pay Commission, set up five years ago.  Patricia King the General Secretary announced;

“... it is with regret, but with clarity that we can no longer be part of this Low Pay Commission. There can be no going back to the old ways where the lowest paid are left behind.”
Months ago ICTU produced their policy document demanding that the fiscal measures put in place to deal with the pandemic shutdown should be maintained and that there would be no going back to the 'old ways'.  It has been evident for some time however that 'going back' is precisely what the government fully intends to do as soon as Covid infection numbers drop - indeed despite the latest setback to their plans by the recent surge in infections their return to business as usual, in relation to the wider working class, is well developed.

Although partially reversed due to the latest shutdown, decreases in the pandemic unemployment payment have been announced signalling their longer term intentions to claw back current spending.  That spending is not a 'charitable' donation to the working class but is designed to maintain productive capacity and aid a return to profitability, and the clawback will come from the working masses.  We already see the preparations.

Public transport workers in the medium term are facing cuts, health workers are still on two tier pay and privatisation is pushing ahead in a chronically underfunded HSE, teachers have been sent back to work amidst a flurry of half measures causing ASTI members to vote for industrial action.  Building workers pay is facing substantial reductions and the meat plant workers along with many other layers of low paid workers should they be unfortunate enough to catch Covid 19 have been all but abandoned to poverty by the lack of a decent sickness benefit scheme.  Evictions have promptly resumed, the homeless are back out on the streets, and the latest budget confirms they are planning on a K shaped 'recovery'; upwards for the ruling and upper middle class, downwards for everyone else.

These plans for a K shaped economic recovery are merely the extension of the decade long policy following the banking collapse which saw income increase by 7.9% for “Managers, professionals and associated professionals” while  earnings were down by 9.8% for public sector workers in “Education, human health and public administration”.  By 2019 Ireland had “one of the highest rates of low pay in the EU”.

The low pay commission has existed for about half of the period in question and was only set up because it became obvious that the lowest paid were paying for the banking collapse and that living standards were nose-diving.  It was just an example of the usual 'partnership' style window dressing.  During its existence it did nothing to end low pay, quite the opposite, attacks on the poorest workers continued to increase and at the end of its five year existence the minimum wage stands at the rate of €10.10 ph.

Now, despite the government's hypocritical lauding of low paid workers as essential front-line staff, their low wage strategy has presented their partners in ICTU with a measly increase to the minimum wage of 1%, or 10 cent!  ICTU were faced with explaining away mounting evidence that what they were participating in was a facade behind which a long term and intensifying assault on the lowest paid workers in Irish society was taking place.
Self Preservation or a qualitative change?

Their  melodramatic walkout indicates that they know how bad this looks and in response to the State's 'betrayal of trust' they are attempting to disassociate themselves from the fruitless outcome with a face saving exercise.  The pay commission offer of 10 cent was correctly described by them as an insult but it fell only marginally short of the 2% or 20 cent insult which they made clear they were quite prepared to settle for.

King's expressed regret at having to leave is doubtlessly genuine, such committees are the natural environment of the union bureaucracy.  They have no independence from the state and are sincerely committed to social partnership of one type or another.  They made it clear even as they walked out that they are committed to continuing to  “... campaign through other fora for a just increase”, meaning other bureaucratic partnership type bodies.  Their walkout does not represent a new departure or a qualitative change in their relationship with the state.  Their position over many decades has been, as Trotsky pointed out in relation to trade unions in the imperialist era, one of  “their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.”  Their partnership with the capitalist state, has not changed in essence.

What is changing however is the relationship between the bureaucracy - as mediators between the working class and capital - and the mass membership they could previously rely upon to be almost uniformly passive and accept their diktats.  As the contradictions have built up that has been on shaky ground for some time and is now in stasis, not because the revolt among union members has been overpowering or even consistent but because the bureaucracy's plausible role as mediators is undermined by worsening objective conditions, the increasing transparency of their connection to the state and their refusal to stand by any group of workers in dispute in any practical or meaningful way.

The state's refusal to make even the smallest concession to 'essential front line workers' exposes ICTU's fading ability to maintain their strategy's already threadbare facade of efficacy and this comes at the end of a period in which tensions have accumulated from a series of disputes and major crises that were resolved, with their help, through a victory for the capitalists.  The gradual build up of unease among the wider working class produced a 'left' union bureaucracy, but again the relationship between the two wings was not a unity of opposites, they remained essentially the same and this semblance of a schism resolved itself recently when the 'radical' unions walked away from the 'Right-2-Change' project with an indecent haste that revealed their relief.  So while support for ICTU's walkout has been expressed by Unite, the voice of 'left' union officialdom, that support presents no left alternative, it is merely an extension of the same policy and remains at a purely vocal level.  No actions are planned.

Their posturing represents only the appearance of opposition dressed up in rhetoric that is designed to appeal to alienated trade union members.  While ICTU exits the low pay commission attempting to strike a radical posture Unite merely voices its support.  Both left and right wings of the bureaucracy are on the same page.


This posturing not only reflects their pitiful reactions to the increasing intransigence of crisis ridden capital but also to conditions that are increasingly volatile internally.  Membership is growing, slightly, in some unions while shrinking in others, many workers are walking away from unions altogether while some are joining alternative, what they perceive to be more radical, unions.  Unite in the North are haemorrhaging members through closures, they have lost thousands of members in engineering over the last five years which have not been replaced, this is causing the collapse of previously functioning branches and a loss of confidence.

Trade union bureaucrats are nervously viewing the growing tensions, and in some unions shrinking membership, and the radical sounding statements are produced partly because the bureaucracies, steeped in sectionalism, half believe that it can be used to negotiate a bigger share for their particular union in a free for all, and more cynically, to consolidate their own ranks, and income, through quiet recruitment at the expense of other unions facing their members discontent.

ICTU's outright acceptance of government policy is also becoming more apparent to some sections of their members.  Previously the 'walk in the park' at budget time was designed to convince the government that they had the confidence of their members and could deliver an 'acceptable' deal.  It also signalled their competence in achieving minor concessions, albeit against a background of secular decline, to their members marching behind them.

So long as some piecemeal concessions were available the majority accepted this relationship, but concessions had been nearing vanishing point for a protracted period before a partnership like tacit agreement facilitated the state's post crash austerity programme.

Following the pronouncement of a 'recovery' and subsequent years of workers' unease, culminating in the nurses attempt to break out of the wage restraint of the public sector pay agreement, the low pay commission decision has now in the midst of the latest crisis more clearly than ever demonstrated the state's longer term commitment to open class war.

As tensions build the battle lines are emerging, more intense than before and with higher stakes.  They run through the workplace in relation to fights against redundancy, pay and increasingly Covid related hygiene.  Those battle lines are becoming increasingly evident as running between a victimised workforce and a union bureaucracy that is consistently proving itself incapable of organising any defence with the latest evidence of this being  the teachers organised in ASTI who voted for strike action only to have their President immediately and publicly repudiate their decision.

ICTU's Programme

Now as the state raises funds with the ECB at very low interest rates and uses this easy credit for emergency support for business they plan to push ahead with privatisation, keep wages suppressed, eventually end the PUP and turn out their 'empty' pockets to the working class next year while announcing plans for a tax hike and more austerity.

In response ICTU, fully in agreement with the state's new found Keynesianism - including signalling their agreement with plans for a tax hike, confined themselves to a meaningless walkout that achieved not a single cent for the workers in question.  Their inaction is a declaration of intent to abandon workers in favour of a deal with the state and the ECB when what is needed is a general work stoppage against the state's 'recovery' plan - version two.

Now that rather than 'going downhill with the brakes on' and they are presented with a 'cliff edge' what is completely clear is that for the top leadership of Irish trade unionism, with their pronounced dedication to 'other fora', their programme, strategy and tactics fully across the board remains the same.

Even though their programme is bankrupt it remains unchallenged in any systematic way within the trade union movement.  It is almost a decade since Jack O' Connor explicitly spelled out the trade union leadership's commitment to a 'healthy' capitalism as the source of reforms for workers.  With no signs of health - in a system that is in its death throes - the trade union leadership act as cheerleaders for a capitalist survival plan that consists of borrowing while the working class are being positioned to ultimately pay all of the debt as part of plans for a 'K shaped' recovery, and which from the very start condemns the worst off to penury while the bureaucracy recite platitudes about solidarity and sympathy.

Solidarity and Sectionalism

Solidarity is central to class struggle and this is universally accepted among the working class, the ruling bureaucracy of the trade union movement and the ruling class.  It is no accident therefore that one of the greatest gifts the union bureaucracy as a whole provides to the ruling class is  'sectionalism'.  That is, it facilitates the fragmentation of the working class by allowing discrete groups of workers to passively wait in line for their turn on the employers' and government's torture rack by limiting other unions' responses to groups of workers in struggle to 'expressions' of sympathy.

At present it is the turn of the sacked Debenhams workers to face isolation, previously it was nurses who the bureaucracy carefully marshalled away from organising at the same time as non medical staff, Siptu even going to the extent of ordering their members to cross nurses picket lines.  Then it was the turn of the non medical staff when the nurses strike was defeated.  Prior to that it was transport workers; bus workers kept strictly separate from rail workers, teachers from lecturers, and so on.

The wider bureaucracy generally 'supports' all of them in the same way they 'support' the Debenhams workers, solely with sympathetic statements.  But this cynicism is being increasingly exposed as the objective economic crisis and the Covid 19 crisis causes conditions to degrade.  In the most recent disputes workers are beginning to face up to both their own union's bureaucracy and ICTU over their abandonment of struggles.

Debenhams workers found themselves having to both condemn their own union - who were exposed by the utter bankruptcy of their sole strategy of negotiation with a 'partner' who would not budge - and to attempt to embarrass ICTU into action by publicly delivering a letter to them pleading with them to act in their support in some practical way.  No action ensued!

A trap of ICTU's making!

In the case of Mandate, they at least have the lame excuse of being trapped within the repressive confines of the anti trade union laws, albeit a trap of ICTU's own making, and they fear sequestration over the occupations.  Trade unions have never challenged these laws, adopted in 1990 as part of a partnership deal, but even with those laws in place that is not the end of the story.

Even if we accept the threat of sequestration as a valid excuse for remaining passive in the face of a ruling class assault there are still measures that can be taken within the law by those hypocritically professing to be in 'sympathy'.

The same legal limitations do not apply to the various unions voicing 'support' for example, yet apart from the Mandate bureaucracy's arm's length support all these other unions are completely inactive.  But pressure is building, especially in relation to measures to protect workers from Covid-19 and the objective conditions for solidarity in action are growing increasingly ripe.  Siptu, Unite, Forsa, INMO,TUI, INTO and Connect, at different stages have been forced to voice the discontent of their members and have staged stunts similar to Patricia King's walk-out from the low pay commission.  Some of these leaders have even promised to unleash 'hell'!  Or 'war'!  Now they lie over the embers of discontent within their unions like a wet blanket.  We need to fight to provide oxygen to those embers.

Accepting the legal threat of sequestration that hangs over Mandate as a legitimate end to the affair is to allow it to set the limits of general trade union activity by ignoring the broader trade union movement and the working class as a whole.  Each group of workers that momentarily forces their particular union bureaucracy's hand are wilfully ignored by the overall trade union leadership, and they are allowed, in the cynical parlance of the bureaucrat, to “stew in their own juice”, a policy regularly employed going all the way back to the day's of Larkin.

Most importantly the polite diplomacy of left entryists and the voicelessness of the mass of union members allows the bureaucracy to play its reactionary role and the capitalist bag carriers at ICTU to escape exposure, meaning defeat for the workers without reply from their most conscious vanguard.

Solidarity with Debenhams workers, or workers on minimum wage, means action on the basis of concrete demands for each section of the working class.  We need generalised strike action on each group's particular demands, and on the demand for safe working conditions for all workers in general.  Objective conditions are ripe for such solidarity action across the working class and even in terms of their own reluctant, legalistic, version of industrial action ICTU still has no excuse and the left should not provide one for them but should expose them mercilessly until the entire working class sees them for what they are.

The trade union bureaucracy are committed to the diktats of the fiscal space as it expands now during the Covid-19 emergency, and they will continue to be as it shrinks.  They are in general agreement with the government's latest expansionary fiscal position and already are signalling that they are open to a tax regime that will recoup the debt, their abandonment of the low paid clearly indicates they are on board from the very beginning of that process.  They are tied hand and foot to the state and in turn to its place in the world imperialist economic system and will remain firmly within the government camp.  They are beyond doubt the creatures of imperialism.

But that does not mean that revolutionaries should abandon attempts to influence unionised workers, or fight for a rank and file resistance in the unions.  Absolutely not.  To quote Trotsky;  “Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish.  And it must be said it deserves to perish.”

Fight or Flight?

The reactionary nature of the trade union leadership renders intervention by revolutionaries and rank and file workers all the more crucial.  It is nevertheless true that how revolutionaries intervene is of great importance.

Abstract demands will get us nowhere!  Neither is entering the trade unions and playing a waiting game for the bureaucracy to 'do something' an option.  Even when they are occasionally forced in to action they expend all their energy attempting to demobilise, rather than spread industrial action, and from the start they assert their own control by putting pressure on individual radical shop stewards or small groups of workers and ushering them back to work, using all the legal threats provided by the anti union laws which they are careful never to oppose.  That control must be openly challenged.

At a recent rally promoting trade union membership the call was made for people to join up and await the 'right moment'.  This echoes a similar call made during workshops at the founding of the ULA to join a union and 'wait', again presumably for the right moment.  Ten years later after austerity and a 'recovery' at the expense of working people it is evident that this 'waiting' approach has  produced nothing resembling a class struggle tendency in the union movement or in workplaces.  Sharp struggles against the bureaucracy should have developed but despite repeated sellouts they did not.  If the 'right moment' advocated by this approach hasn't arrived in the last decade it never will.

The main demands of any intervention in trade unions is for trade union democracy and a complete break off in relations with the state.  These demands, if campaigned for, directly confront the role played by the bureaucracy but membership as a semi secret cabal or individual membership has proved ineffectual - the former due to its 'diplomacy' and the semi secrecy of its agenda, the latter due to the isolation and freezing out of individuals.  Presenting a call for workers to join a union without emphasising that they must fight the bureaucracy and without recruiting them to an openly organised class struggle tendency ends up leaving the bureaucracy unchallenged and activists merely mobilising as that self same bureaucracy's left flank.

That which has appeared as ephemeral rank and file revolts in the past has, as tensions escalate, the potential to turn in to an organised opposition.  Opposing the now widespread attacks on working people and in the process exposing the bureaucracy's  role as the “secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism”(1) is the primary task of revolutionaries in the trade unions.

That can only begin as a united front of all left organisations, militant trade unionists and aggrieved rank and file trade workers.  It requires the production of a programme for a workers opposition, starting with concrete demands for action on burning issues, which especially on health issues are currently in abundance and the publication and propagation of that programme across all unions.  Above all, that tendency must  be democratically organised, we cannot oppose the bureaucracy's lack of real democracy with an organisation that lacks democracy.

Hostility to trade union leaders is growing but working class confidence is low and getting lower with every defeat imposed by bureaucratic sellouts.  What opposition that does flare up is amorphous and remains unfocussed.  It is the task of class struggle trade unionists and revolutionaries to focus it on real organisational advances for rank and file workers, to advance working class independence and to act in defence of workers under attack in a way that grabs the attention of the enemies of the working class, by stopping the wheels of production.

Organs of the broad masses and democratising resistance

Workers at the coal face of production are central to any resurgence in opposition to capitalism and imperialism.  Action which disrupts capitalism at the point of production is of key importance because it is the point at which the wheels of capitalism stop;  the point at which profit is extracted and both the capitalists and the workers become keenly aware of the power of the working class.  Most importantly, it is the point at which the demand for a workers republic becomes more concrete.

This does not mean that revolutionaries should focus exclusively on trade union activity.  It means the very opposite.  Advocating for a struggle in the trade unions can not be reduced to syndicalism and does not negate the need for building a revolutionary workers party.  We must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

It is of fundamental importance that a revolutionary leadership fights to transform the objectively revolutionary potential of spontaneous actions against capitalism into revolutionary communist consciousness.  Advancing towards that political consciousness inevitably demands that there must be sharp struggles against the union bureaucracy.  The fight inside the unions against the trade union leadership and the building of such a revolutionary political party is inseparable because it is fundamental to the class struggle that the working class mobilises on all fronts, against all enemies.
We agree with Lenin that “This struggle must be waged ruthlessly and must be waged absolutely to the very end just as we waged it, until all the incorrigible leaders of opportunism and social chauvinism have been completely discredited and driven out of the trade unions.  It is impossible to capture political power (and the attempt to capture it should not be made) until this struggle has reached a certain stage.”(2)

We are posed with the task of turning trade unions into organs of 'the broad exploited masses'.  Every struggle in which Irish workers face imperialism, whether against the sectarian police state propped up by British imperialism in the North or global capital in the South, needs to mobilise the broadest mass of workers possible.  That requires the breaking down of artificial and sectoral barriers which are largely maintained by the union bureaucracy;  between political anti imperialist demands and economic demands that are objectively anti imperialist - such as campaigns against vulture funds.  Between different sectors of unionised workers opposing different privatisation scams and between providers and users, those lacking adequate medical care and those campaigning against health privatisation.  It requires the breaking down of barriers between un-unionised and unionised workers - between workers in the workplace and in the streets, between students and teachers and between schools and colleges.  Between those requiring housing or suffering eviction and those struggling with mortgages or rent and between the increasing numbers of unemployed, the low paid, and the casually employed youth who are already paying the price of this crisis and will fight back.

The 'disinterest' of the unions in many of these campaigns has resulted in the sectarian 'ownership' of individual campaigns by political groups, that must end, we must democratise resistance.  Among all the broadest layers of working people under attack solidarity in action is urgently required.

A new revolutionary party will be born in this struggle against all enemies of the working class, it will progress through united fronts based on a programme of action and the splits and fusions born of that struggle.  The battlegrounds of this struggle are not a matter of subjective choice, we must take Lenin's advice that we “must imperatively work wherever the masses are to be found”(3)  and one of the most important battlegrounds is the trade unions.  With a reactionary pro-imperialist leadership and a membership of around three quarters of a million workers it is inevitable that that struggle will be fought against the existing reactionary bureaucracy.  That fight has clear implications for the wider political struggle against imperialism, and extends well beyond the confines of the trade union ranks,  if the working class cannot conduct, let alone win, a strike independently of pro imperialist bureaucrats how will we ever progress towards a socialist republic?
This struggle is in its infancy but it is already evident in the small revolts and voices of discontent that are emerging, it must be focussed, systematised and strengthened.


(1) Trotsky.  Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay.

(2) Ibid. p., 36

(3) Lenin. Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder.  p., 27

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