This article, originally posted by Socialist Democracy (Ireland), highlights the ineffectiveness of the ICTU Northern Committee and trade union bureaucracy working within the parameters of the existing unionist state when it when it comes to protecting workers’ jobs, pay and condition.

UNITE offices in Belfast

If the Irish Congress of Trade Unions through its partnership with the state is the creature of imperialism in the South, the same is glaringly apparent in the North. Historically, no imperialist atrocity was ever great enough for them to go beyond carefully ‘balanced’ statements, or to take any consistent action in defence of oppressed working-class communities. They stuck strictly to ‘workplace issues’ and their perception of ‘workers interests’ were unfailingly expressed as cries for a peace coupled to imperialist stabilisation and investment. Now that the impact of imperialist decline in the industrial heartland of the north east reveals that imperialism owes workers nothing their response is one of paralysis..

As the economic crisis has gathered pace the level of activity of the Northern Committee of ICTU has been inversely proportional to the very real need for even the most basic trade union defence actions. Unsurprisingly nothing has been forthcoming apart from their internal rehash of reams of management speak.

The onset of their silence, only broken by pleas for Stormont committee places, can be dated to their promise to fight the Stormont House Agreement to the bitter end, followed by their prompt withdrawal from the ‘fray’ on the announcement of the Fresh Start Agreement. From that point the leadership salient of the northern union bureaucracy was provided by the ‘left’ union, Unite, whose central strategy was to lobby Stormont, repeatedly entreating “the politicians” to intervene in the market with subsidies.

The outcomes were predictable. Bombardier, Caterpillar, Harland & Wolff, Gallahers, Michelin, Sirocco, Wrights and Maydown Engineering, not to mention the smaller companies in their supply chains, have between them shed thousands of workers. The Covid emergency is now starting to feed through in the form of further job losses at the aircraft parts factories in Kilkeel and Portadown and Brexit has yet to fully reveal its impact as tariff dodging global companies make contingency plans to move production to more amenable locations.

In the face of this catastrophic wave of redundancies the union leadership, unable to deny the failure of their lobbying strategy, decried the object of their lobbying rather than the approach itself. The response by the leadership of Unite, the main engineering union involved, was to condemn the “laissez-faire approach – hands off or light touch government leaving us reliant on the whims of the market – that predominates among the heads of the Department for the Economy and Invest NI [which] is failing us.” Union officials blamed the Ministers involved “both Orange and Green” who either downplayed the impact of the economic decline or threw their hands up saying “there was nothing they could do.”

Having tacitly accepted the failure of their previous efforts at lobbying they then feinted in the direction of a more confrontational approach, arguing that; “since we cannot rely on the politicians, it is more vital than ever that Unite is proactive. As ever, the only people we can rely on to fight for jobs and a future for our members are ourselves.”

This talked like a good fight formally but it soon became clear that “ourselves” simply meant the same bureaucrats who are so completely disarmed in the face of this assault and whose idea of a fightback is to “engage” and “mobilise our members and their families” as a way of influencing those self-same “politicians” that we can no longer “rely on”. In practical terms the zenith of this strategy was evidenced in the Ballymena rally against cuts which managed to mobilise less “members and their families” than were actually losing their jobs in total and the object of the mobilisation was to listen to calls for “the politicians” to do something, followed by a sincerely intended video message from Liam Neeson.

The “new” proactive departure consisted of an initial call for a new industrial strategy by Stormont and the production by Unite of a strategy document which unsuccessfully called for the investment in engineering of 20% of Stormont’s budget. Two years later the failure of the approach was evident.

The closures continued against a background cacophony of verbal threats to unleash “hell” as toothless demands by Unite and the GMB for nationalisation of the Shipyard were ignored and a highly symbolic humiliation was only avoided when, fortuitously, a new buyer was found in a fire sale ending the sit-in by 79 workers and shop stewards. But no plans were ever put in place to broaden industrial action, the most basic requirement of workers’ self-reliance, meaning that essentially the new departure was the same as the old one, the same policy, same strategy and overall, the same tactics.

The union bureaucracy habitually appeals to the state to reward the ‘special’ status of engineering workers in affected industries, usually on the grounds of a reactionary chauvinism. In this case the absence of aid from a crisis stricken British imperialism means the best of them can only plead for state sympathy or accept defeat – hence their criticism of the laissez faire approach of the Department of the Economy and Invest NI – the worst of them lead an accelerating lunge to the right.

Northern industry exists largely in a deep arc around the North East coast and the decimation of the area’s “quality well paid jobs” is causing consternation in the union bureaucracies. Thousands of subscriptions, somewhere in the region of £20,000 a week, and a substantial amount of face, is being lost. As the latest phase of industrial contraction affects 700 Caterpillar workers the bureaucracy flounders helplessly in an ever-decreasing pool of industrial membership that was once its backbone.

Objectively, tensions are accumulating but the contradictions within the unions between the workers and the bureaucracy do not necessarily spontaneously resolve themselves in a progressive way. With the latest layoffs at Caterpillar in Larne the union bureaucracy has openly expressed an extremely reactionary political position. On news of the closure Unite’s regional officer disgracefully responded to the company’s plans to relocate to Bangalore by publicly announcing that “local people” were angry that the jobs were going “to foreign countries”.

This disgraceful statement, (which someone at least had the good sense to water down slightly from a since removed original version) promotes every backward racist instinct among the working class as the bureaucracy appeals to an imaginary ‘moral economy’ and dog whistles racism as a loyal appeal to the imperial ‘conscience’. So much for the new “proactive” departure; the ‘radical’ pretensions of the so-called left wing of the union bureaucracy lies in tatters.

7th December 2020

This article was first posted at:- The bureaucracy defends ‘quality, well paid jobs’?

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