Reclaiming the unions –  Bluster about bureaucracy, but no alternative programme – Socialist Democracy (Ireland)

The “Reclaiming our Trade Unions” conference in Dublin on 1st October (better seen as a convention because of the limited political discussion) had its theme set by Kieran Allen, the President of SIPTU’s education branch.

Kieran denounced the corruption of the trade union leadership. The years of social partnership and the collaboration with austerity meant that their role was to pacify and smother workers protests. The decay of the trade unions was so deeply entrenched that even at shop steward level the movement was corrupt.

He went on to assert that a new period in trade union struggle had opened at last November’s mass rally in Dublin, when workers had booed and protested against ICTU secretary David Begg and SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor. If activists began to organise now they could use this new mood of opposition to reclaim the unions.

Kieran Allen was followed by UNITE organiser Tommy Fitzgerald. He recalled his own history of all-out battles against the employers and of the automatic solidarity offered by other trade unionists. He wanted to see the return of fighting unions, of trade unions that practiced solidarity.

A common thread running through the rest of the convention was this anger at bureaucratic sell-out and desire to build fighting union structures. This was expressed forcefully by Helen Metcalf of IMPACT and by Terry Kelleher of the CPSU executives in their speeches.

However Kieran Allen’s notion of a turning of the tide within the trade union membership was not discussed, nor did the structure of the convention really allow for an open political discussion.

That is unfortunate, as the lack of political discussion led to the rally ending in confusion without any concrete decisions on policy. The only outcome was that a very large steering committee was formed.

If Kieran Allen was correct and there was a new spirit of revolt in the unions then activists could postpone discussion of a programme. That clearly was the view of platform speakers. Helen Metcalf denounced the IMPACT bureaucracy but saw the answer in workplace activism and social networking on the internet. Terry Kelleher drew on his experience in the CPSU to stress the capture of executive positions in the union.

In fact there are reasons to doubt Kieran Allen’s analysis. Workers’ hostility to the bureaucracy did not begin in November. A key point in the bin tax campaign was a large number of council workers tearing up their union cards in disgust at the betrayals of Jack O’Connor. The majority of the socialist movement have kept their distance from these protests and have opposed calls to challenge the trade union leadership. This was the case during the bin tax and it was the case at the November demonstration. Finally, insofar as there is widespread disillusion with the unions, it is impotent in the absence of an alternative policy and is leading workers to flee union structures rather than rushing to join them. In any case if, as Kieran argues, the unions are corrupt at shop steward level, limiting the workers to these structures is a recipe for defeat and would exclude the many workers unemployed in the current economic collapse.

From this point of view the strategy outlined at the meeting – that socialists should be active at the shop floor in order to recruit people to attend branch structures seems self-defeating. Workers would need to be part of an independent movement, already committed to a programme of resistance, to be in a position to reconquer the unions.

The explanation for the emphasis on union structures is that the socialist movement has a long history of seeking places within trade union structures and of seeking unity with the bureaucracy or with sections of it. In addition, it does not advance its own programme of debt repudiation but works within the framework of a Croke Park agreement that ties them to the bureaucracy even as they struggle against them. An example of left policy was seen in the fate of the decision of the much larger June meeting to demonstrate at the ICTU congress.  The demonstration never happened, dismissed as a sideshow by the steering committee.

This became clear in the presentation of the speaker from the British National Shop Steward’s Network. No mention was made of its close ties with the Socialist Party. It was clear that it was the gentlest and most loyal of oppositions, seeking unity with the left bureaucracy and lobbying the TUC leadership for greater action rather mapping out a new direction. The 250 000 TUC march in London was seen as a triumph, even though the workers were presented with Labour cuts by a Labour government as the alternative to Tory cuts.

Again there was much to discuss, both around socialist strategy in Britain and its applicability to Ireland, but the session ended without discussion.

A low point of the convention came when it split into workshops. There was protest from some activists about having the workshops in the absence of political direction and a report back from private sector workers noting the need for a political programme, but overall the workshops promoted activism at a low political level. The meeting ended with a call to conquer official positions in the trade union movement and to build the movement by individual recruitment. The failure of political agreement was so great that even the modest demands on jobs, wages and privatization presented in the document calling the convention were not discussed or adopted. The much larger meeting in June had had impassioned discussion about building an all-Ireland movement and organising unemployed workers, but these were not revisited.

It is impossible to ignore the failure of the convention. It did not reach a political agreement and this fits the pattern of other meetings organised by the component parts of the United Left Alliance. There is no united party or programme and only limited co-operation. Because the issue here is the self-organisation of the working class the issue is more serious.

It is to be welcomed that the socialist groups are willing to denounce the union leaderships, but there is a long road from there to a rank and file movement. Denunciation of the bureaucracy has been a standard aspect of the Socialist Party position for a long time. It has never translated into a political struggle against the bureaucracy inside the unions or a wider opposition outside.

The starting point for any political discussion has to be the working class itself and its struggles. Yet the nature of the austerity programme, the role of the European Central Bank and IMF in  overseeing the programme of government and in setting austerity targets for the trade union leadership – all this was totally absent from the discussion. As a result discussion in the workshops reflected an unconscious reformism. Many clearly believed that a big mobilization would force a government retreat. Suggestions that workers might act independently and use methods such as seizure and occupation of workplaces were seen as ultra-leftist, even though they were among the methods used in relatively recent struggles such as Waterford Glass and Visteon.

The rallies of newly qualified teachers in the Irish National Teachers Organisation [INTO] were seen as examples of successful struggle. This displays a breath-taking ignorance. As a result of the Croke Park deal the INTO leadership must oversee an austerity plan that leaves all new teachers without jobs. It then becomes impossible for them to teach anywhere as a year in school is part of the qualification process. The INTO leadership are constructing a deal where the young teachers work for a year with a peppercorn payment extracted from money normally available for substitute cover.

All this is possible because the union leaderships are allowed to arrange details of austerity in their own sectors as long as they meet overall targets. The fact that young teachers are lobbying for unpaid work shows the level of desperation involved. Individual socialists supporting this process simply shows what a trap union structures can be in the absence of a programme and a broader movement.

The most recent major struggle was that of Aer Lingus cabin crew, organised by IMPACT. Almost half the cabin crew were suspended and facing the loss of their jobs before IMPACT agreed to compulsory arbitration.

And that lays bare the situation. In individual struggles the workers are quite willing to confront the bosses. The struggles collapse because they are not willing to confront bosses, government and unions united against them. The socialists, a loyal opposition within separate unions, are largely silent and invisible.

The path forward follows as night follows day. Workers need an alternative. They need a programme that repudiates the debt, a method of struggle that puts workers action above protest and lobbying, an organisation that cuts across union structures and, above all, a worker’s party to put forward a programme for the entire class and unite struggles in one fight.

The majority of Irish socialists are not advancing along this path. The falling attendance at the trade union forums indicates that the socialist movement cannot continue to tread water. They risk being dismissed by workers looking for an alternative.

7 October 2011