This was originally posted yesterday on Anarchist Writers. Republished with permission.
What do you do when the people making the right arguments are manipulative idiots who have so alienated people that opening their mouths amounts to emptying a full magazine into their feet? I started this blog having just come from an Occupy Dame Street assembly. There I witnessed a car crash in glorious slow motion. I felt that deep sort of frustration, where you can see just what is coming, but remain unable to tear your eyes off the disaster as it wrecks all around.
The issue on the face of it is simple. The Dublin Council of Trade Unions has called a pre-budget demonstration and would like Occupy Dame Street to co-organise it. Straightforward enough you’d imagine. Well it’s a bit more complex. Occupy Dame Street is a little prone to an anti-union line that is about the 8/10’s Sunday Independent’s ‘The unions are running the country’ and 2/10’s the left communist’s ‘The unions are running the country.’ [Ian, please note that the 2/10’s comprises both people who might be called ‘autonomists’ with some degree of accuracy: Everyone else, there are two in-jokes there, only one of which most of you have a hope of working out].
The Irish unions are also particularly rubbish. I don’t just mean the leadership. The leadership is amazingly rubbish. So awful and in such a long collaboration with the government that they more resemble the yellow union leaders of Egypt or Mexico than the standard ‘talk the fight but then sit on your hands’ leadership of the average European federation. But I don’t just mean the leadership. To be honest, the membership has proven to want victories without struggles in a manner that leaves us with the leaders we almost deserve. The left unfortunately felt unable to confront that attitude during the brief Spring of the public sector strike and ICTU demonstrations that where held a couple of years back. These are part of the reasons why turkeys voted for christmas , why public sector workers voted for the Croke Park Agreement.
So it’s not so hard to see why your average Occupier might not be too convinced of the merits with linking up with an abstract ‘the unions’. But of course, in Ireland as everywhere, there are the unions and there are the unions. Even here there is small left, a small rank and file, that would prefer to fight to defend our collective interests then simply roll over. And if a real workplace based fightback is to emerge, the odds are very strong that it will first start to emerge from that base.
This union left has often found expression in the curious body known as the Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU). Now the DCTU is a somewhat strange institution. It is comprised of delegates from each of the Dublin unions, but has little or nothing in the way of official power. This hardly makes it a route to a successful union career, and so the delegates are very often unpaid ‘rank & file’ branch committee members willing to attend the meetings. As often as not this means many of the delegates are lefties of one sort of another, including over the years a number of anarchists. The DCTU organize’s the annual May Day march (not too well many would say) but is also very often the body that calls any sort of genuinely broad left demonstration.
There was a moment in last nights debate when a member of the executive of the DCTU compared asking for a list of DCTU members to asking for a list of Occupy Dame Street members. This was a rather large over statement. Somebody, somewhere, must be able to compile a list of DCTU members if they put in the time. But the broader point should have been that if the demanded list had been produced, it would mean little to most people, precisely because the DCTU is not comprised of the union leaders familiar from state TV.
Google isn’t finding me useful history of the DCTU but this snippet from the Sinn Fein paper An Phoblacht ( 27th February 1986, back in the war days ) captures something of what the DCTU is.
“Throughout the 1950, the Dublin Council of Trade Unions and its rival organisation, the Dublin Trades Union Council, were active on social issues, particularly unemployment, price increases and the provision of free public transport for pensioners. Various attempts to mount joint actions were fruitless until 1955, when a combined James Connolly Commemoration was organised.
Congress re-united in 1959 but, due to various difficulties, it wasn’t until 1960 that the two Dublin Trade Union Councils merged ; the new constitution of the ICTU severely restricted the role of trades councils in the sphere of industrial relations and inter-union disputes. Correspondingly, the DCTU expanded its activities into an increasingly agitiational role and during the 1960 it played a prominent part in the campaigns of the Dublin Housing Action Committee. Demonstrations were also organised against EEC entry and for the retention of proportional representation.
When the North of Ireland erupted in 1969 the DCTU adopted a position supportive of the Civil Rights movement and when internment was introduced they opened a fund for internees dependants. At this time, links between the DCTU and the Belfast Council were strengthened; since 1969, the DCTU has consistently adopted motions in support of the Nationalist people – it supported the 1981 H-Block hunger-strike and is currently active in the anti-strip-searches campaign”
Probably the DCTU’s greatest moment came at the end of the 1970’s when it initiated the massive demonstrations against the high level of tax imposed on ordinary workers. In 1978, when ICTU refused to call a strike against this tax, the DCTU did. On the 20th of March more that 150,000 people took part in a march through Dublin. The port and airport were closed and the ESB had to introduce power cuts by the evening (read more here)
The power of the DCTU is really a power of reputation. When it calls a demonstration, even today, no one wonders if some political party or the other is ‘really’ calling the shots. It’s nature also means its not a body the ICTU leaders can really control. In terms of the demonstration being debated at Occupy Dame Street last night, the ICTU are apparently concerned that an opportunist speaker might be able to use the platform to criticize them or attack the Croke Park Agreement!
Getting beyond Dame street
From the point of view of moving beyond a few tents on Dame street the DCTU is one of the more obvious mechanisms by which this might happen. It has the right mix of radical history, organisational reach and perhaps most importantly, it is not easy to control. It has a level of independence that might enable it to be the starting point for something much bigger and even less controllable than either the DCTU or Occupy Dame Street as they both exist now. As such, with the possible exception of the Independent Workers Union, it is by far the best element in the ‘organised working class’ for Occupy Dame Street to relate to. And it is very open to such work. Indeed DCTU has been snuggling up to Occupy Dame Street for some weeks and included Occupy Dame Street in its letter to other organisations who might be willing to organize the 26 November demonstration with. This is probably a good moment to reproduce that letter
Dublin Council of Trade Unions
28th October 2011
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
On November 2nd, Ireland will hand over €700 million to the unsecured bondholders of Anglo-Irish Bank. Over the next nine months, €3.5 billion in total will be handed over to individuals who received extra high rates of interest precisely because it was unsecured.
This is money that is being robbed from the hands of the weak and vulnerable of our society. If even a tiny fraction of it was spent on helping children with special needs there would be no need for cuts. If we fully stopped these unjust payments, there would be no need for the threatened budget cuts in December.
The Greek government has been allowed to write off half of its debt – and we welcome this relief from social suffering. But why should the Irish people not be allowed do the same?
Before yet another cruel budget it is time for a big peaceful demonstration in Dublin. The larger our numbers the greater the possibility of bringing a real change in policy. Mindful of this, the Dublin Council of Trades Unions is anxious to construct a broad, inclusive coalition which unites the trade unions, community organisations, campaigns against cutbacks and political organisations of the left.
We would, therefore, like to invite you to an open planning meeting to discuss our proposal to hold a major pre-budget demonstration in Dublin on Saturday November 26th. The planning meeting will take place in the Ireland Institute at 27 Pearse Street, Dublin on Saturday 5th November at 12 pm.
We propose that the demonstration should promote three simple demands
Stop the policy of austerity – reverse the cuts.
Tax the wealthy not the needy.
For a public investment programme to create jobs.
We want to make a real effort to unite the many campaigners who are already resisting the effects of these austerity policies. We are entering this process of coalition building in an open, transparent and democratic fashion and see the meeting on November 5th as the property of those who choose to participate.
We want to go beyond a once off demonstration to a longer term campaign to bring a change in policy and therefore invite you to attend on Saturday 5th.
Granted, these are not all the demands of Occupy Dame Street but they are a good starting point for getting beyond Dame street.
However, and most unfortunately, that is not the way things were being viewed last night.
Anatomy of a car crash
Last night’s Occupy Dame Street’s assembly was a car crash between SWP-induced paranoia and the average Occupiers lack of knowledge about the unions and about the DCTU in particular. I focused on the SWP in my last blog on Occupy Dame Street but basically, this was a classic moment when the hostility, suspicion and paranoia their method of intervention creates backfired into a massively counter productive way which damaged the cause they were arguing for.
The SWP thought the joint demonstration with the DCTU was a good idea. So do I and so too did many other people present. However, disastrously the SWP thought it smart to use their standard method of argument to try and support such a move. That standard method is described in the document ‘How to deal with the SWP,’ a section of which is below. This incidentally is something that all Occupiers should read, not so much to understand how to deal with the SWP but, to understand how the collective paranoia of the SWP is causing real damage.
That method is described as follows
“a) Placement. The party members will place themselves in little clusters around the room, of there is enough of them. This gives them the comfort of comrades next to them, but also the appearance of being part of the overall crowd.
b) Vocal support. One or two people will mostly propose the party line, with cheering and clapping form other members around the room. This will encourage other neutral people to ‘spontaneously’ clap and feel these are people worth supporting – unaware usually of the affiliations (not that the SWP hide them, but just that most lefites are unknown to the mass of the populace). If in doubt, other members will start to re-propose the spokes peoples suggestions, until there is support for them, or complete non agreement (which is very rare).
c) Attack. The SWP will have lines of attack for counter proposals that they know are coming. They will have developed criticisms and will execute their opposition to them in the same way that they propose them. This tends to build a momentum that makes their proposals seem inevitable to the new person in the room (or even experienced activists)”
This sort of methodology works for them where people are not used to it and where there will be a vote at the end of the night and so the goal is to polarize the room in order to produce a majority. Part of the standard method used is is to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is a crazed dyed in the wool reactionary. For this reason, it does a lot of long term damage as those targeted in that way seldom forgive or forget.
In the actual situation of Occupy Dame Street it also back fires badly now because people have become familiar with it and are now deeply fearful of being manipulated or subject to another ‘takeover’ bid. Rather than recognizing the situation they have created and staying in the background, the SWP foolishly dominated the debate on working with DCTU . Three or four of their members spoke a total of seven or eight times – a couple got in more than once through semi abuse of ‘direct replies’, but then ‘direct replies’ are often abused at Occupy Dame Street General Assemblies.
This behaviour created the impression that the SWP was on one side of the debate and that the core of the Occupy Dame Street camp was on the other side. As different additional SWPers joined the meeting, various Occupiers came over to me to ask in a whisper if the new speaker was also in the SWP. They had ‘recognised’ them from their method of intervention and arguments (no doubt handed down at a caucus beforehand) and confirmation of that recognition led to the belief that what they could see was yet another SWP conspiracy unfolding. Pretty much the result was that people who would otherwise have supported the joint event moved strongly towards opposing it. And the couple of people hostile to unions could talk of blocking the proposal (which was a complete disregard and disrespect for the consensus procedure as it happens, but one that in this atmosphere they might be able to get away with).
It also didn’t particularly help that one of the Occupiers had spotted and read out the gloating message below posted by whoever runs the DCTU Facebook page. This message was posted in the aftermath of an earlier thawing of relations, when the DCTU banner was welcomed on an Occupy Dame Street march.
“There was a view that no union nor party political literature, banners and placards be permitted. There is a view by some that they are hierarchical institutions and the ‘movement’ be pure and separate from them. There is a view that their ‘branding’ is undesirable. This has not been the experience necessarily in the US. But the AFL-CIO has made every effort to ensure that they are not seen as part of the establishment ( as they supported the Democrats etc). Take nothing for granted, every battle has to be made and fought for and won. The ban on political parties still stands. There is a sectarianism behind it. The irony of a small group of people denying freedom of expression and for people to associate and to restrict freedom of expression on the streets hasn’t seemed to hit yet. The point has been made that if governments were to ban political parties it would be an attack on democracy. This is a real live debate and will only be won through participation and engagement with a new generation. I urge all trade unionists and workers to get involved and participate on Saturday. The trade unions are part of the 99% but it has to be made clear. The trade union leadership has to decide and say which side they are on and do so publicly. This cannot be ignored anymore. There is a march on Sat at 2pm leaving Parnell Square. Billy Brag will be playing at it.”
The appearance of the DCTU taking a side in what has been the most divisive and long running debate at Occupy Dame Street was not helpful to say the least. The reality is almost certainly that this is simply the (sectarian) opinion of whoever is the admin for the DCTU page. It would be rather useful if the person who made this post could clarify if that is indeed the case.
The bigger problem though is that the counter productive battle between the SWP and core Occupiers has now dug the whole movement into a deep hole from which it will be difficult to emerge. And the reaction of the SWP seems to be to call for more resources to help with the digging rather than recognizing that it would be a lot smarter to back off and allow other voices to be heard, voices that don’t evoke the same level of paranoia.
Some are, most are not
There is a small group of individuals at Occupy Dame Street who could be called quite hostile to the unions – for a number of reasons, some quite at odds with each other. The vast majority are simply not familiar with unions, beyond having seen various union leaders on the RTE News being pally with Haughey, Reynolds, Bertie and now Enda. These union leaders are perceived, more or less correctly, as part of the 1%. This engenders a suspicion of the unions that will not be broken down by a party like the SWP, a party that nobody trusts who is trying to browbeat everyone else into an alliance based on their standard intervention methods as sketched above.
To put it crudely everyone needs to calm the fuck down, back the fuck off and create the space where some real discussion about how best to work with the radical end of the unions can take place. The discussion and debate needs to become one within the movement rather than one between the movement and the SWP. While it would be tragic if the opportunity for joint action with the DCTU on 26th of November is missed, that date does not have to be a deadline if more time is need, although IMHO it should be possible to debate this out over the next week or so.
Some of my own comrades consider the point of view I outline here, that the SWP’s methods have got in the way of their politics, to be at least a little naive. There is a counter idea that what we are witnessing is machiavellian rather than stupid. From this point of view, the SWP having failed to take over Occupy Dame Street are now engaged in a wrecking operation designed to polarize issues in order to pick up recruits (i.e. pushing Occupy Dame Street into an anti-union position leaves the SWP looking attractive to anyone in disagreement with that approach). The aim of the other part of that wrecking operation would be to sow disunity within Occupy Dame Street and between Occupy Dame Street and other organisations it might otherwise work with, pushing people back towards the discredited SWP Enough front as the ‘only show in town’.
Whether my ‘they are being stupid’ or their ‘they are being machiavellian’ perspective is correct is not so important for anyone who thinks there is still some potential in Occupy Dame Street. What is important is refusing to allow the SWP or paranoia about the SWP to polarize key General Assembly issues along the lines of the SWP politics. If an idea or initiative is worth supporting it is worth supporting regardless of what the SWP thinks of it. If they are being stupid rather than machiavellian they may be smart enough to back off a bit and allow some real discussion to start to happen. I’m pretty confident that a lot of them will read this blog so we can judge them by their future actions in that respect.
A final note – part of the reasons the problem is so acute is that attendance at the General Assemblie’s is quite low, normally in the region of 50 or 60 people. This means that anytime the SWP bring 6 + people down, people can easily feel paranoid as they then make up 10%+ of the crowd and perhaps 40%+ of the speakers. My other Dublin readers, the dozens of you who think Occupy Dame Street is interesting and hope it might go somewhere, could really help out here by making an effort to get to at least a couple of General Assemblies a week. And when you have something worthwhile to add, put forward a point of view that falls outside the destructive polarity that threatens to pull things apart.
Occupy is very interesting at the international level, if perhaps somewhat dysfunctional at the local level. In Dublin it needs to get beyond Dame Street but it needs your help in doing so.
General Assemblies are held every evening at six.
Latest posts by Andrew Flood (see all)
- Getting beyond Dame Street – DCTU and Occupy v SWP from farce to tragedy - November 10, 2011
- Where is our strike and what are ICTU up to? - December 4, 2009