Does anybody else want to scream in frustration at the intellectually-rationalised paralysis that has the Irish Left by its vitals when it comes to the subject of strikes?
Richard McAleavey has written a terrific post on his Cunning Hired Knaves blog. Prompted by a poster for the upcoming Irish Congress of Trade Union (ICTU) march on February 9th against the debt burden, it’s a sharp analysis of its imagery and wording:
“First of all, its destructive ambiguity. To whom is the message addressed? Is it supposed to be a message to the Irish government, and through them, to the Council of Ministers to lift the burden off working people? Or, is it supposed to be a message to the people who bear the burden at the moment that they should exert themselves even more? Who is doing the speaking? Is ‘Lift the burden’ what the faceless silhouettes struggling beneath the weight are saying, or is it a public notice, as with a street sign that reads ‘Give Way’?”
Rightly observing that ICTU’s poster is something Enda Kenny could equally happily stand in front of while telling us citizens that we must pay ‘our’ way, McAleavey goes on to parse the impotence of ICTU and its role in the country’s economic crisis as exemplified by their dissembling poster. However, just at the point in his article at which some readers might reasonably expect a call to strike action against the state of affairs he has just delineated, McAleavey lobs cold water over any idea of that kind in favour of this:
“And that -amid a climate of grim sacrificial inevitability- is a problem that no amount of simply shouting ‘traitor!’ or ‘general strike!’ will solve. We need imaginative ways of communicating the conflict, of capturing people’s commitment to a struggle for democratic rights, and of destroying the ambiguity served up by zombie social partnership.”
Whatever all that may yet turn out to mean, I’m sure it will be very worthwhile when it has finally been thrashed out. Wouldn’t strikes themselves be among the most effective means possible of ‘capturing’ people’s commitment to a struggle for rights? But there you have it – sit down again everybody. As you were. We need to do lots more talking and thinking before we act.
Sure, there are considerable logistical and tactical problems to consider if general – or any – strikes are to stand a chance of success, however success might be defined. But if the effort only resulted in helping to provide a defined focus for proactive solidarity in the short to medium term, wouldn’t that be a very worthwhile something that would be a lot better than the nothing being done about strikes at the moment?
Why is there an apparent assumption among many on the Left that immediate strike action and long term policy agreement are mutually exclusive? There are no grounds for thinking that the former is devoid of theoretical or practical meaning unless/until the latter provides it. There is in fact a class division evident in that position of which more below.
Elsewhere, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Dublin City University and life-long activist Helena Sheehan has also written a fascinating article about how the Left is organizing in Greece – Syriza, a successful coalition of leftwing parties, in particular have embraced the necessity for collective cooperation – and for breadth and depth in planning for an alternative future that is proof against the ravages of neoliberalism and corporatism.
Sheehan acknowledges the role of general strikes as part of the strategy for combating neoliberalism in Greece:
“There have been approximately 27 general strikes in Greece since the start of the crisis. There have been many, very many, sectoral and local strikes. It is hard to think of any sector of the workforce that hasn’t been on strike during the past 4 years. People in Ireland ask what have all these strikes accomplished. It can be argued that they brought down two governments, although it is true that they have not mitigated any measures decreed by the troika, but the cumulative impact may be more evident eventually. The politics of the street have increasingly converged with the politics of the ballot box, as people see that it will take a new government to set the process along a new trajectory.”
Refusing to face reality about trade unionism in Ireland
The Irish Left should have regrouped to renew this same process in Ireland much more forcefully and confidently when the crisis broke five years ago – no more evidence or intellectualising of what had happened or why was needed – nor of what was planned for us in the years since then. The reasons this didn’t happen are a bit depressing to say the least. There was even an embarrassing period around 2008 when some were boasting that capitalism was on the run despite a lot of frightening evidence to the contrary. Instead, the main Irish trade unions have stood aside in pale and limp demur while something worse than capitalism – rapacious, international financial corporatism – was established as our governing orthodoxy right in the middle of the devastating crisis it had created. This orthodoxy now has almost as many enemies and critics on the right as it has on the left – and still the Irish Left has failed to make significant headway.
So when will the Irish Left stop propping up the big, austerity and financier-facilitating ‘trade unions’ in the vain hope that it will eventually overtake the conservatives who control and run them? Can we please finally admit that ‘engaging to reform’ is failing dismally in this instance, serving only to obstruct the very reform that is its rationale? Is it not the same rationale the ‘Labour’ Party claims as justification for its treacherous alliance with Fine Gael, with comparable results? Here is SIPTU’s Jack O’ Connor quoted approvingly in that well known bastion of support for Irish workers ‘Business & Finance’ magazine:
“If you have a long industrial campaign…the interpretation of it externally would be that the Government wasn’t able to honour its commitments and consequently, the credibility of Government bonds would be very much in question,”
Aside from the outrageous assumptions and consequences implied in that claim, it’s clear which constituency the Labour Party-supporting Mr O’ Connor and the SIPTU leadership are aiming to please.
When will the Left finally act on the knowledge that, equally, a substantial number of the subscription-paying trade union membership in Ireland (estimated at approx 500-800K people, depending on who you speak to) – is a deeply conservative, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail-voting bloc whose union dues are paid not so much out of solidarity with their fellow workers but as an alternative form of clientelism – much in the same way their votes often are given in return for planning permissions or comparable preferences. It may be a big challenge to start again, especially in the absence of strong Left unity, but Irish Left thought and action is slowly drowning in that ocean of Irish ‘trade union’ anomie.
Again and again the big Irish trade unions fail the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in favour of their professional and higher-earning memberships. The Left membership, for all its commitment and effort, appears generally powerless to stop this from happening. It is also so-called trade union members who are acting as willing apologists for crazed corporatism. Scores of print and broadcast journalists, paid-up members of the National Union of Journalists, are nevertheless faithfully parroting various versions of the ‘regrettable-but-no-alternative-to-austerity’ mantra day-in, day-out. These are not our comrades in solidarity, they are indeed traitors to everything that trade unionism is supposed to be about.
What possible use are these inward-looking, elitist clubs to the Irish Left? Resign from them en-masse! Things are manifestly going backwards with the present strategy. Taking the ‘progress’ of the last decades into account, there is clearly a desperate need for the Left to confront and liberate itself from this situation. If the Left could not make effective gains within the trade unions in present circumstances then it clearly never will. It’s argued here that the challenge of building a true trade union movement is the ground zero on which an Irish Left revival is most likely to succeed.
The latest blow to Irish Left Unity
The present difficulty of the United Left Alliance (ULA) results substantially from the lack of long-haul commitment to the ULA by both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in their struggle for domination of the Left here. Perhaps only to put a brave public face on its decision, the Socialist Party has now hailed its departure from the ULA as evidence of yet another new and glorious opportunity for the Irish worker. There’s also some stuff they say about Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. Meanwhile a leaked internal memo by the SWP allegedly shows that it had in any case previously decided to abandon its policy of giving priority to supporting the ULA because of the perception that the SP was gaining ground. (Discussion of these developments here.)
A plague on both their houses – the whole debacle is a narcissistic and destructive farce of which some of the more prominent members and personalities involved should be thoroughly ashamed. The valuable effort and commitment that was contributed by many on the left to the goal of unity has been thwarted temporarily, but it should not go to waste.
What must not be validated is any pre-mortem obituary of the ULA by those who did most to undermine it. The situation does however beg the question whether it is really the dominance of the conservatives within trade unions that is the main obstacle to effective strikes, as many believe. There is now more than ever a stark case for concerned members of the SWP and the SP to acknowledge the paralyzing impasse these parties have created for the Irish Left generally – and to pull back from them so as to instead make a renewed priority of left unity. They should coalesce again around a ULA which continues to keep a cooperative and inclusive Left as a central focus. At any rate, if not this then something major has to give because the situation is truly a matter of life and death for many people in Ireland. The electoralism/limited electoral success of the SWP and the SP is grand so far as it goes – and it is definitely worth something – but it has been of little tangible benefit to the huge number of politically and economically marginalised people so far. That’s not likely to change any time soon – though future ULA candidates could present a lot of possibility.
The Professor and the Carpenter
A professor and a carpenter offer a good combination of skills and perspectives to help forge a workable Left consensus, as was remarked about Helena Sheehan and Sam Nolan, Secretary of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) during one meeting they had with a Greek activist. “For hours we talked politics in a café in Bohali as the sun set over a panoramic view of Zakynthos town.” Publication of ‘To the Crucible: an Irish Engagement with the Greek Left’ could be a critical catalyst in helping to light the way forward for the Irish Left. “I believe in a politics that makes the long march through all the institutions of society” says Sheehan. As with her engagement with the Occupy Dame Street movement in Dublin, the 60yrs + activist and academic has also shown the kind of courage needed in Ireland, participating in a protest at which tear gas and other chemicals were lobbed by police into the crowd – and then calmly walking through, rather than around, the ranks of the riot police in order to get to her next appointment as quickly as possible. In the middle of the engrossing account of her researches in Greece, Sheehan makes this observation about her response to widespread poverty and the begging that accompanies it:
“As most leftists, I think that my job is to address the nature of the system and to struggle to change it, but sometimes feel at a loss as to how to help the suffering humanity, who cross our path one by one.”
This is a shrewd and honest admission – and arguably one that goes as much as any logistical or strategic problem to the heart of why many on the Left in Ireland are apparently unable or unconvinced to mobilise for strike action right now. ‘Suffering humanity’ is a phenomenon that crosses a path separate to ‘ours’.
Meanwhile, and no disrespect is intended to Professor Sheehan or her valuable contribution in saying this, there are hundreds of thousands of Irish people who would love to visit Greek universities and to spend time talking politics and strategy in the tavernas there – or even to be able to conduct that long march through all our institutions here in Ireland. International and national engagement and consensus are important. Trade union leaders and tenured academics generally are among the few still paid well enough to be able to do this kind of work. It’s just that many of us are suffering very badly right now on our different path – our means of survival being bled away from us at an alarming rate. Boring obstacles to participation, such as worry about bills, lack of time and respite/child-care and of affordable, accessible transport and ever-diminishing income and health care offer another kind of panorama entirely. Helena Sheehan is among those acutely aware of these problems and has devoted her professional life to addressing exactly this sort of inequality.
It is humiliating but I mention these personal circumstances in a spirit of solidarity with others ravaged by the blatant lie that is ‘austerity’. It turns out my disabled son was one of the chief culprits of this crisis of the rich. After 16 years of caring for him, my carer’s allowance was arbitrarily withdrawn by a nameless, faceless assessor who has never met either him or me. I am not allowed to know who this ‘assessor’ is, on what grounds the decision was made, or to have any direct conversation or correspondence with them. A re-application for his medical card has been suspended on the grounds that ‘insufficient information’ was provided with the application, though I supplied everything they asked for. They do not say what information is missing, but they have written to ask him to ring them in person to discuss the matter, knowing he has an intellectual disability.
A lot of thought has evidently gone into making our predicament as dehumanising and psychologically abusive as possible for thousands of similarly affected people, with a view, I believe, not just to impoverish but also to break our spirit.
“The figures show that the Social Welfare Appeals Office decided on 4,310 disability allowance appeals last year — almost half of which were unsuccessful.” While 2,114 appeals were allowed and 95 were partially allowed, 2,101 were disallowed.
A Fine Gael TD I spoke to said ‘whether you like it or not your son is just a number in the system to these people’, a confident contempt on his face as he watched those words effect their calculated hurt. A year and a half ago, my son’s special needs support at school was slashed by 75% and we were forced to home school him. He has effectively been thrown out of the education system and we have both been thrown into poverty. Apparently for 16 years none of my son’s neurologists, pediatricians, GPs, psychologists, speech and other therapists had known what they were talking about. How do I hate thee Labour, Fine Gael, traitor trade unions? Let me count just a few of the ways:
- 200,000 children in Ireland are living in poverty
- 120,000 people in Ireland with a job are at risk of poverty
- 187,400 people in Ireland are long-term unemployed
- 1,533 euro per WEEK, the amount by which government ministers take-home pay has increased since 1986
- 137,400 euro – the salary of ICTU leader David Begg
People don’t have time to wait for an intellectually refined treatment protocol when what is desperately wanted is a tourniquet to stop us from hemorrhaging to death. Only people who can afford it will reject the urgent necessity for even an imperfect but immediate response. Without any strikes or merely by delaying them long enough, we are certainly doomed. It’s arguable that even the perception that we are mobilizing for strikes at last might have some beneficial effect. Those of us who want to see strikes happening now must organise and act now, whatever else may be happening on the Left. Let this effort be a focal point for helping to create more unity – let it be a new departure alongside the anti-water and property tax campaigns.
Strikes are vital to wrenching the collective focus back where it should be: on empowering and incentivising suffering people to organise with an immediate objective – and on basic rights and needs. Strikes cannot be ignored as we are all being ignored now. Enthusiasm for this course is slowly being squandered by delay. To state what is obvious, evidently to the point of being taken for granted, our labour is the most effective source of power and influence we have. I pinch myself again and again to think that it is necessary to plead with the Left to organise strike action now!
The Walrus and The Carpenter
At the end of March, the Irish government will make another annual bonfire of 3bn euro to service the criminal Anglo Irish Bank ‘promissory notes’. Nevertheless, the same unionized media members mentioned above will savage any effort to mobilise for strikes in the face of this outrage, just as they have done in Greece and wherever equality or basic human decency has been attempted in the face of the war being waged on ordinary people. This only goes to prove that there isn’t another second to spare. These ‘trade unionists’ are ever more confidently boasting about the ‘industrial stability’ the Troika has hitherto been able to rely on from the Irish trade unions:
“Though not entirely unexpected, the walkout by the Association of Garda [police] Sergeants and Inspectors is bound to deliver a psychological blow to the Coalition’s hopes of achieving deeper reform of the service and further cuts of €1bn off the State’s pay and pensions bill between 2013 and 2015. What is less certain now is whether these objectives can be achieved without forfeiting Ireland’s admirable track record of industrial relations stability.”
That’s a quote from the 26th January 2013 editorial in the conservative, Fine Gael-supporting, typically public-sector-bashing Irish Examiner. It calmly and approvingly sets out a mezze of brutal attacks proposed for working people:
“So far, despite the radical nature of many of the changes being sought, including pay cuts, longer working hours, a reduction in overtime rates, and the abolition of increments, the main unions have remained within the talks process in spite of a growing sense of pessimism about their final outcome.
Given the Government’s evident determination, not only to impose pay and pension cuts, but also its resolve to reduce the workforce — even if it means going down the unprecedented and unpredictable road of compulsory redundancies — it would be much better for the whole country, both in social and economic terms, if instead of walking away, the unions stick to their last and persist at the negotiating table for as long as it takes to hammer out the best possible deal for their members. Because, at the end of the day, the stark reality is that consensus is far preferable to confrontation.”
Preferable to whom? The ‘whole country’ and the ‘consensus’ referred to above are in reality those of the top 20%. Our ‘trade unions’ are determined to go the full distance in the service of imposing this ‘austerity’ and in ripping up a century or more of hard-won employment rights. Why is anyone on the Left doing anything to validate these corporatist fronts? The Examiner’s sociopathic, cajoling appeal to the trade union leadership (no doubt penned by an NUJ member) – reminds me of the Lewis Carroll poem in which the Walrus is assisted by the Carpenter to trick some unsuspecting oysters:
”O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.*
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