Articles from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI

Britain & Ireland Workers move into action

Irish Ferries, An Post, ESB - time for action

Fight neo-liberalism - defend workers' rights

By Stephen Boyd
FOR MANY reasons, including the role of the union leaders and the boom in the economy, there has been little industrial or political struggle by the working class in the South over the last 10 - 15 years. However we are witnessing the beginning of a change in the situation.

"Concern is no longer enough. People must mobilise". "Irish Ferries is a harbinger of the workplace of the future. The same blind market forces that are driving down pay and conditions there are coming closer to everyone's workplace". "What is happening in Irish Ferries provides a glimpse of the neo-liberal nightmare towards which we are currently drifting". Believe it or not, all of these comments came from the president of SIPTU Jack O'Connor in the run up to the march in support of Irish Ferries workers on 3 November.

Up to 10,000 marched through the streets of Dublin in support of the 543 workers threatened with redundancy at Irish Ferries. Four days later, 8,500 postal workers took industrial action in pursuit of their national wage agreement pay increases. Serious cracks have emerged in "social partnership", and these latest disputes reflect a growing anger amongst workers affected by neo-liberalism. The increasing strength of this anger is reflected in the left speechifying by right-wing union leaders such as Jack O'Connor who have been forced to take some action, however limited so far, against the worst excesses of the attacks on workers' rights.

For 18 years "social partnership" has facilitated the employers to dramactically increase their profits whilst most workers in comparison have only received crumbs from the boom. Over the last few years big business (aided and encouraged by Fianna Fail and the PDs) have been implementing a conscious policy of trying to drive down workers' wages. GAMA and Irish Ferries are high profile cases of employers using migrant workers to force down wages in the South. But it is not just a few rogue employers who are guilty of exploiting migrant workers. This exploitation is widespread and has the support of IBEC, which has publicly backed Irish Ferries moves to replace its staff with migrant workers from Eastern Europe on Euro 3.60 an hour. The government also, (despite the hollow condemnation of Irish Ferries by Bertie Ahern) supports low pay for migrant workers as a means to drive down the wages of all workers in this economy.

The recent strike by ESB workers and the ongoing dispute in An Post are also signs that many workers are prepared to take a stand against the attacks on their jobs, wages and conditions.

Anger has built up over the past decade amongst the working class over a whole raft of issues such as political corruption, the neglect of our public services (in particular the health service), increases in the cost of living, and the pricing out of the housing market of young first time buyers. This latest manifestation of neo-liberalism - the agenda to drive down wages - could see the beginning of a move by sections of workers towards increased industrial struggle, as the only option they have to protect their wages and working conditions.

ICTU decided at its one-day conference on 25 October to delay entering a new round of "social partnership" talks. This followed SIPTU's decision not to enter talks because of Irish Ferries. SIPTU and ICTU's decisions don't reflect a fundamental rejection of "social partnership" by the right-wing trade union leaders. Rather it reflects increasing pressure from workers that something must be done to combat neo-liberalism and an understanding that if Irish Ferries get away with replacing relatively well paid jobs with slave labour, that it will be a signal to employers all over the country to go on the offensive.

Jack O'Connor also recently spoke about the EU services directive (which is being championed by former Minister of Finance Charlie McCreevy) that will allow employers "to transport workers from one end of the EU to the other and impose the 'going rate' in the member state with the poorest conditions applicable". The neo-liberal agenda, to privatise our public services, dismantle the welfare state, to drive down wages and introduce "flexible" working conditions and attacks on pension rights is being pursued by multinational companies and governments all over the world.

Governments across Europe have gone further down the road in implementing this agenda, but their vicious attacks are being resisted by millions. The rejection of the EU constitution in France and Holland was a rejection of neo-liberalism. The failure of Schroeder's Social Democrats or Merkel's CDU to gain a majority in the German elections was another rejection of this agenda. Major strike movements have taken place in France, Spain, Greece, Germany and most recently Belgium, which despite its right-wing union leaders support for "social partnership" had a general strike in October.

Thousands of jobs have been lost in the public sector due to privatisation and outsourcing. All of the right-wing parties, including Labour and Sinn Fein will pursue privatisation when they are in government. Aer Lingus, CIE, An Post and the ESB are all being prepared for privatisation. Mary Harney, the Minister for Health, openly speaks of the need for more private healthcare. The current attacks on workers in Irish Ferries, An Post and the ESB are a warning to all workers - no one is safe - the government and the employers are preparing a similar assault on all workers' rights. This agenda stems from the need for the capitalist class to make workers pay for the crisis in its economic system - to maintain the profits of the multinationals and the super-rich.

The increased attacks on workers' rights by the government and the employers will be met with resistance from the working class. Faced with no choice but to struggle, workers in the South will eventually emulate the struggles of European workers and will also challenge the pro-partnership right-wing union leaders who have been assisting the neo-liberal agenda.

The pressure needs to be maintained and stepped up on the union leaders by the members. Industrial action is necessary to stop the ESB's drive to outsource the work of its network technicians to private contractors. Similiarly the time for talking is over at An Post and the willingness to struggle shown by the postal workers must be translated into a well organised campaign of industrial action including strike action to force management to pay all wages due with no strings attached. SIPTU and the Seaman's Union must prepare the ground to shut Irish Ferries down and black its ships from all Irish, British and French ports if they don't abandon their plans to introduce slave labour.

The Socialist Party is campaigning not only to support the workers in Irish Ferries, the ESB and An Post to win their disputes but also to transform the trade unions. Workers need democratic trade unions that reject "social partnership" in favour of defending and fighting for the interests of their members. We appeal to trade unionists who are frustrated by the lack of leadership and fight by the right-wing union bureaucrats to contact us to discuss how we can work together to build a radical left opposition within the unions.

The Socialist Party believes we also need a new political force in this country - a mass working class party that will stand up and take on the right-wing establishment parties. This party will act to calvanise tens of thousands of working class people to challenge the capitalist system that is responsible for neo-liberalism and struggle for a socialist alternative.

Pension battles not over but Labour in retreat

By Ken Smith

THE CLIMBDOWN by Blair's New Labour government on public-sector pensions could represent a significant turning point for working-class people. 25 years of Thatcherite neo-liberal attacks had seen unions on the defensive and the government and bosses on the offensive.

After years of retreats it can be sometimes difficult to recognise the beginnings of change. But some capitalist commentators realised that the balance of class forces had begun to marginally tilt back towards the working class.

The Financial Times called it "abject surrender" and "Labour caves in over pensions". Digby Jones, head of the CBI bosses' organisation, was apoplectic when on Channel 4 News he said: "We're going back to the 1970s with the unions calling the shots".

The pensions' battle is far from over. The government's hasty retreat has left a complex backwash in its wake. There are battles still unresolved over local government and firefighters' pension schemes. Future battles are inevitable over the sector-by-sector negotiations in health, education and civil service pension schemes.

Not the least issue will be the pension entitlements of new starters. The PCS civil service union has pledged to stand alongside local government workers who are still negotiating and to fight for the best possible deal for new starters.

Yet, in all the intricacy of the aftermath of this current round of struggle, the main conclusion being drawn is that the preparedness of millions of public-sector workers to take united action forced the Labour government into its second major retreat over this issue within six months.

The government was seriously worried by the united front developing amongst workers preparing to struggle through militant industrial action and felt it was better to retreat once again, albeit reserving its right to come back at a future stage.

Yet, most union leaders generally had to be pushed kicking and screaming into threatening action on pensions.

Even up to the last moment in the negotiations, some union leaders wanted to accept an offer by Cabinet Minister Alan Johnson to settle for an extension of implementing the proposals until 2013 or 2018.

They compared the PCS leadership - who insisted on holding firm to the line of no detriment and no breach of existing contracts for current members - to the NUM of the past, suggesting the government would never concede an arrangement for all existing staff and would move to crush the unions.

Also, waiting in the wings is the Turner Report, which could recommend increasing the state pension age to 67 or 69; meaning many workers who could theoretically retire at 60 will still have to work into their late 60s, as they could not afford to retire on the average £4,000 a year civil service pension.

Clearly the trade union leaders are facing increasing pressure from their members to fight back against the bosses' offensive in industry and against Blair's privatisation and reform mania in the public sector.

At this year's TUC, in words at least, there appeared to be a continuation of the perceived shift to the left of recent years. But, although left rhetoric flourished, there was insufficient evidence words would be turned into action.

Before the conference, trade union leaders like Tony Woodley of the TGWU made threatening noises demanding the return of the right for unions to take secondary action

As limited as this call is, it was enough to get media commentators frothing at the mouth, warning that unions would soon become "irrelevant" if they pursued the road of militancy. The real danger for unions, however, is that they become irrelevant to their members if they threaten militancy and then fail to deliver.

The TGWU is a case in point. After seeing the first walk-out in secondary, solidarity action in 20 years, by baggage handlers in support of the sacked Gate Gourmet workers, the union squandered a golden opportunity to deliver a body blow to the bosses.

Tony Woodley made great play at the TGWU conference in July of being a "fighting back union" and "ending the cosy relationship with the gaffer" that was the hallmark of union leaders in the 1990s.

Yet, some officials were allowed to repudiate the action under the anti-union laws and ordered the baggage handlers back to work, leaving the Gate Gourmet workers to fight a spirited but difficult rearguard action.

It's been rumoured that Tony Woodley and other national officials were trying to overcome this conservative layer of full-time officials who tried to undermine the secondary action for the Gate Gourmet workers. However, even if this was the case, it still shows the job some union leaders have to do in transforming their unions.

In one sense, this year's TUC showed that there is no mood for a return to the partnership agenda of the right-wing union bosses in the 1990s - reflecting the more angry mood developing on the shopfloor.

However, in frustration some of the big union leaders hope to overcome perceived "weakness" of the unions through an "organising agenda", which they think has been successful in the USA, and through union mergers to create super-unions which have greater industrial clout through force of numbers.

However, whilst both these measures could result in strengthening unions and making them more effective, if they are done in isolation from conducting effective militant struggle on behalf of working people, then they will be shipwrecked.

In Germany, the Verdi union, a merger of a number of smaller unions in 2001, was created in the same spirit as the proposed merger of the TGWU, Amicus and GMB in Britain. However when Verdi became Germany's largest union, it had around three million members. Now four years later its membership has fallen to around 2.5 million.

The main reason for this fall has been the union's inability to conduct effective struggle against Gerhard Schršder's Agenda 2010 and the rise in unemployment.

Britain's trade union members are looking more at the example of those unions that are growing the most rapidly - the RMT railworkers and PCS civil service unions. It is especially the role played by socialists in the PCS union that shows a clear way forward.

PCS has grown by over 30,000 members since the socialist leadership won control of the union and 3,000 new workplace reps have been put in place.

Crucially, it was the vital role played by PCS' socialist leadership that saw an opportunity to link together different groups of public-sector workers in the pensions' struggle and advance the movement's interests. This has raised the confidence and consciousness of many workers.

Despite the occasionally fiery rhetoric from some, there is still a big dislocation between most union leaders and their members. One in five workers in Britain earns £280 a week or less, many of them having to take two or more jobs just to earn such a sum.

Private-sector workers have seen their pension entitlements slashed - to the point where in 20 years' time, if current trends continue, only one in ten workers will have an occupational pension.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has recently correctly argued that "industrial unity over pensions should be matched by a political unity aimed at stopping New Labour's attacks on our members". This in many ways is as much a part of fighting back for workers in Britain as achieving advances in the workplace.

However, such political unity requires that union leaders like Mark Serwotka and Bob Crow (RMT) use the authority they have established industrially and begin the process of establishing a new mass party of the working class.

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