|In our last issue we wrote of the drift towards a rejection by Trade Union members of Croke Park II, the proposed deal for curbing the public sector pay bill:
"Union ballots have now to follow and there is a strong force pulling members of the sectional Unions towards rejection. But, as the IMPACT National Executive decision and the stance of the SIPTU leadership have shown, this is not the political mood in the broader Trade Union movement, and it is on the politics of it rather than, to paraphrase Keynes, "the animal spirits of labour", that many Union members will vote" (Promissory Notes, Croke Park and the Euro, Irish Political Review editorial, March 2013).
And so it was to be. The politics of it changed in the two weeks up to the announcement of the results of the SIPTU ballot.
The wall-to-wall coverage of the anti-Agreement Teacher Union Conferences in the week after Easter (in contrast to the slight attention Irish Congress of Trade Union Conferences receive), and the early decisions by traditionally inveterate Agreement-opponents, such as UNITE and some craft Unions, created a climate of inevitability about rejection of the deal. Clear direction was required and for this all eyes were on SIPTU.
When the SIPTU National Executive met on 14th March, it seems that its public service representatives (representing a third of SIPTU membership) overwhelmingly urged acceptance of the Agreement in the interests of low-paid workers. The deal negotiated put an end to substantive threats of outsourcing, ruled out compulsory redundancies and ring-fenced wages and salaries under a €65,000 ceiling. There were painful concessions on working time, deferral of increments and options of flexible working. But on balance the SIPTU National Executive put the case for the Agreement, arguing that "the best way Public Service Workers can protect their interests is through a single centralised Agreement", and stating that it was "the best that could be obtained through negotiation". And then . . . it left its members to make up their own minds (i.e. take their leadership from the "the politics of it", i.e. the general public debate).
That was the end of the Agreement. Over the following two weeks as SIPTU members pondered their options, the media was awash with anti-Agreement argument. Mary Lou MacDonald (SF) denounced the agreement in the Dáil as a "sell out by the Union leaders", while right-wing commentators like Eddie Hobbs commended Unions that were rejecting the proposed Agreement. SIPTU members ultimately rejected the deal, by a close enough margin of less than 10%.
Sinn Féin has generated an "ideological" position for its political advance in the Republic based on a leftist rejectionism of the State and all its works. It has taken its economic policy—such as it is—off the shelf of the failed British Left and repackaged it in the belief that it was ready-made to appeal to southern urban working class discontent. Its basic text is the book by its economic advisor, Eoin O Broin, Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, published by the house publisher of the old British Left, Pluto Press, in London. This trend was observed with disquiet by the late Pat Murphy, and he has been proved right.
Sinn Féin can be excused for adopting an unremitting hostility to the Irish State—after all that State has been consistently seeking to destroy it for many decades. But, if it wants to become anything in the State, it is going to have to develop out of that rejectionism, or be left far behind by a revived Fianna Fáil, as its excellent candidate Martin McGuinness already discovered during the late Presidential election.
The inability of the Labour Party to handle the State and its social elements has a long track record. When yet another coalition in which it failed to develop a convincing developmental policy collapsed in rancour with the Trade Union movement in 1957, its greatest leader which it never had—James Larkin jnr.—left the sorry mess of Irish Labour politics to concentrate on the far more real business of Trade Unionism, to develop it as the substantial force for working class advance in the State and society. His perspective set the movement on the course of national bargaining, embracing the EEC and ultimately delivering industrial development, a welfare state, and full employment through Social Partnership.
Throughout the years of the Celtic Tiger the Labour Party adopted an irrational refusal to enter coalitions with Fianna Fáil. In 1987 it had virulently denounced Trade Union negotiations with the Fianna Fáil Government on a 'Programme for National Recovery', the historic first Partnership Agreement, and subsequently was never again to come to terms with the Unions. Labour collapsed its short-lived coalition with FF in 1994 for no discernible reason other than visceral hostility to its coalition partner and personal pique, thus leaving FF reliant on the PDs in shaping the prosperity of the years that followed, in agreement with the Trade Union movement.
The Trade Unions had to learn to deal directly with the State in the interests of their members without the vehicle of a labour party that cared much for them. Taking their cue from Larkin jnr. they were spectacularly successful in this for many decades. But, in the current moment of crisis on securing a national agreement for the public service, the Trade Unions proved incapable of offering a clear perspective to their members. In recent years the ICTU established a think tank—the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). Unfortunately this has been stocked with pure and simple economists, and to create a profile and rationale for itself has naturally gone down the road of developing an "alternative economic strategy" that last refuge of a stranded Left. This has taken the form of rejecting "austerity" and promoting the cause of "stimulus led growth" to be financed by boosting consumer spending and increasing taxes further. This has proven to have as much credibility with the public as the economic imaginings of Sinn Féin.
Michael Taft, research officer with UNITE, claimed on RTE radio after the rejection of Croke Park II that "austerity" assumed that "if you cut, the economy will grow". This is a travesty. "Austerity" is the term of abuse applied to a strategy of 'sound money', which is what must underpin the Euro. The "alternative economic strategy" necessarily means denouncing the Troika programme in favour of the type of illusory alternative of confrontation with Europe promoted for Ireland by The Financial Times, the organ of the City of London.
Trade Union leaders who made the case for Croke Park lacked credibility because they rejected the adjustment programme on which the logic of the pay agreement was based. Trade Union members considering their vote on the deal saw themselves being asked to accept an agreement which was based on an understanding of the crisis which the ICTU leaders themselves rejected. The essential basis of the successful Partnership Agreements of the 1990s had, after all and crucially, been a negotiated, shared view of the nature of the then economic crisis and how to develop out of it.
The politicians of the Labour Party now "find themselves sitting in the ruins of Croke Park II watching a false dawn breaking on the horizon—where Fianna Fáil are encamped" (Victoria White, Irish Examiner, 25 April 2013). Fianna Fáil politicians, including Micheál Martin, have been warming to the Unions, condemning the Government for its failed strategy of "divide and rule" towards "public sector workers". The previous comebacks of FF in 1957, 1977 and 1987 from political defeat were all preceded by that party engaging with the Trade Union movement to develop a shared view of the main issues and how to return to planned economic development. No doubt we will see similar moves in the near future. The Unions should ensure, as in 1984 ("Confronting the Jobs Crisis"), that it is their initiative that sets the scene.
The Ruins Of Croke Park. Editorial on Social Partnership
EU 'Treaty Change'. Jack Lane
Spot The Party Line! Repor
Readers' Letters: Germany's Rethink On Blame For Irish Bank Bailout. Philip O'Connor
Margaret Thatcher. Editorial
What's Left. Wilson John Haire
That Rising Sun! Wilson John Haire
Shorts from the Long Fellow (Italy; The Lowry Tape; A Free Press; Fiona Muldoon)
The Irish Bulletin And The Academy. Brendan Clifford (Part One)
An Irish Anti-Fascist Volunteer And Some Other Soldier. Manus O'Riordan (Part 6)
Biteback: Graves Vandalised. Tom Cooper (Unpublished Letter)
Eddie Linden, A Maverick Poet. Seán McGouran (Review)
Does It Stack Up? Michael Stack (Farming; National Commemorations Programme; Walter Macken; IASIL; Syria
All That Glitters. Wilson John Haire
Labour Comment: Jim Larkin by Patrick Kavanagh
Trade Union Notes