From Socialist Voice, October 2006

ESB next on the chopping-block

At the end of September the Government floated Aer Lingus on the Irish and British stock markets, bringing to an end the last remaining publicly owned transport system on this island. We are now completely in the hands of private transport operators, by sea and air.
     The privatisation of Aer Lingus is only the latest in a long line of bargain-basement sales of state companies, driven by a failed and bankrupt ideology. The pretext the Government has used is the undoubted need for new investment in the company.
     Though the Government retains a 34 per cent share and the workers have a 12 per cent shareholding in the new privatised company, experience in other countries shows that down the line, governments reduce their share and eventually sell it off completely.
     There was some resistance from the workers to the sale; but the sweetener for this bitter pill was the employee share option, with an aging work force looking at what the yearly dividends will be in the future. Some will be looking for that elusive apartment in the sun in Bulgaria or Romania.
     Aer Lingus, like all state industries, has been the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money over the decades. Workers’ wages and conditions in the state sector have been better than in the private sector; better working conditions, including creches, maternity leave, travel subsidies, and retraining, have been taken for granted for decades. In the main, a more humane approach to workers’ rights prevailed in the state and state-sponsored sectors than in private industry. The majority of state companies have been to the fore in innovation; workers have secured conditions that those in private industry could only dream of.
     Next in line will be the jewel in the crown of the state sector: the ESB. Already it is being fattened for privatisation, with its fragmentation into three separate sections. The emergence of competitors in the Irish market was facilitated by the Energy Regulator, who, on taking up his job, stated that the price of electricity would have to be increased in order to allow new generation capacity into the system, because the ESB was selling electricity too cheaply and thereby blocking competition.
     So working people are having to pay higher electricity charges in order to generate profits for the emerging private operators! The new entrants in the energy market are concentrating on the major consumers and corporate entities. It is hard to see too many of them rushing to supply services to people and communities in Co. Kerry or Donegal.
     Given the age profile of the work force, it is evident that they will be eager to follow the well-trodden path taken by their fellow-workers in Telecom Éireann and Aer Lingus, with the dream of their own little pot of gold at the end of the line for the ESB.
     The struggle against privatisation is not the responsibility only of the workers in those industries under threat but rather of all workers. As the Irish Ferries dispute showed, when leadership is given, workers will respond. That was a rebuff to the right wing of the labour movement, which has always claimed that workers would not struggle.
     The lack of resistance is due in the main to decades of demobilisation associated with “social partnership.” The labour movement has no alternative political, economic or social policies—or, if it has, is not prepared to put up much of a fight to make them a reality. Its view and understanding of society and of its role within it have been reduced to what can be secured from the Government and employers. Workers’ aspirations are narrowed to the immediate “gas and water” demands. Experience since the birth of the labour movement shows that employers give only what they are forced to concede. Nothing has ever been given or gained without a fight.
     When the dominant ideology is neo-liberalism, being pursued by both Government and employers, public enterprise and public services are under attack and retreating before demands by private companies tied into and seeking control over Government policy. Workers in individual state companies find it hard to see the wood for the trees; self-interest comes to the fore, and the social good is pushed even further back. Workers know that in the future, wages and conditions as well as employment prospects for coming generations will decline; but the belief in struggle and an understanding of struggle are missing from their knowledge bank.
     When there is little or no leadership, or there appears to be no clear water in the form of alternatives between people’s political or industrial representatives and those of the Government and establishment, the dominant political parties and the mass media, workers take the most basic position to defend what they have. They feel they are on their own.
     It is clear that it is more politics the labour movement needs, not less, though certainly not the politics offered to it by the Irish Times or Irish Independent and the economic consultants.

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