From Socialist Voice, April 2007

Trade unions either lead or are led by the nose

In March the Ireland Institute, as part of its series dealing with contemporary political issues, held a meeting in Dublin on the impact of privatisation on government and democracy.
     One of the speakers was a senior economic adviser to the ICTU and to a number of individual trade unions. The talk covered a wide range of issues, but Socialist Voice would like to respond to only two points. To deal adequately with all that was covered would require an alternative paper, and would fill the whole of Socialist Voice.
     Firstly, the speaker stated more than once that it was “the Government’s job to govern,” and, secondly, that the trade union movement followed a wrong strategy in the 1980s, because Irish companies were not as profitable, and workers were making unreasonable demands because of that unprofitability.
     On the first point, it is an obvious fact that the Government’s job is to govern; but the central question is, in whose interests do they govern? To accept this statement implies that some governments make decisions that are value-free and devoid of any class approach, which defies historical as well as present experience.
     Would you ever hear anyone from the employers’ organisations speaking in such neutral terms in relation to the Government and its policies?
     We can look at a number of examples in relation to the present coalition Government’s policies. Who gained and who lost from the privatisation of Telecom Éireann? We are all aware of the consequences of that decision. The Government turned a public monopoly into a private monopoly. It enriched a tiny golden circle of backers of the main parties. It allowed asset-strippers to rob an infrastructure built up by public investment over many decades—mainly workers’ taxes.
     The Government sold off the Irish Sugar Company, which has since been shut down, with an important national asset now being stripped and demolished to make way for more apartments.
     The left argued for the retention of the Sugar Company and for it to diversify into producing ethanol, which would have kept farmers growing sugar and expanded the work force as well as decreasing our dependence on foreign oil imports.
     The decision to privatise Aer Lingus was purely a political decision; and no sooner was the ink dry on the privatisation deal than the company attempted to tear up existing agreements made with the unions.
     What is the economic reasoning for the Government breaking up the ESB into three separate companies? This is being carried through not for economic but for political reasons. The Government has given advantage to private electricity companies over the ESB and is forcing the ESB to reduce its generation capacity so as to allow private companies into the market. Who benefits, and who loses?
     In relation to water resources and the development of “public-private partnerships,” the Government has handed over valuable infrastructure projects, in the form of water treatment plants, to private companies.
     There are many more examples right across the board, from the handing over of public lands to private speculators for building private homes to private medical corporations being allowed to build private medical facilities on the grounds of public hospitals—all carried out under Government policy. So a central question for the labour movement is, whose interests does the Government represent?
     The second point relates to a wrong strategy taken by the trade unions in the 1980s because of the poor profitability of Irish companies. One has only to look at the revelations coming out of the tribunals to see the vast network of tax evasion, offshore bank accounts, and slush funds. It is clear that at a time of mass unemployment in the 1980s, with savage cuts in public services (which are still having effects today in relation to health), the Irish business class was hiding millions in secret bank accounts, with the connivance of the Government.
     The speaker’s statement that the labour movement was in favour of tax cuts in the 1980s is untrue. When members of the CPI moved the proposal at the Dublin Council of Trade Unions to call for tax reform, and for work stoppages to push this demand forward, it was about tax reform and a more equitable tax system. The labour movement began to campaign for tax reform, for a widening of the tax bands and the enforcement of tax laws with regard to equality within the tax system, where PAYE workers carried a greater share of the tax burden. What the campaign showed when the movement was properly focused and had clear demands was that workers mobilised, just as they did during the Irish Ferries struggle.
     “Social partnership” has blurred the vision and limited the perspective of the labour movement. We have a vision that is limited to demands that the Government may or may not concede The labour movement appears to have lost any sense of its own vision of what Ireland should move towards, while on the other hand the boss class have a very clear strategy of where “Ireland Inc.” has to go.
     The advice and strategy articulated by this leading adviser is more of the same, leading us down more blind alleys.

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