From Socialist Voice, December 2008

Trade unions

It’s staring us in the face!

b>The ICTU’s recent comprehensive ratification of the new national wage agreement, and its add-ons, demonstrated more than the working class’s “patriotic duty” to the country’s, and the planet’s, financial meltdown. It reflected the trade union members’ loyalty to and faith in their leaderships, a logical grasp of the dramatic times we are experiencing, and, above all, a collective unity of purpose in facing into the obvious gloom that awaits.
     Some unions that traditionally voted No to successive partnership proposals―those unions that tended to represent the lower-paid of Ireland’s work force, such as Mandate―bucked their trend and rolled in behind the Yes camp. (IBEC must have thought it had awakened to a new dawn, as some of its delegates at the recent “social partnership” negotiations consistently argued that representations by the ICTU on cutting a better deal for the lower-paid were pointless, given that this union would vote against the overall deal anyway.) But this change of policy direction belies some of the reasoning and sentiment therein.
     Mandate’s recent special delegate conference on the new national wage agreement provided (for once) a welcome robust debate not only on the wage proposals themselves but also on the lack of class consciousness in Irish politics. While it is too early―and, dare I say, too naïve―to suggest an electoral sea-change that would revolutionise the country’s political landscape, there was nevertheless evidence of workers looking beyond the smaller picture of the wage proposals and asking questions about the very system and its custodians that set the scene whereby workers scrambled for crumbs at the negotiating table. And when I talk about the system I don’t mean social partnership!
     Despite an ultra-left contribution that, as ever, was obstructively rhetorical and attacked the leadership of Mandate for daring to recommend the wage proposals to its membership, and for seeking to outline the reasons why, a number of the contributing delegates openly evinced their anger and disgust at a social and political system that is inherently socially criminal.
     This raises the question, What next? And is there an alternative?
     When ordinary retail workers―the great majority of them women, both young and old―bravely and representatively make their views known at such a delegate conference, it behoves that union’s leadership―as well as the broader trade union leadership―to reach for and deliver the programme that provides more than social and financial bankruptcy.
     An acceptance by union leaders that there is an alternative to the capitalist system, and an affirmation to create and embrace a programme seeking that alternative, would be a start!
     But what is that alternative?
     As media pundits and political commentators flirt with the word “alternative,” unless it directly relates to Barack Obama’s electoral strategies and success, they should really just come out and declare it. It is socialism―a word that appears to have been lost from our vocabulary of late, probably since the capitalist-induced and led demise of the eastern bloc.
     Vincent Browne in his Irish Times column (26 November 2008) rightly noted how Ireland’s politically and economically powerful elite presided over unprecedented greed and wealth inequalities and the subsequent ill effects on society but never once dared to suggest or express the alternative.
     The Marxist-Leninist left has never been shocked at the inherent implosions within capitalism. But, worryingly, it appears that Irish society―especially those organs and institutions that represent the interests of the ordinary citizen and worker―is more frightened of the challenge of thinking and acting outside the box than of free-falling back into a system that is manifestly corrosive and corrupt.
     Compare this position with Connolly’s writings in the late nineteenth century, when he presciently emphasised: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts would be in vain.” (Shan Van Vocht, January 1897).
     He further espoused, in “Let us free Ireland” (Workers’ Republic, 1899, and Socialism Made Easy, 1908), the rightful fear of handing an Ireland free of English occupation to the Irish “profit-grinding capitalist” and, appropriately enough for today’s society, concluded: “Let us organise to meet our masters and destroy their mastership, organise to drive them from their hold upon public life through their public power . . . from the preying of man upon his fellow man.”
     As a means of real “patriotic duty” the working class and its leaders must plot the path to real social equality, i.e. socialism. It’s time to stop fearing or daring to believe. Connolly didn’t.
     It is our right to believe that we can create a society free of competition and greed―a society that guarantees the basic staples of job security, universally free health and education, real equality, true and proper political accountability, the real potential for the planet’s survival.

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