From Socialist Voice, April 2010

No omelettes without cracked eggs

Recent events at the Passport Office in Dublin have, not surprisingly, descended into histrionics. The media have been awash with stories of poor souls who can’t whisk off to Disneyland in Paris for the weekend or indeed jet off to Thailand for a friend’s wedding. The terrible inconvenience of it all!
        Undoubtedly sections of the trade union movement are concerned about the fall-out from from these kinds of events. Yet the windbags who complain about having to queue in the rain for a passport not only appear to lack any foresight (we knew this action was coming for months) but, more importantly, tend to forget a number of crucial points.
        First of all, we live in a largely plural society. It’s plural in the sense that there are many different social groups pursuing their own rational interests and competing over scarce resources. Clearly these social groups don’t operate in a vacuum: their actions have knock-on effects for other social groups.
        So, when senior executives at Dell decided that it would be cheaper to manufacture components in eastern Europe, it discontinued operations in Limerick. Not only were workers in Dell hit by the senior management pursuing their own rational interests, in the form of profit maximisation, but so were large sections of the local community in Limerick. Indeed others in the south-west region, such as small and medium-sized businesses that supplied Dell, were also affected, as were their own workers. And so on and so on.
        Indeed the effects of that management decision at Dell reverberated also on Government coffers, as it in turn lost out on the receipts from corporation tax, which could have been used to fund necessary social services.
        Curiously, however, “The Frontline,” “The Joe Duffy Show” and the like were not replete with human-interest stories about how this “inconvenienced” people or the wider society. There were no sob stories about how former Dell workers might now have to wait in ever-growing dole queues to receive their benefits. Media commentators quite easily justified Dell’s action by recourse to the usual blather about lower labour costs, “We’re not competitive enough,” and so forth.
        So if Dell executives are logically and rationally pursuing their interests, and their behaviour seems to be largely legitimated by those in the media, why shouldn’t CPSU workers at the Passport Office be allowed to do so as well? And why so much hysteria over a few delayed passports, when the actions of other social groups have often put people on social welfare or into near poverty?
        But apart from this argument, there is another reason why the CPSU’s Passport Office action needs to be put in context. Again this comes back to the fact that we live in a largely plural society that is complex and inter-related in its make-up. Those workers at the Passport Office have fallen foul of a Government campaign of cuts that has, in many respects, affected their livelihoods—and in a wholly disproportionate fashion. Given that we allegedly live in a democracy, various social groups have the right to express and to pursue their particular interests within such a democracy.
        With the centrality of work to many people’s lives, and its significance in shaping life’s chances, democracy is probably most fundamental to the work-place. While there is no positive right to strike in Irish law, labour law protects workers in withdrawing their labour. In fact in the face of a recalcitrant employer this is frequently the best way that workers can secure their interests; their labour is their own only resource in negotiations. To curb this or to try to undermine this action is to curb democratic freedoms and to curtail one of the strongest planks workers can use in pursuing their aspirations in a so-called democracy.
        However, it would seem that some sections of the public, and most sections of the media, would rather ride roughshod over workers’ rights and livelihoods so that they can grab their cheap flights on Ryanair and go on holiday.
        One of the continuing problems of our society is that a lot of people, workers included, display this consumerist mentality. While this poses as being apolitical and harmless, it imposes a right-wing discourse on society. In effect it says, “There is no society, there’s only me and my consumer interests.”
        Yes, there is a “public relations” campaign to be won. But why should the labour movement pander to this bankrupt and rotten ideology? The union movement in general needs to hold its nerve. It needs to begin to challenge more effectively the dominant anti-worker, anti-union discourse that has run rampant since the recession. Constantly apologising for a few cracked eggs will not create the steely resolve that is needed to meet the present challenges.
[NC]

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