From Socialist Voice, February 2011

ICTU—Continuing to fail to lead

The latest statement from the ICTU regarding the general election is another example of union leaders’ disconnect from their members. The statement starts by calling for us to “elect a Government that cares more about the citizens of the country than about bond markets and big business.” It goes on: “We must elect a Government that will assert the interest of citizens when dealing with the IMF, EU and ECB.”
     Now, union members might be forgiven for thinking that at last the movement is beginning to demonstrate some leadership, flex its industrial muscle, make some demands on the political parties of the left, giving hope to its membership and the unemployed that, at last, the battle for a “fairer and just society” has begun.
     Alas, no. When you read on, the despair of the leadership’s response to the crisis returns. The statement is passive in the extreme and weakly social-democratic in its political and economic contents and demands.
     When you sum it up, the ICTU proposal is to extend “the time to make the adjustment out to 2017 and renegotiating the penal interest rates built into the IMF/EU/ECB package.”
     There are two major problems with the ICTU’s statement.
     Firstly, if anybody in the ICTU was paying even half attention to the current economic crisis they would know that renegotiating the bail-out package is not going to solve our difficulties.
     Indeed the debt is so great that even if there was an extension to 2017 it is hard to see how the bonds will be paid, and the likelihood is that they will need to be extended beyond 2017, with Ireland continuing to pay exorbitant interest that would pay the loans off several times over, with further loans needed to meet the payments—the reality of a crippling, self-perpetuating debt.
     This brings us to the second point, the purpose of the ICTU statement. When a political statement is issued just before national elections you would think it would be to call on members to vote for candidates on the left who support the ICTU’s policies outlined in their alternative economic strategy entitled “A Better, Fairer Way” (itself a mild political strategy).
     They did not do this. The statement finished with “The bottom line is that we need people, not just in Dáil Éireann but actually in Government, who care about workers and who will strive to protect our interests in the difficult times which most certainly lie ahead.”
     What kind of message are they sending out to members? After all, parties and candidates of the right argue that they care about the country and its citizens!
     Just as citizens are being encouraged to ask political parties and local politicians where they stand on issues of concern to them, so also should trade union members ask questions of our trade union leaders. For example, I would like to know, as a trade union member:
     Is the ICTU making demands of the parties of the left?
     Are we placing conditions on the movement’s continued support for the Labour Party (which receives significant support from a number of unions during election campaigns)?
     Are we looking for guarantees about keeping our “health service positively public” (a slogan borrowed from UNISON when they ran their anti-privatisation campaign)? After all, Fine Gael is pushing for a private universal health service.
     Are we not seeking a commitment not to privatise our public-sector industries, like An Bord Gáis, Bord na Móna, Dublin Airport Authority, and other public-sector industries? (Some unions are running their own campaigns about the privatisation of services.)
     Are we making demands for trade union recognition legislation, and amendments to the Industrial Relations Act (1990), which has restricted members from demonstrating solidarity with other union members?
     Are we seeking guarantees for the protection of the minimum wage and social welfare? No candidate or party should receive support from union members who do not pledge a reversal of cuts to the minimum wage and jobseeker’s benefit.
     Are we seeking guarantees for the protection of registered agreements?
     Come on, ICTU. You can do better than this. Social partnership is dead. Your members need you to lead!

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