December 2012        

General strikes: An effective means to an end?

The recent protest rally led by Dublin Council of Trades Union saw the question of a general strike in opposition to austerity being raised by participants in the march and by the president of the ICTU, Eugene McGlone. Subsequently an industrial officer with the ICTU, Fergus Whelan, told RTE radio that such a strike on a “general matter” would be illegal.
      “Unions are democratic bodies,” Whelan pointed out. “We can only do what our members want us to do, on the basis of a secret ballot.” The last thing private-sector members wanted was a strike, he added. Similarly, the general president of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, distanced himself from any move to call a general strike. He said the matter had not been discussed by Congress, and he was not sure they would win support for one if they sought it.
      While it is unlikely that a call for a general strike will be issued, it is worth considering its likely effect as a strategy in opposing austerity, particularly so given that some sections of the left favour it. (See, for example, Socialist Worker, 24 November.)
      While political strikes are formally illegal under industrial relations law, a de facto general strike could be organised through the co-ordination of thousands of lawful strikes on the same day, after a course of balloting and notification, so that all actions had legal immunity.
      An unlawful general strike, on the other hand, would probably depend on neither the Government nor the affected employers responding with injunctions and damages for loss of business, for fear of intensifying the political situation.
      In practice, a general strike of this unlawful type would be principally a public-sector strike with, given low density figures, a rather small presence in the private sector. This is because there are large swathes of the private sector that are non-union: total union density in that sector is less than 20 per cent.
      Furthermore, it is difficult to speculate on the degree to which non-union workers in both organised and unorganised sectors would participate in such action.
      In any event, what would a general strike secure for workers? Whether in the public or the private sector, the principal aim would simply be to put political pressure on the Government in order to prevent or reverse austerity.
      A one-day strike, therefore, would do little else than offer a cautionary reminder to the Government of popular anti-austerity discontent. It would neither prevent Government strategy nor run the Government out of office, nor result in a general election.
      A good confirmation of this is Greece. With a much more militant and well-organised working class, Greece has witnessed twenty general strikes since 2010. Although the crisis is much more profound there, the frequency of general strikes in that country has been no panacea for the woes of the Greek working class.
      A consideration, therefore, of the general-strike strategy in Ireland must answer such questions as the probable duration of such a strike, and indeed how many times it would need to be called to have any distinct impact. The risk in holding a general strike of a 24-hour type, for instance, is the prospect of making no obvious impact on the intended targets. It might simply be a damp squib.
      What would make a general strike more feasible and more forceful would be if the wider level of strike activity in the economy was much higher. If that was so there would be a more tangible sense that a general strike emerged from, and fed back into, a mounting level of more confident struggle and an increasing degree of class-consciousnesses among Irish workers. Calling for a general strike at present, however, while sounding good in the abstract, is a rather vacuous statement.
      At the present time the general-strike strategy is unlikely to be adopted, for a variety of reasons. One pertinent reason is that a majority in Congress do not want Ireland “to be like Greece,” as it is frequently, and ideologically, put. Most senior union leaders—though not all—hold the view that even regular street protests will not advance the interests of members, or of “the country.” Congress would prefer to pursue its policies through contacts with the Government and, perhaps, indirectly through the Nevin Economic Institute.
      In any case, the public-sector unions have accepted an invitation from the Government to begin talks on a review of the Croke Park Agreement, and are mindful of the partial backing of several Fine Gael backbenchers for any sort of pact. These union members value guarantees on pay and no compulsory redundancies under the Croke Park Agreement and don’t want to play into the hands of the deal’s political opponents.
      This is the defeatist mentality that exists at present in the Irish labour movement. It will take a much more sustained approach to overturning this mentality than simply shouting for a general strike.

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