November 2013        

Time for more independent leadership

The ICTU called for a day of action on Saturday 12 October. Out of the 800,000 union members affiliated to the ICTU, about 500 turned out. Some who participated reckoned there were more police and security personnel than demonstrators.
     The Government can rest easy when faced with threats from the ICTU. The working class have realised that the current leadership of the ICTU is part of the comprador class, criticising the campaign of austerity on the one hand but making sure that any signs of protest are nipped in the bud, as was demonstrated by the Haddington Road Agreement. The efforts of working-class activists to oppose the campaign of austerity are constantly undermined and neutralised.
     David Begg, current general secretary of the ICTU, addressed Seanad Éireann on 25 September and spoke to that well-heeled body about the 1913 Lock-out and its relevance today. It is obvious from his speech that Begg’s real hero of the revolutionary period at the beginning of the twentieth century is William O’Brien.
     He recognises that there was “out-and-out class struggle in 1913,” and that the labour movement played a central part in the founding of the Irish state. He regrets the fact that Ireland did not follow the Nordic social-democratic model until the period 1987–2008, when “social partnership” was introduced.
     Unfortunately, although Begg understands that social partnership was abandoned in 2008, he does not understand that it was only ever a temporary device for industrial peace when the capitalist class consolidated its position. In fact at the heart of Begg’s analysis is the belief that the market needs to be regulated and the social element given greater recognition. He does not seem to grasp the fact that trying to regulate markets and asking capitalists to be decent, socially responsible people is not the answer. It is the very nature of capitalism itself (the term “market” is just a euphemism for capitalism) to be all-consuming and destructive. It is the nature of capitalism to accumulate and to eliminate competition until it monopolises a market and extracts all value from a product, regardless of consequences.
     Unfortunately for Begg, at the time of his speech to the Seanad he was not able to read an article by Maurice Saatchi (former chairman of the Conservative Party and one of the strategists who helped Margaret Thatcher gain power in 1979) on 19 October in the Daily Mail.
     Saatchi is worried because the Tories have not won a British election for twenty-one years. Thatcherism was supposed to destroy socialism and create a nation of capitalists, all competing with one another in the market in accordance with the vision of liberal economists. Unfortunately for the visionaries, the opposite has been happening. Inequality has widened; and, as Ed Milliband pointed out, instead of the rising tide lifting all boats it only lifted the yachts. In effect, as one Karl Marx predicted, “the end result of competition is the end of competition.”
     When you look at the provision of utilities in Ireland, it’s easy to see what a farce the so-called competitive market in electricity is: various companies all claiming to sell electricity at less than their “competitors” and then increasing prices. In effect, what you have is the operation of a cartel, fixing prices and using control of the market to extract money from consumers for an essential service. This is then facilitated by the Government allowing price increases through the medium of a so-called regulator.
     What was wrong with the ESB, which is still the actual producer of electricity? Nothing other than the need to appease the EU by pretending to create a “market” in electricity.
     In July this year David Begg announced at the ICTU biennial delegate conference that he intends retiring within two years. It is clearly time for more independent-thinking and independent-acting leadership for the trade union movement. We’ve been squeezed for every last penny and have nothing left to give.
     At the same time, capitalists are continuing to thrive here, having achieved the biggest stroke in Irish history: transferring their private debts to the working class, while undermining labour laws with the assistance of right-wing courts, lengthening the working day, and cutting back on wages.
     David Begg’s legacy to the working class will be zero-hour contracts and no right to collective bargaining—just like 1913, in fact.

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