April 2016        

Strikes and time bombs

Alan Hanlon

The last issue of Socialist Voice referred to the “pensions time bomb.” This is a term dreamed up by the bourgeoisie in the financial sector as part of a campaign to undermine state pensions and defined-benefit schemes. Now some other “time bombs” have arisen.
     The Sunday Times (13 March) reports Kieran Mulvey, director-general of the Workplace Relations Commission, as stating that the economy is on “a slow ticking time bomb to September.” Then the Irish Times (22 March) carried the headline “Five time bombs facing a new minister for education.”
     In other words, the bourgeoisie are afraid the gains they made under the austerity programme are going to unravel. Furthermore, “partnership” was abandoned, so they fear a return to the industrial militancy of the 1970s.
     When the Irish state decided to underwrite massive bank debt, at the behest of the EU and local financiers, it plunged this country into crisis. It also created an opportunity for capitalists to renege on industrial agreements and to introduce a campaign of austerity. The state used a series of stealth taxes, such as property tax, an attempt to privatise the provision of public water and cuts in pensions and social payments etc. to undo any gains by the working class over the previous decades.
     Employers used the crisis to bully workers into agreeing to work longer hours without overtime, to sackings, zero-hour contracts and other regressive measures on the grounds of saving jobs while increasing profits. There were also a series of court cases undermining the right to collective bargaining and the right of trade unions to represent their members. Anti-union employers have been able to set up compliant staff associations instead of having to deal with trade unions.
     These measures by the bourgeois courts and employers were all designed to undermine the collective power of the working class as expressed through their unions.
     However, the attempt to privatise the natural resource of water brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in opposition. The response of both the government and the bourgeois media, in trying to belittle the protests and the protesters, both politicised people and undermined their belief in the government and the media. To hear members of the bourgeoisie on RTE who are paid hundreds of thousands telling pensioners and workers on average earnings to pay twice for water was insulting and nauseous.
     The direct result was either the collapse of the three main bourgeois parties or their loss of members. The so-called Labour Party, which has degenerated into a bourgeois-liberal party, was nearly wiped out. The fact is that only the two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, can form a sustainable coalition. Any pretence that these two parties are different in philosophy has disappeared.
     The fact of the matter is that the water question drove the election and the result. Before the election the only parties in favour of privatising our natural resource were the Labour Party and Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil, as a populist party, had jumped on the water issue and made the abolition of Irish Water one of its planks. Any pact between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have to address this issue.
     However, when the wheeling and dealing is taking place over the formation of a government a vacuum has been created. The Permanent Government—i.e. the civil service, or, more specifically, the Department of Finance—is now maintaining the status quo. But this vacuum has also created a vacuum for employers’ groups such as IBEC and the Small Firms Association. Work-place tensions are rising, and pay claims of over 2 per cent are being sought.
     The fact that Luas workers were willing to strike on St Patrick’s Day and other holidays shows their resolve. SIPTU, now the Labour Party is gone, seems to be prepared to take a more militant stance and support its members. ESB workers, teachers in national and secondary schools, gardaí and civil servants are considering either industrial disputes or work-to-rule actions or the undoing of agreements entered into under duress in the period of so-called austerity.
     The realisation is growing that austerity was used to maximise profits and undermine any gains workers had made. The knowledge that some of the “stars” in RTE are being paid hundreds of thousands a year essentially to answer the phone or interview people when workers in call centres are doing the same thing for the minimum wage, and being hounded over toilet breaks, shows how far removed the bourgeoisie are from the reality of workers’ lives.
     The wages time bomb is one the bourgeoisie are right to worry about: it might go off.
     Tick, tick, tick . . .

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