Make the bosses take the losses!

For a General Strike in Ireland!

The current economic crisis has been a disaster for working people, and there are more job cuts and company closures on the horizon. The Taoiseach was forced to admit that unemployment could top 450,000 by 2010 – and even this astounding estimate is a positive spin. Morgan Kelly, professor of economics at University College Dublin, writes:

‘As the private sector haemorrhages jobs it is hard to see how Irish national income will fall by less than 20 to 25 per cent in the next few years. Unemployment will easily reach 15 per cent by the end of the summer, and 20 per cent by next year, and will not start to fall until recovery in Britain and elsewhere permits mass emigration to resume. The economy will not begin to grow until real wages fall to competitive international levels, a process that will probably take a decade.’
(Irish Times, 20 January)

Public sector workers have seen their pay cut by 6 to 8 percent in the guise of the ‘pension levy’ that came into force on 1 March, while private sector workers are finding that the collapse of the stock market has significantly eroded the value of their pension scheme. Sacked workers who are lucky enough to qualify for redundancy are only getting the statutory minimum. Many of those who are losing their jobs will receive nothing because they were employed on fixed-term contracts.

As government finances collapse, social welfare provisions are being targeted. To redress a €1 billion ‘hole’ in the Health Service Executive’s budget, frontline health services have been chopped. The government is planning massive tax increases in the budget to meet a projected €4 billion shortfall – the pension levy is only the beginning!

Global crisis and Irish capitalism

The Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ – long held up as a shining example of capitalist development – has always primarily benefited the super-rich. The Bank of Ireland’s ‘The Wealth of the Nation’ study in 2007 reported that of the ‘top 1% of the population, we estimate that their asset base (defined as gross assets minus residential property) increased from €86 billion in 2005 to €100 billion in 2006’.

Much of the profits of the ‘Tiger’ years escaped taxation. During the construction boom, ‘brown envelope’ kick backs helped re-zone land in the interests of the local developers. Shell, Statoil and Marathon were granted effective ownership of anything they find in the Corrib gas field. Bank loans of hundreds of millions of euros made to the ‘golden circle’ are being written off while hundreds of ordinary working people have gone to jail for defaulting on loans of €10,000 or less (Irish Examiner, 30 January).

Historically a supplier of agricultural products and cheap labour for Britain, Ireland has become a base for multinational manufacturing and a tax haven for foreign, primarily US, corporations:

‘The role of FDI [foreign direct investment] in the growth of the Irish economy is illustrated by the fact that foreign-owned firms now account for about 47% of Ireland’s industrial employment, 77% of net industrial output, and 83% of merchandise exports.’

To keep the multinationals on these shores, the government is committed to keeping business taxes low – ‘the 12.5% corporation tax rate is now considered sacrosanct and a vital component of Ireland Inc’s offering.’ (PricewaterhouseCoopers, ‘Investing in Ireland’, Issue 2, July 2008).

The American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland proposes more belt-tightening:

‘It is no secret that our costs spiralled out of control in the past number of years and we are now more expensive than many of our European counterparts. If there is any silver lining on the current difficulties in which we find ourselves, it is that we now have the opportunity to realign our costs to become more competitive.’

For ‘costs’, read ‘wages’ – the chance to cut pay is the capitalists’ ‘silver lining’! Because of Ireland’s dependence on foreign investment, the bourgeoisie feels compelled to reduce the ‘costs’ of its skilled, English-speaking workforce to compete with Eastern Europe and even India.

As well as intensified attacks on wages and conditions, working people are threatened by the effects of climate change and other forms of ecological catastrophe which can only be successfully addressed in the context of a rationally-planned global economy. Inter-imperialist rivalries, the struggle for resources and the rise of protectionist trading blocs point in the direction of another world war, which in the age of nuclear weapons would threaten the very existence of humanity.

Workers’ struggle in Ireland cannot be separated from that of working people in Britain and across Europe. European-wide trade unions should be built as a step towards conscious co-ordination of the workers’ movement across national boundaries.

Unity between workers in the North and South of Ireland is also key to defending our interests. While no tears need be shed over the deaths of the two imperialist soldiers and the PSNI officer in early March, the workers’ movement must reject the politics of the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, which make no distinction between the repressive forces of the British state and innocent workers, as well as Sinn Fein, which is colluding with the occupying forces. British troops out now!

‘Social Partnership’ betrayal

After the successful 120,000-strong demonstration in Dublin on 21 February, under intense pressure from its rank and file, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) leadership called a ballot for a one-day strike on 30 March. Five days before it was due to take place, despite solid support in major unions, the bureaucrats called it off – not because of any sort of concession, simply because the government had agreed to talk.

This is no great surprise. Earlier this year, the ICTU leaders joined the government and employers to cook up a ‘Social Solidarity Pact’, agreeing ‘that urgent and radical action is required to restore stability to the public finances, to maximise short-term economic activity and employment and to improve competitiveness’ (Union Post, February). Despite a pledge to ‘insulate’ the ‘most vulnerable’, the agreement promised ‘to reduce the General Government Deficit to below 3% by 2013 through an appropriate combination of expenditure and taxation adjustments’. The trade union bureaucracy’s collaboration with the ruling class signals its intent to lead workers as lambs to the slaughter instead of fighting to protect jobs, wages, pensions and social services.

‘Social Partnership’ is based on the false premise that workers can make common cause with ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie. This notion, also known as class collaboration or popular frontism, is at the core of Sinn Fein’s recent call for a new movement to solve the crisis:

‘I invite all these potential allies to come together to forge a stronger, more united progressive and democratic movement for our country – one that aims to meet the needs of all citizens.

‘I include parties like Labour, the Greens if they can survive the fall out from their participation in this right wing government; other smaller parties; the trade unions; the community organisations that are on the front line in the struggle for equality; Gaelgeoiri; rural agencies and organisations, including farming bodies and fishing communities; women’s groups; the students, youth organisations and those who speak for the disabled, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless and the marginalised in our society.’
(Gerry Adams, Ard Fheis 2009, 21 February,

The record of Sinn Fein and the Greens in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Dáil has shown beyond doubt that they are no friends of working people. Despite occasional populist rhetoric, Sinn Fein’s goal of national reunification and the Greens’ focus on the environment pose no fundamental problem for the bosses. Workers’ organisations must firmly reject Adams’ proposal and opt to build a movement that advances our interests at the expense of the capitalists.

For a defensive general strike to defeat the attacks!

Ireland’s trade union leaders have no appetite for class struggle. Their aim is a ‘Social Partnership’ to preserve the status quo. At the February demonstration, ICTU president Patricia McKeown’s lip service to the idea of ‘industrial action’ was designed to placate the crowd. Her real programme was expressed in the claim that anger could ‘most significantly’ be expressed ‘at the ballot box’ (Irish Times, 21 February).

The ICTU bureaucracy called the strike ballot, like the February day of action, not in preparation for a general strike but in place of one. The government offer of talks gave them an excuse to back out of something they had never wanted in the first place. Yet a general strike – concerted action to shut down the entire economy – is exactly what is necessary to defeat the attacks and shift the balance of forces in favour of the working class. The bureaucrats may view this as irresponsible during a time of ‘national emergency’, but it is precisely the economic crisis that necessitates immediate decisive action.

While virtually every left group and many militant workers were calling for a national one-day strike at the February demonstration, there are some differences that need to be addressed. For example, the Socialist Party’s ‘one-day strike by all public sector unions’ was actually less radical than the ICTU bureaucrats’ eventual call for strike ballots for all public and private sector unions that have not received the pay increment due under the ‘Towards 2016’ agreement. Workers Power went a step further with its call for ‘an indefinite all out public sector strike’ (, 20 February). If the attacks are not limited to the public sector, then why should defensive action be? Workers Power argues that the bureaucrats ‘must be forced to stop bleating about social solidarity pacts with the government and put the trade union movement on a war footing!’ Bureaucrats may be pressured to undertake this or that action, but they will always function as capitalist agents within the workers’ movement. They can never be ‘forced’ into becoming catalysts for class warfare.

That is why it is necessary for militants to organise groupings within the unions based on class-struggle politics in opposition to the bureaucrats – not only to overcome their resistance to a general strike, but also to lay the basis for a more general working-class offensive against the irrationality of profit-based production.

For a general strike to succeed, it must use serious methods. One key lesson that must be re-learned is that ‘picket lines mean don’t cross!’. The ICTU bureaucracy explicitly condones crossing picket lines: ‘Where a union picket is placed other unions with members in the employment affected should advise their members to report for work as normal and to carry out their normal work’ (‘A Guide to the Picketing Policy of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’). During the one-day strike by the Civil Public and Services Union on 26 February the CPSU pickets made no serious attempts to prevent anyone going into work. Such displays of weakness embolden employers and undermine the effectiveness of the strike tactic.

A successful general strike would require the election of strike committees in every workplace, whether or not it is unionised. Such committees would need co-ordination to be effective — something that could be done through meetings of delegated representatives at the local, regional and national levels. While any general strike implicitly poses the question of who rules society, it is clear that what is currently posed is a national stoppage as a defensive response to the attacks of the bosses and their government. A successful strike to beat back the capitalist offensive would change the balance of social forces, give the workers’ movement valuable experience and open up political possibilities not seen in Ireland for a very long time.

Fighting for what we need

The ‘re-capitalisation’ of the Bank of Ireland and the Allied Irish Bank has led to what the government is calling an ‘outflow of funds’, as the rich transfer these public subsidies to tax havens around the world. We need to expropriate these and all the other parasites – without compensation.

Workers who have had their hours reduced due to cuts in production should demand their previous pay while working the new hours. Why should we suffer for bosses’ mismanagement and the dysfunction of their economic system? The answer to unemployment is to divide the hours among those able to work – with no loss in weekly pay.

Worksite occupations are an obvious response to economic disintegration. At the end of January, workers at Waterford Glass, facing an immediate plant closure, occupied the premises for seven weeks. This provides an inspiring example of the sort of action that, if carried out on a wide scale and broadly supported, could help turn things around.

The Waterford workers faced a squad of mercenaries hired by the boss. Such private ‘security’ forces, along with the Gardai, are the first resort of capitalists seeking to restore ‘order’ – in other words, market-generated anarchy. In response to this, workers need to organise effective self-defence bodies that are capable of resisting the violent attacks of fascists or thugs hired by employers.

The workers’ movement also needs to step forward to lead the fight against evictions and repossessions, through seizing empty houses all over the country to house the homeless, as a first step to social housing available to all.

Another vital question is that of women’s rights. The pressure on jobs is likely to translate into reactionary attempts to push women out of the workforce with a claim that their proper place is in the home looking after the family. Women need financial independence in order to be able to make real choices in their lives. Class-conscious workers support the right of women to access all jobs and to earn equal pay. The material foundations for women’s liberation will begin to appear with fully-paid maternity (and paternity) leave, free quality childcare at any time of day or night, free healthcare (including contraception and abortion) and free public laundries and restaurants.

Traditionally the bosses have used race, nation and religion, as well as gender, to divide their victims. The answer of the workers’ movement must be to uphold the equality of Irish-born and immigrant workers on the basis of full citizenship rights for all, including jobs and benefits. No one is ‘illegal’!

The capitalists, their politicians and their labour lieutenants will say this is all utopian and unrealistic. We say it is not a question of what is possible under capitalism but what is possible were society ruled by the men and women who do the labour. Markets and profit-based production are not eternal social phenomena. They have not always existed and, as is now evident, they have outlived their usefulness.

The working class needs a new political leadership – a party organically linked to all sectors of the working class and all oppressed communities. Not an organisation focused on fielding candidates in elections, but a democratically-controlled Leninist combat party committed to the promotion of working-class interests through the overthrow of capitalist tyranny.

For an Irish Workers’ Republic within a Socialist Federation of Europe!

Posted: 03 April 2009