The Irish police estimate that 120,000 people took part in a demonstration in Dublin, last Saturday that was called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). The demonstration was called in opposition to the policies the Irish government is implementing in response to the unprecedented economic crisis ravaging the country.
The turnout was reminiscent of the mass mobilisation against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003. However, unlike then, this was not a mobilisation of broad sections of society; this was a workers demonstration, overwhelmingly dominated by public sector workers opposing the governments move to slash their wages by the imposition of a Pension Levy.
Such a turnout, from a section of the working class, shows the anger that exists but also gives a glimpse of the potential power that a united movement of all workers could achieve.
There was a huge cross section of public sector workers on the protest. Fire-fighters marching in their uniform. Teachers, nurses, civil servants, local authority workers were all in attendance. There was not much noise and chanting – a tradition that will be relearned – but there was a lot of colour, with many union-made placards and home-made ones as well.
The demonstration reached its destination before it had fully left the assembly point and marchers were still arriving when the speeches at the end were finished.
Significantly representatives of rank and file soldiers participated in the demonstration, something that clearly agitated the top brass in the army. The head of the armed forces felt compelled to come out and say that soldiers would do what they were ordered to do. This was a response to a previous statement from the soldiers organisation, PDFORRA, stating that soldiers would not do the work of public sector workers who took strike action against the Pension Levy.
Two organisations representing two different sections of the Garda (the police force) also took part. This included an organisation representing rank and file policemen and policewomen, but also one representing Garda sergeants and inspectors.
The Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) took part in the demonstration, selling over 350 copies of our paper The Socialist. We also raised a lot of money and support at stalls and during other public activities at a number of locations. With Joe Higgins the well known Socialist Party member and former TD (member of Irish parliament) from 1997-2007 on a megaphone, before and after the demonstration, large crowds gathered around our stalls and we held a successful mix of a street party stall and a public meeting.
The Socialist Party is holding a public rally this coming Thursday which is the day that members of the CPSU (public sector union) will take strike action. The rally will be convened and chaired by Joe Higgins and speakers will include Denis Keane from the Executive of the CPSU (personal capacity), Donie Fell from Waterford Crystal, Ruth Coppinger, who is a Teacher and Socialist Party councillor and John McCamley, a SIPTU shop steward in Dublin Bus, who are also planning action.
A month ago, talks between the union leaders, the government and the bosses, geared towards finding a common approach to deal with the economic crisis, fell apart at the eleventh hour. That happened because the government put forward a proposal to impose a pension levy, which at one stroke would slash the wage of an average public sector worker by 5 6%. On top of the attack on wages, the government announced plans to cut 2 billion off expenditure this year, as part of a plan to slash 14 billion in spending over the next five years.
The government and the media are attempting to use the crisis in the private sector, where employment is collapsing, to justify its attack on the public sector. They argue that the whole of society, but in particular the privileged and protected public sector, need to share the pain now, so that the future can be brighter for all.
The anger of public sector workers at being, in reality, blamed for the crisis and attacked, has exploded, and forced the union leaders to organise last Saturdays march.
Economy in free fall
The economy is in free fall. Goodbody Stock Brokers are predicting that the economy will contract by a further 6% this year, after a 3% contraction last year. Currently there are 327,000 signing on for unemployment benefits and Goodbody expect that figure to rise by 150,000 this year and a further 80,000 in 2010. That would mean unemployment of over 500,000 or 25% of the workforce, reminiscent of the highest unemployment levels in the US during the Great Depression.
Public or private sector workers do not accept the arguments of the government or the media. A recent poll indicated that 47% of people were opposed to and 41% were in favour of the imposition of the pension levy on public sector workers.
When broken down, those figures indicate that a large majority of working class people are opposed to this measure. The widespread understanding that profiteering by the banks and property developers, fully encouraged by the government, has played a key role in the collapse in the economy makes it much more difficult for this government to win support for its propaganda or for its policies.
Last Saturday, the Socialist Party argued that the unions must now organise a one-day strike of all public sector workers against the levy and the cuts. At the same time, the unions must fight on behalf of private sector workers. That means resisting job losses and pay cuts. But currently the unions are doing nothing to help private sector workers fight to defend jobs and pay. They should be organising for united action of all workers to defeat this weak government.
The weakness of the position of the union is shown in the case of the Waterford Glass occupation. Notwithstanding the action of the workers, it seems likely now that the union, UNITE, will go along with the buy-out of the firm by the US private equity company, KPS. If accepted, this would result in massive jobs losses, attacks in pay and conditions and poor redundancy and pension payments. But there is a clear case for the nationalisation of Waterford Crystal and the union should be stepping up its action and fighting for such a solution.
While the union leaders have been forced to move against the government, they do not want to defeat the government. Incredibly, key figures in the unions are arguing that to defeat the government would be counter-productive, as the alternative government, dominated by Fine Gael but also including a boosted Labour Party, would be more right wing.
These union leaders have, in effect, argued that it was the action of workers in the Winter of Discontent, in Britain in the late 1970s, that caused the coming to power of Thatcherism and they are using that argument as a justification for trying to control and limit the struggle against the Fianna Fail-led government. However, this position, in the context of severe crisis and draconian attacks on the working class, is untenable.
Pressure from below is forcing various public sector unions to ballot for and to organise industrial action. Lower paid civil servants will strike action this Thursday, 26 February. Dublin Bus workers will strike this coming Saturday against cuts in the number of drivers and services, with even a section of bus workers due to take indefinite action from 1 March.
Role of union leaders
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) leaders hoped that last Saturdays mass mobilisation would force the government back to the negotiating table over the pensions levy and other issues. They are prepared to sign up to a deal if they could get some concessions, along with some measures to hit or curb the bankers and speculators.
The union leaders accept that workers should make sacrifices (arguing for an all-class, social solidarity pact) and it seems they are prepared to come up with suggestions for how the same value of savings could be found for the government but by other means. If the demonstration is not enough to open up new talks with the government, the ICTU leaders are likely to pursue more ballots for industrial action, to further try and strengthen their hand and bargaining position.
Strikes, particularly a series of one-day strikes, are likely. It is possible that the government may make some concessions, which could bring the union leaders on board, while fundamentally continuing the attacks on pay and conditions. Any such agreement is likely to be short-term because of the collapse in the economy – there will be no end of new attacks on the working class.
For the same reasons, if they were not able to come to an agreement a month ago, what is to say the union leaders and government will be able to come to one over the next month? The social partnership between the government, bosses and the trade union leaders, forged over the last twenty years, could be quickly pulled apart.
Notwithstanding the widespread anger and disgust, there is also a lot of fear about the economic situation, what the future holds and, as a result, there is also hesitation at this stage amongst many workers about taking more significant or all out industrial action.
It is possible that the decline in the economy could knock workers back and, at some point, cut across this class upsurge. Alternatively, the game of brinkmanship that the union leaders are playing could backfire and the movement against the government could escalate beyond their control.
Whatever happens in the next weeks and months ahead, it is clear that Ireland will never be the same again. The attacks of the bosses and the government, the scandals involving billions in the banks, and the redevelopment of mass mobilisations and struggle, are having a profound effect on society. Events are pushing consciousness decisively to the left and opening up major prospects for the building of a fighting socialist movement.