Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 48

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 48, June 2000

Irelands' rising militancy

A rise in Irish workers' militancy forced the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government to effectively redraft its December budget. This was the first major indication of the discontent which had been simmering below the surface. DERMOT CONNOLLY, of the Socialist Party in Ireland, describes why and how the movement reached a point where it could no longer be contained.

    Farmers take on the beef barons
    Workers' leaders feel the pressure
    The 1960s revisited
    Fuel on the fire

A fuller version of this article appeared in the Spring edition of Socialism 2000, the quarterly magazine of the Socialist Party in Ireland. Price £1-50, or available on subscription with the monthly paper, Socialist Voice, for £12, from the Socialist Party, PO Box 3434, Dublin 8, Ireland.

THE BLOCKADE OF over 30 meat-processing plants by angry farmers in January was yet another significant indicator of the increasingly militant mood developing in the land of the 'Celtic Tiger'. This had all the elements of a 'French-style' protest. Thousands of farmers on tractors and other farm vehicles manned the protests 24-hours a day, seven days a week. They physically stopped anyone or anything entering or leaving the factories. This was the most militant action by farmers since the 1960s.

It took place against a background of a growing revolt by working people in general. Seething anger greeted the plans by Bray and Drogheda Councils to privatise and charge for local refuse collection. Council workers in Bray went on strike, and 700 people turned up to protest against the council. The protest meeting in Drogheda was attended by 1,200 people - 400 were unable to get in.


January also saw a victorious strike by Servisair workers at Dublin and Cork airports, while electricians on the huge construction site for the new Rank Xerox plant in Dundalk staged a one-day strike over pay and conditions. Even more significant was the decision by the secondary school teachers' union, ASTI, to leave the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) over the ICTU's plans to include performance-related pay in a new social partnership agreement with the government.

A series of rolling strikes by Dublin Bus workers resulted in the total shut down through official and unofficial strike action of the whole public transport system on 29 March. Dublin Bus drivers were joined in sympathetic strike action by their colleagues in Bus Eireann and the rail network was closed down by the unofficial strike action of the permanent way workers (rail inspectors). This dispute resulted from the low basic pay rates which force drivers to work overtime and days off in order to take home a 'decent' wage packet. Immediately right-wing parties and business representatives called for the CIE (state-owned public transport system) to be privatised and broken up. The IBEC (business federation) called for the army to be sent in, while the Dublin Chamber of Commerce called for CIE's monopoly to be suspended to allow private operators to act as strike breakers. That day the Industrial Relations Act, which prohibits secondary strike action, and a court injunction against the train workers' pickets, were defied and rendered meaningless.


The possibility existed for an all-out public transport strike. The ICTU then intervened and assisted in brokering an 'interim agreement' which resulted in a temporary suspension of the strike. The ICTU's intervention in this dispute was solely for the purpose of defending the new social partnership agreement, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF), not to assist the bus drivers in winning their claim. An interim pay rise of 8.5% was accepted, with 54% voting for and 46% against.

However the dispute is not over and the underlying issues remain, centring around the bus drivers' demand for a 20% increase in basic pay with no strings attached. The angry mood of the drivers was reflected in the size of the vote against the offer. Dublin Bus, however, only receives a 3% subsidy from the government, making it the least subsidised public transport service in the advanced capitalist world. To meet the drivers' demands the company needs increased funding from the government. The government's main priority, however, has been to avoid being seen to be giving into the drivers, thereby risking sparking-off a whole series of industrial disputes with other public-sector employees. It is difficult to predict what final package will emerge, but there is a real possibility that Dublin Bus drivers could be back on strike again very soon.

top     Farmers take on the beef barons

THE THREAD RUNNING through these developments is the attitude of ordinary people that the 'Celtic Tiger' has meant a boom for the rich. Workers are demanding a share. This was the overwhelming reaction to the budget which handed out £1 billion in tax cuts. It was seen as more of the same, tilted in favour of the better-off. The pressure was so great that SIPTU (Ireland's biggest trade union) temporarily withdrew from the PPF talks. Since then, the problem of low pay has been 'discovered' by everyone, starting with the right wing at the top of the unions and extending across all the political parties.


When Socialist Party councillor, Clare Daly, moved a motion on Fingal Council in Dublin, calling for a £5 an hour minimum wage, tax free, as a first step towards the EU low-pay threshold of Ir£8, she was enthusiastically seconded by Fine Gael (the second-largest capitalist party) and supported by all the councillors. This, of course, does not mean that these parties would vote for such a measure in the Dáil (Irish parliament), where it would mean more than empty words.

Against this background, the farmers' protest received widespread support. An opinion poll in the Sunday Independent showed that 74% of people in rural areas and 71% in the cities supported the farmers. This was in no small measure due to the fact that they were taking on the hated and corrupt beef barons. But workers, and particularly trade union activists, were impressed by the farmers' militant no-nonsense tactics, including the role of the leadership of their organisation, the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA). When the courts declared the blockade illegal, farmers' leader Tom Parlon said that solving an injustice was as important as any law. The farmers and their leaders made it clear they were prepared to be jailed. As one farmer put it, for everyone jailed a thousand will take their place. Recognising this, and not wanting to make martyrs of the leaders, the courts resorted to huge fines. They first set a fine of £100,000 for every day that the blockade continued to defy their injunction. The farmers, however, continued their protests, saying a levy of £1 a day on their membership would cover the fines. The court then increased the fine to £500,000 a day. This would have broken the IFA within a week.


The IFA leadership then resigned en masse, leaving a few token officials to go to court and purge their contempt on behalf of the organisation. The blockade continued and Parlon, who had resigned, continued to negotiate on behalf of the IFA with the beef barons. The struggle ended with the farmers winning their main demands: withdrawal of the increased cattle inspection charge passed on to them by the meat plants and winning the 90 pence a pound for cattle - their key demand. The government has promised to set up a taskforce to investigate allegations of a pricing cartel operated by the barons.

There are many positive lessons that working-class militants can draw from this struggle, but note has also to be taken of the extremely dangerous precedent set by the courts. Unless resisted by mass action, the courts have taken it on themselves to crush any organisation which steps outside the judges' interpretation of the law. In a society where laws are designed to protect the rich and powerful - not the poor and vulnerable - and where judges are appointed by the bosses' parties, any struggle which seriously challenges the power of profit and privilege will almost inevitably find itself outside the law. The campaign to defeat water charges would have been impossible if people had not been prepared to take on unjust laws and defy the courts.

It is an outrage that the ICTU did not say one word in support of the farmers or denounce the courts for their actions. Not one of these union leaders would have defied the courts in the way the IFA did. That is not to say that workers' organisations - and their assets built up over a century of struggle - should be carelessly jeopardised. But by sitting on the fence and letting the courts set this precedent, the union leaders have allowed a serious threat to workers' organisations and the right to struggle for ordinary people's rights to take place.


top     Workers' leaders feel the pressure

THE ICTU WERE not just sitting on the fence. They were actually in talks with the government and IBEC, which represents the beef barons. They should have at least withdrawn from the talks, as SIPTU had done on the budget. They should have mounted a major campaign of protest, explaining the threat posed to the unions by the court action and threatening the government with a general strike if the fines were not withdrawn. This would have created a real 'partnership' - between working people and small farmers - against big business and their lackeys in the courts and Dáil.

Against this background of a rising tide of struggle the PPF talks took place. The union leaders went into these talks under enormous pressure from the rank and file. That pressure manifested itself in the abrupt walk-out of the talks over the budget by the SIPTU leadership. This was despite the fact that they had initially welcomed the budget.

The pressures on ICTU general secretary, Peter Cassels, were such that he threatened to resign over SIPTU's walkout. When they eventually struck a deal, Cassels did not put it to the ICTU executive committee for recommendation because he knew he would not get a majority. However, while ICTU made no recommendation, the leaderships of the dominant unions in it - SIPTU, the public services union, IMPACT, and the biggest of the teachers unions, INTO - all pushed hard for a 'Yes' vote, portraying the deal as a major breakthrough on take-home pay, especially for the lower paid.


In fact, the increases are significantly higher than those of the last agreement, known as P2000. They represent an attempt to buy-off the movement. However, it may all prove to be too little, too late.

One of the factors enabling earlier agreements to hold down wages in the 1990s was a prevalent mood that workers might not be able to do any better under free collective bargaining. This idea was reinforced by the leadership. That psychological barrier to struggle has now been broken. The current boom has begun to restore workers' confidence. There has been an almost one-third increase in the labour force in the last five years and high demand for scarce labour right across the economy. The workers' movement began with a series of mainly unofficial strikes over the last three years, the result of which has been that construction industry wages have risen by 20%, considerably higher for skilled workers such as bricklayers.

Public-sector workers, like nurses, also won higher increases through strike action. Now low-paid clerical workers at Roches Stores in Dublin have just won a 20-25% increase through strike action. The ATGWU have just negotiated a 16% increase over two years at Hynes in Dundalk. All these examples are demonstrating to workers that the bosses are prepared to give more if it is put up to them.

An ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) report on wages confirms the favourable position for workers now due to the boom. The report shows that wages in general rose by 6% last year: that is, by more than is offered under the new deal. Low-paid workers won even higher increases because of serious labour shortages in the service sector. Ten thousand contract cleaners in Dublin have won £5 per hour, legally enforceable under the old Joint Labour Committee system which set minimum wages for a small number of traditionally low-paid workers. They did this by threatening strike action. Their victory can be contrasted to the leaders of the ICTU who failed to make the IBEC budge an inch on the proposed new minimum wage of £4.40 an hour.


top     The 1960s revisited

ALL THE INGREDIENTS are present for an offensive movement by workers on the question of pay. There is increased activity at the rank-and-file level of the unions, with shop stewards and activists - many of them newly-elected - able to base themselves on a more militant mood and an increased confidence to challenge the union bureaucrats. It is possible that a movement similar to those of the 1960s and late 1970s could take place. These also unfolded during the later stages of economic booms. In the 1960s there was an extensive development of the working class due to the first real industrialisation of Southern Ireland.

A strike wave began in the mid-1960s and reached its high point in the 1969 maintenance workers' strike, which became a partial general strike as other workers refused to cross picket lines. In that year, one million days were lost in strikes, putting Ireland at the top of the international strike league.

In the boom of the late 1970s there was a huge increase in unionisation, especially among white-collar workers. This gave a new confidence and sparked-off a massive wave of unofficial strikes, even though partnership deals, the National Wage Agreements, were in place. Workers took the increases on offer under the national pay deals, said 'thank you very much', and then put forward their 'real' wage demands. This movement culminated in the general strike movement on the issue of PAYE tax reform. There were nine one-day or half-day general strikes over a two-year period. Such massive strike waves at the later stages of boom periods is part of the post-war tradition of workers in Southern Ireland. And Dublin bus and construction workers have a strong tradition of being at the leading edge of such struggles, for example, leading the movement for the 40-hour week in the 1960s.


PPF was passed but the perspective is not for three years of industrial peace, but rather for more workers to follow the lead of the nurses and the bus drivers and fight for their slice of the 'Celtic Tiger' boom. In the unions whose leaderships opposed PPF there were massive votes against. The ATGWU rejected the deal by 94%, BATU (building workers) and MANDATE (shop workers) by over 80%. INTO (primary school teachers) voted in favour but, due to a well-organised rank-and-file campaign, only by 0.5%! This was despite the fact that INTO's leader, Joe O'Toole (also the ICTU's vice-president), was the most vocal advocate of the agreement. TUI (vocational teachers) also had a well-organised rank-and-file campaign and rejected the deal but, across the unions as a whole, there was not an effective anti-agreement campaign.

A major determining factor pushing workers to fight for wage increases above those contained within PPF will be the current rate of inflation. Figures vary from rates of 4-4.6% and are rising every month. If the current trend continues it will mean that PPF will result in a virtual pay freeze during the height of the biggest and longest boom in the history of the state.

The continuing weakness of the euro will also be a contributing factor. With the euro falling against the US dollar, European Central Bank (ECB) interest rate increases will add to inflation and hurt those workers who are currently forced to take out huge mortgages. The average price of a house in Dublin is now 8.2 times the average industrial wage compared to a figure of 4.3 in 1994. Ever-increasing house prices (due to speculators), combined with a lack of government spending on social housing, has resulted in a housing crisis with over 100,000 people on waiting lists.


The approximate 25% difference in value between sterling and the punt is also pushing up the price of imports and adding fuel to the inflation rates, as is the current price of oil. Ireland's membership of the euro now means that the government is virtually powerless to counteract inflation as interests rates are controlled by the ECB.

top     Fuel on the fire

AS MORE AND more workers realise that the booming economy and its economic benefits are continuing to pass them by, then PPF will not be a barrier to action for higher pay increases. Most workers have accepted PPF in the spirit of the 1970s: we'll take this for now and come back for more. A real explosion could be on the cards as angry workers are determined to get their share before the boom runs out.

The prospect of an explosive movement by workers is also added to by the continuing revelations of political corruption. Recently, a political lobbyist told the Flood Tribunal into planning scandals, that he personally gave 15 politicians over £100,000 in bribes from a building contractor to gain planning permission for a Dublin shopping complex. This has prompted the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Bertie Ahern, to go on television denying that he ever received a bribe. Further revelations are expected, and if a current cabinet minister is named then the coalition government's junior partner, the Progressive Democrats (PD), could be forced to pull out, causing a general election. (The present government is a coalition of Fianna Fail, the biggest bourgeois party, and the PDs, supported by a number of right-wing independent TDs.) Rather than reflecting the political stability of this country, PPF is a futile attempt to maintain industrial and political peace. It is already failing to achieve this goal.


The editors of the bosses' magazine, Business and Finance, might find themselves eating their own words. Under the February edition front cover headline, 'Who Needs Unions?', they gloated that only 100,000 of the 500,000 people who joined the workforce in the last five years have joined unions. Leaving aside the 100% organised public sector, only about 20% of private-sector workers are unionised. In the new Celtic Tiger economy, they argue, dominated by high-tech jobs in giant complexes like those of Intel, IBM and Rank Xerox, young workers in particular cannot be bothered with 'dinosaurs' such as trade unions.

It is true that this sector is largely non-unionised. The main reason for this is the active anti-union policies of companies like Intel. Most workers would join unions if they were not afraid of being sacked or victimised for doing so. The key point, however, is that numerically there are more workers in unions than ever before and huge fresh reserves have been added to the working class. These are mainly women and young workers who will play a key role in transforming the trade union movement as they go through the experience of struggle, including fighting for the right to organise. The formation of giant, high-tech complexes employing over 5,000 workers is a new feature of concentration in the Irish economy which will, in the longer term, add considerably to the organisation, combativeness and class consciousness of the workers' movement.

Home | Issue 48 | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page