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Serving up savage cuts

Union leaders’ recipe for defeat

THE IRISH Fianna Fáil/Green coalition government’s finance minister, Brian Lenihan, has spelt out plans for a further €3 billion in cuts in the next budget. Five hundred million euros of these cuts are to come from public-sector ‘reform’. If the unions do not go along with this, Lenihan said he will impose further pay cuts. The response from the leaders of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was a threat to escalate public-sector industrial action, moving things up a notch or two from the current ineffectual work-to-rule to the possibility of selective strike action to ‘entice’ the government back to the table for talks.

Union general secretaries have been lining up to present themselves to the media as reasonable and completely open to assisting the government in making necessary cuts in public spending for the ‘greater good’ of the economy. At a rally of 700 public-sector workers in Galway, Jack O’Connor, president of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), did little to increase pressure on the government. He spoke of the need for a programme of industrial action, "carefully and incrementally escalating and ramping it up in such a way as to minimise the implications for ordinary citizens of the country – to the degree that we can – and maximising the prospect of a negotiated outcome". Not exactly a call to arms!

The other union leaders who spoke were no better. Shay Cody, the general secretary-in-waiting of the public services union, IMPACT, told the meeting that he thought the ‘public service transformation deal’ (read: sell-out) put forward by the unions last November "could be back on the table" as the basis for a new agreement. This is the bottom line for the ICTU leaders. They are not out to defeat the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition by forcing a reversal of budget pay cuts and pension levies. They are trying to get back in favour with the government, to work as ‘partners’ in implementing the so-called ‘public-sector reform’.

Rather than going after the wealth of the rich and the profits of big business, the Irish union leaders are prepared to accept the government’s strategy of making workers pay. The ICTU leadership believes that, by agreeing to major cutbacks in the public sector, the government will ‘reward’ them by doing a deal on pensions and re-establishing previous pay levels over a number of years. This, in turn, would be dependant on renewed economic growth and further agreed savings (cuts) in public spending. This is pie in the sky. The government will never willingly reverse the pay cuts or the pension levy, because it views them as the first step in a process of driving down pay and pensions in the public sector. The government wants to totally redefine the public sector.

Pensions will be based on average pay over a working life. Instead of a defined benefit pension, workers will be thrown to the mercy of the stock exchange casino and risk the same fate as the Waterford Crystal workers, who were left with nothing after decades of service. The government will outsource work to the private sector and implement a programme of privatisation by stealth that will cost thousands of public-sector jobs. The government’s strategy to force down wages in order to improve competitiveness, and as a way to lower the costs of exports, is based precisely on lowering the wages of public-sector workers, and the cost of public-service provision by sacrificing tens of thousands of jobs.

Members of the Civil Public and Services Union recently voted 83% in favour of strike action. The possibility of rolling strike action in different regions and areas of the public sector is being considered by the ICTU. When this will happen is unclear, as both David Begg, ICTU general secretary, and O’Connor have spoken of delaying the escalation of industrial action for up to six weeks to allow the government time to begin talks on a deal.

This is a crucial time for public-sector workers, and the Irish working class in general. The future of public services, such as health and education, are under threat and the union leaders are offering themselves up as willing accomplices in their potential destruction. The government can be stopped. But this requires militant mass action. Public-sector workers in Greece have been joined by private-sector workers in a battle to stop the Greek government and the EU implementing similar attacks to those of the Irish government.

Public-sector workers in Ireland should demand that the campaign of industrial action be escalated immediately. As a first step, the date should be named for a 24-hour public-sector strike, to be quickly followed by a 48-hour strike, as part of a concerted and determined campaign to reverse the pay cuts and defeat the government’s assault on the public sector. Victory is possible but only if militant action is taken. The union leaders’ strategy is a recipe for defeat.

Stephen Boyd, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)


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