Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Last November 24 public service workers in Ireland surprised the country by engaging in an unprecedented 24 hour general strike. Up to a quarter of a million workers participated in the protest against planned job and service cuts. What does this mean for the future of Ireland and for workers in other countries faced with similar government policies. First, from The Guardian, is a general report of what happened.
Irish public servants stage national strike:
More than a quarter of a million public servants, including police officers, staged a general strike in Ireland today to protest against forthcoming cuts in jobs and services.

For the first time, off-duty members of the Garda Siochána joined picket lines during the national one-day stoppage ahead of the 9 December budget when Brian Cowen's embattled government is expected to impose pay cuts in the public sector. The Fianna Fáil/Green party coalition has said the savings are vital to help plug the €22bn (£19.9bn) black hole in public finances.

Trade unions are opposed to the cuts, claiming that the economic crisis was not caused by public sector workers but, in part, by Irish banks lending billions to property speculators just before the housing boom went bust.

On a picket outside Store Street Garda station in central Dublin today , civilian staff member Jane Heuston said she was angry at the way public sector workers were being singled out in government cost cutting.

"We are sitting ducks," she said, holding up a placard for the CPSU public service union. "Public service workers didn't cause this crisis that was the fault of the greedy bankers and developers," she said.

Her colleague Teresa Dodrill, who works as a cleaner at the station, said they had received tremendous support from even the on-duty gardaí at Store Street.

As she held up a placard for the Impact union, two gardaí walked past and wished the strikers good luck.

PJ Stone, the general secretary of the 11,000-strong Garda Representative Association (GRA), said that while it was illegal for gardai to strike, there were 2,400 civilian, part-time "unsworn officers" who had the right to take industrial action and would do so today.

"Those people are entitled to take part in this strike and our advice to our members is that if they are off-duty to come along and stand in solidarity with them because their difficulties are our difficulties."

Speaking at the GRA headquarters, Stone accepted it was unusual for garda officers to join picket lines, rather than police them.

"It is a first, because for the first time in our history there are people working in garda stations who are entitled to strike.

"We need to show other workers that we stand with them and share their anger about the way this government is treating the public services."

He said public service workers, including garda officers, had already put back more than €2bn into the state's coffers in terms of government-imposed levies on their pay.

"We have already plugged a large gap and it is my view that the minister for finance has decided because we contributed in the levy that it will be easy in the budget to take more pay off public servants."

Stone said the pay cuts for gardaí, firefighters and nurses, alongside other public service workers, could amount to 5% to 10% of their salaries.

"If that were to happen, and with some of my people only on junior rank pay, it will create a police force in a complete state of anxiety at a time of rising crime in Ireland. You can't have people coming to work, putting their lives on the line at times, who are distracted worrying about their own financial position."
Here, from the Irish Workers' Solidarity Movement, is an anarchist view of the events.
Consequences of the 24th November public sector strike:
On the 24th of November something extraordinary happened. Some 250,000 workers acted together in a day-long strike against the public sector wage cuts planned by the government. The vast majority of these workers had never gone on strike before, yet across almost all workplaces the strike involved 90% or more of those working.
This strike took place in the face of hysterical attacks on public sector workers, which included one business commentator suggesting that those going to strike were guilty of High Treason. Conviction for High Treason when Ireland was under the British empire used to involve the person being hung until they had passed out, then being revived so a hole could be cut in their belly and their entrails dragged out before an axeman would cut off their limbs one by one and then, finally, chop off their head. The Class War is clearly escalating from the point of view of the capitalist class!
There is much that can be criticised about the organisation of the strike; after twenty years of social partnership, almost no one in the unions knew how to organise a strike, from the national leadership to the rank and file. This often left those at the base feeling abandoned or trapped in nonsensical decisions. But that is not the interesting story of the day; the interesting story is that despite all the problems, in almost all cases, workers organised themselves at the branch and section level to build effectively for the strike and day-long picket.
The main outcome of the day was that 250,000 workers quite suddenly found themselves thrust into a common identification of workers standing in opposition to local management and the state. All this under a crazed ideological offensive from the capitalist class. Many, perhaps most, had been very apprehensive about going on strike. The actual experience of strike swept away many of those apprehensions and did more in one week to build a confidence and organisation at the base of the unions then had been done in the previous decade.
At the time of writing, between that strike and the potential second one on the 3rd December, it is not clear how the new found militancy will develop. There may be some crappy deal negotiated by ICTU which will defuse the situation until the next time when the government returns for another cut. But the employers are fighting a very aggressive class war, they may not be willing to allow any compromise. In this case, we may already be in the midst of an escalating wave of strikes.
Either way, we have seen a massive demonstration of the potential power of workers when we stand together as workers. That power has been almost invisible in Ireland for two decades but it clearly never went away. That demonstration is what we can build on to fight the crisis and fight for a new world in the months and years ahead.
---For WSM reports from the picket lines of 24th November see http://www.wsm.ie/story/6241
Ah, but then, as if both sides in the dispute were shocked by what had happened the unions and the government began to bargain more seriously. The next general strike in the public sector, scheduled for tomorrow, Dec. 3, was called off as the following article from yesterday's Irish Times details.
Public sector strike planned for Thursday is suspended:
The day of industrial action planned by public servants for this Thursday has been suspended following a breakthrough in talks at Government Buildings this evening.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said meetings have concluded for the evening and will reconvene tomorrow morning.

He welcomed the fact that the industrial action planned for Thursday will not now take place and said he hoped progress can be made in the coming days.

General secretary of the Impact union, Peter McLoone told reporters outside Government Buildings that the strike was being deferred, “in the light of the progress that has been made in the negotiations over the last number of days”.

He said unions had been told earlier in the day that the Government now felt it possible to “design an alternative” to the pay cuts the Minister for Finance had been advocating. The savings would be based on an extra 12 days unpaid leave in 2010.

He said: “The purpose of putting forward the proposition on the unpaid days was that we would put a considerable part of the foundation that needs to be in place to create the alternative savings.”

“That’s now recognised, so the reason that we are going back into negotiations tomorrow, possibly into Thursday, is to complete the negotiations on the 2010 problem, so part of what we will be doing is dealing with the figures.”

Asked to comment on reports that the unpaid leave proposal could save the Exchequer €800m, he replied: “There are lots of figures going around about that. What we need to do tomorrow in order that we’re clear and agreed on the contribution is to look at precisely what the figure is.”

“This stuff is still challenging, but given the progress that we have made to date, the feeling on both sides is that, whatever challenges present, we should be able to overcome them,” he added.

Up to 250,000 nurses, teachers and other public workers held a one-day strike last week over Government plans to cut the public sector pay bill by €1.3 billion in the forthcoming Budget.

Earlier today, the HSE began cancelling between 16,000 and 18,000 procedures for Thursday in preparation of any strike action. The HSE said tonight patients who had procedures cancelled would be contacted by their local hospital tomorrow to have their appointments restored where possible.

Tonight members of the 24/7 Frontline Services Alliance welcomed the progress made in talks saying it “represents an important step forward in the search for a fair and equitable way of addressing the problems created by the current economic crisis for the delivery of public services”.
So, for now, both sides have pulled back from the dispute, each mutually afraid of the consequences should the matter be pushed to a further test of strength. Even though the right wing press in Ireland has gone ballistic on Brian Cowan, the leader of the government,accusing him of "cowardice" at their less strident, he has made just the right amount of concessions to at least delay the matter, and possibly loop the unions back into a 'social partnership' whereby they will negotiate away the rights of their members-just a "little bit" so as to avoid rank and file rebellion. Whether he should have done the "politic" thing in the first place and whittled away at the budget deficit a little at a time (a death by a thousand cuts), avoiding provoking public sector workers by a massive attack is seemingly beyond the ken of the right wing who are spoiling for a fight. From the point of view of the ruling class Cowan could be faulted more from lack of caution than an excess of it. Ah well, his critics on the right will calm down eventually anyways because, in the end, they have no choice other than to support him and his party.
The main "concession" on the part of the unions and the government is to somehow avoid pay cuts by instituting a regime of unpaid days off. How many these would be and over what period of time is still a matter of talks. This sort of thing, of course, is essentially a plan for a 'speed-up' for those public employees who remain at work while others are off (or alternatively everyone speeds up if offices are closed entirely for a day here and there). The matter of how much of the deficit this would cover and what else has to be conceded by the unions is, at this point, the subject of "magical accounting". Numbers that nobody has any confidence float around waiting for a political magician to grab them out of the air. Here's another story from the Irish Times about what is still in dispute.
Union plan 'not a basis for agreement', says Cowen:
Taoiseach Brian Cowen has insisted the Government is still looking to secure savings “of the order of €1.3 billion” in the public sector pay bill as part of its ongoing talks with trade unions.

“That remains our position, and we wish to discuss with the trade unions on that basis,” he told the Dáil today. “Those discussions are not complete” Mr Cowen said, adding that proposals must still be discussed and developed.

“However, I made clear what the Government’s position is…and we reserve our position until we see if we can find an agreement,” he added.

Union sources have suggested that a scheme of unpaid leave of between 10 to 14 days could provide the basis for an agreement, although they accept the savings from this will be somewhat less than the €1.3 billion target set out by the Government.

Mr Cowen also said today the reduction to the public service pay bill must be both substantial and permanent. He said the Government told unions the proposals “did not, in their present form, provide a basis for the Government to confirm that it would not consider other options to effect the necessary savings”.

Later, the president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) Jack O’Connor said that Government officials maintain that the proposed unpaid leave arrangement for public servants would not generate sufficient revenue.

He said efforts were being made today to look at other measures that could be taken to enable the formulation of a proposal that would be consistent with budgetary requirements.

He said that there had been a sustained campaign of opposition to prevent the Congress alternative proposal to avoid pay cuts from being implemented.

Mr O’Connor also warned that the proposed strike action could be reinstated in the event of pay cuts being implemented by the Government.

“The decision of the congress public services committee yesterday was to defer the strike, not suspend it and not cancel it” he said.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said it seemed as if the Government had abdicated its responsibility to sort out the economic mess into which it had led the State.

“It is not possible to get permanent savings by having a further 12 days’ holidays,” he added. “It is not possible to give the same level of service with five per cent less man-hours.”

Union leaders and Government officials resumed talks this morning to work on a modified plan to cut the pay bill that involves a 12-day unpaid leave arrangement for public sector workers.

The Government agreed elements of the plan yesterday in order to secure a deal with the public service unions. This led to the suspension of tomorrow's planned one-day strike by public servants.

The draft deal involves two stages, a 12-day unpaid leave scheme to produce savings next year and an overall transformation programme for the public service from 2011.

Responding to Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore during Leaders' Questions, Mr Cowen insisted that "discussions are continuing" on how to make those savings.

He said that if an "agreed way forward" was to be found, it would have to be before the Budget on December 9th. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan would have to have available to him the figures for the public service pay bill next year on that day.

“In the meantime, efforts are being made to see if there is an agreed way forward and how to do that," Mr Cowen said.

Mr Gilmore said the Government had a "muddled strategy - if indeed it’s a strategy at all”. He said that if there was an agreement with the unions, the Government still didn't know if it would be confirmed in a subsequent ballot. It did not appear to have a position "on what happens if there isn’t an agreement".

“Those savings have to be made because the Government does not have the money to pay the public sector pay bill as it is presently constituted.”
To answer to question posed in the title of this blog, the simplistic answer is "neither side". The advanatge in this "draw" lies with the government as it will be exceedingly difficult for the unions to re-energize any strike movement in the near future, particularily with the Holiday Season drawing close. Further concessions will be made by the unions. On the other hand the very fact that a quarter of a million workers took the unprecedented action of a general strike made the government back down from its initial 'maximal demand'. The unions, however, have no "transition plan" that would allow them to proceed further than single day strikes. Nor should they be expected to have such a plan as it could only be the result of years (decades ?) of igitation amongst ordinary people that bosses, public or private, are not needed, and that people can govern their own lives themselves. Let's hope that such agitation bears fruit sometime in the future.

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