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That was the day, that was the hour, that was… not a National Strike! March 30, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economics, Economy, Irish Politics.
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What an interesting piece of choreography we’ve been treated to this past week. That’s not to suggest that it’s a purely cynical piece of work, but rather that a whole host of players have been attempting to find leverage from relatively (although not equally) weak positions. Although feel free to regard it as… well…a purely cynical piece of work.

First up I’d somewhat dismissed the pieces in the Irish Times early last week about how unions were less than overwhelmingly in favour of the upcoming strike. But the news that Impact failed to achieve the two thirds majority necessary to initiate action is useful as an insight into the dynamics at work at this point in time within the union movement. I don’t want to overstate this, but clearly the media barrage about the public sector would have appeared to have some effect. And there is a clear lack of enthusiasm for too overt action. Anyone who has spoken to other union members on the ground will have noticed that support was patchy. Far from non-existent, but with a sense that the exercise was somewhat futile, particularly given the mood music coming from off-stage.

In part I wonder is that because after the CPSU stoppage a week or so back the level of vitriol poured on them, who many might have thought would have been regarded as getting a more sympathetic hearing due to the self-evident fact they were a section of the public service that is demonstrably less well-paid, was considerable.

Then there is the way in which the banking element of the crisis has receded somewhat into the background as the Budget looms larger in the general public imagination. ICTU was blessed that the Saturday Rally was at a time when anger directed at the banks was at an absolute height providing not merely cover, but also support for the actions. And that support was exemplified not merely by feet on streets but by a broader societal agreement shook the Government.

Although the subsequent foot dragging on the part of ICTU and the rather ambiguous statements from Begg and McLoone, particular in recent days, make it appear as if this is all a great game and the object of it is to reenter partnership as swiftly as possible. And correct me if I was wrong, but my sense was that the strike wasn’t about restarting talks as much as making a point about the levy and other aspects of the government handling of the crisis.

Reentering partnership would be an easier sell if there was any sense that, above and beyond the rhetoric emanating from the Government, partnership had a real meaning. But since both Government and employers appear to come to the table with their own set of proscriptions one could be excused some lack of confidence.

Of course the Government is also in a weakened position too. The threat, and worse the actuality, of a strike encompassing however imperfectly the public and private sectors (and while it is true there was a degree of attrition in terms of support there would still, had it gone ahead on yesterday, have been private sector union members involved), would be dismal news for them as they attempt to shore up the failing economy.

And for all the bluff and bluster coming from Ibec their position isn’t too hot either. A successful national strike, successful in the sense that it did encompass all sectors, would dent the attempts to split workers across the state.

But how the disposition of forces stands in the wake of the stand down is much less clear cut.

Has the Government blinked, or was it ICTU? The hand-waving we’re now seeing would make any observer confused. Martin Wall, Industrial Correspondent of the IT, last week argued that:

…it can be argued that they (the unions) did not sufficiently capitalise on the momentum of the march and that the strategic decision to go for the day of strikes highlighted the lukewarm attitude of many members towards industrial action in the current climate.

On the other hand, the unions will point out that the campaign on the day of strikes did lead to many private sector employers engaging with them on the national pay deal, and that the campaign succeeded in persuading the Government to go back into social partnership talks.

I’ll be honest, I think that calling it off without more concrete proposals from the Government is problematic. And yet, more positively, I can’t also but help to think that we’ve been given a handy demonstration of how much power the union movement still retains. None of us should have any illusions that there is enormous political potential here. At best a strike would serve as an educative moment, that organised labour retains societal heft whatever the sputterings of the more bilious commentators of the centre and right, and that that societal heft is such that neither Government nor private sector is able to unilaterally impose its will. But that, in this day and age, is no small thing in itself.

Was that lesson learned this last week? Did not holding it yesterday advance the cause or not? We’ll learn more at the Budget. And if not there’ll be plenty of time for recriminations.

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Comments»

1. CMK - March 31, 2009

In essence the consensus view is winning out and what we’ve witnessed over the past few months is how the mainstream media still, despite the advent of blogs etc, retain the ability to turn influence into power. That the most explicit attack on workers in over twenty years provokes almost no serious resistance but rather doubt, indecision and self-questioning is a mark of how much “progress” the right have made in this country. I disagree that organised Labour still possesses societal heft. The public sector/private sector distinction is now deeply embedded in most workers consciousness and that gulf will be worked on assidously by the right wing commentariat and their political allies. I’d wager that among them there’s a palpable sense of “almost there!” and that one or two more big pushes, which the current crisis will undoubtedly provide, will see any form of strike action, worker solidarity, etc completely de-legitimised in the eyes of workers themselves. That would be stunning achievement for the right in this country and I doubt if they’ll let that prize slip from their grasp.

2. Mark P - March 31, 2009

We don’t have to wait and see.

The bureaucrats surrendered before a shot was fired. Holding a march was for them just a way of pressuring the government to go back to the partnership table. Holding strike ballots, after the march was ignored, was just a way of getting back to the partnership table, by funnelling the anger of members safely.

There is no crumb so pathetic that the government can offer that the bureaucrats wouldn’t love to accept it with both hands, a grateful smile and the application of tongues to nether regions. Their problem is that they have to sell whatever humiliation they manage to salvage to their members, so expect some posturing, but never forget who and what the bureaucrats are.

3. Remi Moses - March 31, 2009

So whats the solution? I don’t think it is that the ICTU enjoy being supine: but in their eyes they see themselves doing a job, a job that involves running trade unions, but in most cases not fundementally re-ordering society, or even shaking things up too much. It has been my pleasure to know a few union officials and many of them see their members as a pain in the arse. Second homes, good holdiays and of course being paid management wages are also de reguir.
But I ask again, what do you do?

4. Mark P - March 31, 2009

I’d start – and this is just a start – by cutting the salaries of all trade union officials to the average of the members they represent. They should also all be subject to election and recall. It shouldn’t be a career path for “industrial relations professionals”, many of whom have barely worked in a real job in their lives let alone had any experience of being shop stewards, convenors or holders of other shopfloor posts.

It’s not a question of whether they “enjoy” being supine. They are supine. The top bureaucrats enjoy lifestyles much more akin to the Ministers and the employers than to those of the people they are allegedly representing. Further, they are ideologically committed to partnership (which is another way of saying wage restraint in good times and wage cuts in bad) and worse still the malign effects of two decades of partnership have left most of them terrified of the very idea of industrial action of any sort.

5. Tribe 14 - March 31, 2009

The root of the difficulties facing the Irish labour movement is not the commitment of the leadership (almost entirely) and the membership (largely) to the idea of social partnership. Social partnership, in the context of West European capitalism, is a good idea.
Rather, it is the failure to acknowledge that the employers and government are not committed to that idea, but to a Hibernian parody of it which fails to avert massive attacks on living standards, the social wage, or which wins national commitment to basic international employment standards, most glaringly the right to collective bargaining. To save the idea of social partnership, the unions should destroy ‘really existing’ social partnership.

6. Remi Moses - March 31, 2009

‘I’d start – and this is just a start – by cutting the salaries of all trade union officials to the average of the members they represent. They should also all be subject to election and recall. It shouldn’t be a career path for “industrial relations professionals”, many of whom have barely worked in a real job in their lives let alone had any experience of being shop stewards, convenors or holders of other shopfloor posts.’

When did the rot set in? I would hazard a guess that the majority of tu officials, certainly the ones you see interviewed on TV or radio, are not from manual working class backgrounds. Of note also: Eamon Gilmore is an ex-union official yet betrays no hint of militancy on union matters at all.

7. CMK - March 31, 2009

For what it’s worth, Remi, my parents tell me that Jack O’Connor used to collect our bins….

I’m not sure if it’s true…..

8. Starkadder - March 31, 2009

“Rather, it is the failure to acknowledge that the employers and government are not committed to that idea, but to a Hibernian parody of it which fails to avert massive attacks on living standards, the social wage, or which wins national commitment to basic international employment standards, most glaringly the right to collective bargaining.”

The Irish version of Social Partnership resembles a woman married
to an abusive husband. Sister, it’s time to go Thelma and Louise on
his ass!*

*I mean shooting the creep, not going over a cliff in a car.

9. WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2009

Quick question, anyone notice that the latest posts aren’t going up?

10. WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2009

All grand again…

Tribe 14, I’d tend to agree with you on that one.

11. Garibaldy - March 31, 2009

My Garland one went underneath your archive one bizarrely. Although I assumed it was just your desire to remind me who was top dog :p

12. EWI - March 31, 2009

I have it on good authority that the Dublin branch (and guess who that means) of IMPACT are being directly blamed for the failed ballot.

My own experience leads me to support the view that a solid majority of people regard the present union leadership with deep suspicion as regards their bona fides – that what the past month or so has been is a charade played out for the benefit of the union memberships.

If I were Jack O’Connor, or Peter McLoone I’d watch your overpaid, well-fed asses boys. Because a whole lot of people think it’s time for a change at the top in those who are supposed to be fighting our corner against the boss class and the State.

13. WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2009

Be interesting to see if that actually makes a difference. It should, that’s for sure…

Garibaldy, wordpress got back to me and said it’s about ensuring a post is ‘sticky’ to the home page. You can click that when you post it to the site, it’s one of the options.

Hey, any order you like, I’m not fussy. :)

14. Leveller on the Liffey - April 1, 2009

As well as Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte is also an ex-union official but that doesn’t seem to count for much either.

15. Joe - April 1, 2009

“wordpress got back to me and said it’s about ensuring a post is ’sticky’ to the home page.”
Couldn’t you just pin the post to the homepage rather than sticky it?

16. WorldbyStorm - April 1, 2009

Argghhhh…. I didn’t even see that when I wrote it… ;)

17. Starkadder - April 1, 2009

On the subject of proletariat unrest, any thoughts on the anti-G20
protests in London?

18. alastair - April 1, 2009

I don’t think there’s much of a mystery here. The unions are simply responding to the broad public sentiment in relation to the levy issue. The resentment in relation to the public sector worker’s reaction to the levy isn’t purely a media creation – it’s a real dynamic, and one that the unions need to be cognisent of. There’s many real battles ahead, and expending public good-will on an issue as half-baked as the union’s position on the levy makes little sense – particularly when most people undoubtedly see it as a necessary response to the shortfall in public finances.

19. Crocodile - April 1, 2009

I have feet in a couple of different public sector workplaces, and let me assure Alastair that lack of enthusiasm for the ‘day of action’ had a lot more to do with thinking it was futile in the face of media propaganda and unwillingness to lose a day’s pay than it did with any sense of having got off lightly with the ‘pension levy’.
‘Most people’ who are subjected to this pay cut see it as victimisation of an easy target, pure and simple, and are considerably more militant than their union leaders on the issue. What Alastair calls ‘broad public sentiment’ is simply the illogical rage of the man with the broken arm at the man with the broken finger.

20. alastair - April 2, 2009

I’ll take that assurance under advisement. The real illogical notion is that the burden of a changed economic reality shouldn’t be shared by a public sector – particularly when the state coffers are running dry. Tell the PAYE sector that their considered attitude to the levy is ‘illogical rage’ – and see how far that gets you.

21. Burke and Hare - April 2, 2009

The public sector is part of the PAYE sector

22. crocodile - April 2, 2009

‘Rage’, Alastair, because it’s natural to look for someone to blame when we’re being financially hammered. ‘Illogical’ because resentment felt by private sector workers against their fellow PAYE workers in the public sector is based on media-promulgated myths: that there’s some kind of zero-sum game whereby public sector workers are among the winners of the boom while the private sector are among the losers; thet the benchmarking process and public sector pensions are ‘generous’ and the product of excessive union power; that the public sector is ‘bloated’.
In truth, all PAYE workers are victims here and the people who are really culpable must be delighted to see worker railing against worker. The relative – and very limited – quality of the pension looked forward to by the average public sector worker only looks good because of the recent destruction of private sector defined benefit schemes in the cause of ‘shareholder value’. Expenditure on our public service has increased as a percentage of GDP – but never to above average OECD levels.
I work in the public service and know well enough what ‘illogical rage’ is: I think it’s what I felt for 15 years as the neighbours’ cars got bigger, their holidays got more exotic and they queued up to tell me what a loser I was.

23. alastair - April 2, 2009

A small minority of the PAYE sector.

24. alastair - April 2, 2009

The relative – and very limited – quality of the pension looked forward to by the average public sector worker only looks good because of the recent destruction of private sector defined benefit schemes in the cause of ’shareholder value’.

Rubbish. Defined benefit schemes haven’t been a commercially attainable arrangement for anyone in the private sector for many years now. Nothing to do with ‘shareholder value’ – the majority of employers and employees have no shareholders to consider – the product is simply unaffordable.

Expenditure on our public service has increased as a percentage of GDP – but never to above average OECD levels.

Care to compare like-for-like public sector salaries with those in the UK? Average OECD public sector levels generally include rather substantial military outgoings, which we don’t have, so the figures are bound to look distorted.

I work in the public service and know well enough what ‘illogical rage’ is: I think it’s what I felt for 15 years as the neighbours’ cars got bigger, their holidays got more exotic and they queued up to tell me what a loser I was.

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the ‘illogical’ thing. Of my circle of friends, all the second home owners are public sector workers. I don’t extrapolate that into a general assumption however.

25. Burke and Hare - April 2, 2009

A small minority? Everyone in the public sector is on PAYE. Lots of private sector small businesses, self-employed etc arn’t.

26. alastair - April 2, 2009

2.6 million PAYE accounts active in 2007 (CSO figures), of which 370,000 were public sector workers. That’s a small minority.

27. Burke and Hare - April 2, 2009

It is in its fuck a small minority. 1000 out of 2.6 million is a small fucking minority. I don’t even work in the public sector and I can still see through this shit, why can’t you?

28. alastair - April 2, 2009

14% as compared to 86%. That’s a small minority as far as I’m concerned.

29. CMK - April 2, 2009

14% of active PAYE accounts are public sector? I thought it was grossly overmanned??? Thanks for sourcing that statistic, Alastair and if you’d provide the CSO link that would be the icing on the cake. I’m staggered it’s so low, as it completely undermines, to my mind, the “grossly overmanned” public sector arguement. Can it really be true?? Can you provide the CSO link for that figure??

I’ve Googled “Active PAYE accounts 2007 site:cso.ie” & “PAYE active accounts 2007 site:cso.ie” and I can’t seem to find those figures.

30. alastair - April 2, 2009

I’m not sure how you equate that percentage with an appropriate level of public sector workforce or otherwise? I’ve no feeling for what an ideal public sector workforce might be, but I’m also fairly sure that some areas of the public sector are overstaffed – specifically the HSE.

http://www.cso.ie/releasespublications/documents/corporate%20publications/CSO_Revenue%20SPAR.pdf.

31. alastair - April 2, 2009

uh – kill that full stop after pdf for that link to work.

32. Burke and Hare - April 2, 2009

Lets have no public sector than Alastair. You fix yourself up next time your sick, sort out your own education and if your house goes on fire put it out.

33. alastair - April 2, 2009

Yeah – because pointing out a glut of superflous senior administrators in the HSE is just the same as desiring an end to socialised medicine, education and a fire service. You’ve some insights there fellah.

34. Burke and Hare - April 2, 2009

Fuck off you cunt.

35. alastair - April 2, 2009

Delightful. You’re quite the deep thinker.

36. Burke and Hare - April 2, 2009

Who gives a fuck what you think I am?

37. CMK - April 2, 2009

Thanks for the link, Alastair. It’s certainly something to ponder. There is definitely some fat in the HSE. But for every administrator or manager that is cut, a doctor or a nurse or some other clinician will probably have to take up the administrative slack. That clinician then spends less time on the sacred “front line”; services deteriorate; health outcomes start to suffer; the next generation has to spend more dealing with the cutbacks implemented today; the next generation’s right wing commentators complain about increases in health spending and the whole cycle perpetuates itself. There’s a reason why the HSE ballooned, clinicians were relieved of the bulk of the admin to get on with they were trained to do, and try, if even tentatively, to reverse the damage done by McSharry’s cutbacks in the late eighties. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see a depressing circularity to this whole debate about cutbacks to the health service.

Also, complex systems, like our health system, require a lot of people to administer them reasonably efficiently and safely. The HSE is NOT a business and can’t be run like one. There are whole aspects of the HSE, such as counselling etc, which are utterly integral to a holistic health system but which were marginal in the late eighties. Hundred’s of thousands of people in this state live with varying degrees of mental distress, to take one example. The HSE has to deal with that now, it’s predecessors didn’t really have to on same scale twenty-thirty years as many of the problems were not fully understood. Care for mental distress is now almost wholly community based and it requires an extensive, and costly, physical infrastructure and extensive staffing. It would be more cost effective to lock up the mentally distressed in vast quasi-Gulags like before, and tell the those in need of couselling to have a few pints instead, but do we want to go there in the name of fiscal austerity? Likewise, social services like child protection, under severe strain as it is, are now more complex than they were perhaps in the 1980′s. These can’t just be slashed to appease the irrationality of the right. Indeed, child protection is one area where more, not less, public sector workers are required. But, as usual, the fiscal disciplinarians have only a vague, if even that, grasp of the true complexity of the society in which they live and, as a corollary, almost no understanding of damage cutbacks cause and their true economic cost.

BTW, anyone looking for cutbacks in the public sector could start with the Horse Racing Fund. I’d never heard of it before, but my head nearly exploded when I read the details. Rant over!

38. Crocodile - April 2, 2009

The preceding exchanges show how little any of us seems able to see the other fellow’s point of view, these days.
Good points from CMK about the one-size-fits-all nature of cuts. Much of the increase in public service expenditure and manpower over the last 15 years has been a matter of catching up after the cuts of the 1980s. In many areas – child protection, hospital beds, pupil-teacher ratio – we never caught up at all and are now facing cutbacks from levels that haven’t been adequate to start with. No doubt there’ll be an upturn in a few years and the economic commentators will be wailing about the increases in expenditure incurred in getting back to 2006 levels.

39. alastair - April 2, 2009

That we don’t have sufficient capacity in particular araeas doesn’t mean that there’s not scope for cutbacks in others. I’m personally familiar with the top-echelon health administrators who don’t actually do a tap, and get paid extremely well for the privilege. They don’t actually have a real work overhead for anyone to take up, so are entirely expendible (in favour of a much-needed job elsewhere – and one which wouldn’t pull the same sort of salary).

Obviously not all health administrators are wasters or placed in wasteful positions, but the various rejigging of the health boards has definitely produced a clear number of redundant or near-redundant management roles, and there is scope for a reduction of these.

The particular guy I’m aware of was earning a six figure salary about five/six years ago – and was essentially a serial free luncher, playing no useful role in the greater scheme of things. I’m sure he wasn’t alone in that regard. There’s actual fat – ripe for the trimming.

40. CMK - April 2, 2009

Yes, agreed there are a number of those characters around in the HSE. The problem with cutting them is that they aren’t in that position without having some form of political ‘pull’. Many are possibly political appointees from the seventies and eighties. These types are well positioned to ensure that they survive a round of cutbacks. The over-worked junior doctor from Egypt, the counsellor on a two year contract, the contract IT worker, the junior manager who came in from the private sector three years ago and who’s working efficiently etc, etc. These are the people who’ll be kicked out in an effort to ‘trim the fat’. The ‘serial luncher’ will, in all likelihood, still be there. The way Irish social and political life has been and still is currently structured those with least power and influence will always take greatest hit in any crisis; that’s been the guiding principle of the Irish State since 1922.

41. Remi Moses - April 3, 2009

I see that FG spokespeople are now mouthing off about banning strikes in Aer Lingus…good coalition partners for Labour eh?


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