That was the day, that was the hour, that was… not a National Strike! March 30, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economics, Economy, Irish Politics.
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.