The year is 2010, the date is May 5, seven days before the anniversary of James Connolly’s execution by a British army firing squad.
The news is reporting a national strike of both public and private sector workers against extreme austerity measures imposed by capitalist free marketeers. James Connolly, you would imagine, would be happy: the workers of Ireland had risen up and thrown off their masters’ rule. Alas, the strike is in Greece and, while Connolly as a socialist and internationalist would of course welcome the actions of the Greek working class, he might wonder why, despite suffering savage wage and public spending cuts, the working class in Ireland had yet to rise.
In many respects the legacy of 25 years of social partnership has blunted the sharp edge of trade union activism, while draconian legislation such as the Industrial Relations Act has severely restricted the ability of unions to organise. Power has been increasingly transferred from workers and centralised in the hands of the union bureaucracy.
The leadership of the trade union movement in Ireland has been a willing advocate of social partnership and trumpeted its merits, despite the widening wealth gap and sharpening of inequality during the Celtic Tiger years. The capitalist crisis has openly exposed both the myth of social partnership and the inability of the trade union leadership to respond effectively.
The imposition of the extreme austerity measures upon workers has occurred with only a whimper of protest action from the bureaucrats in Liberty Hall. The decision to call off a general strike last year exposed their weakness in the face of an all out war on pay and working conditions. The propaganda from all quarters of the corporate media and the political establishment is that there is no alternative. The trade union leadership has acquiesced in this and effectively told workers that they have no choice but to accept a reduction in their living standards as the alternative could only be worse.
The myth that workers pay and conditions are adversely impacting on the ‘competitiveness’ of the economy is a scam to take from workers and give to the rich. Over the past three years, in work places throughout Ireland, the bosses have been mouthing off that everyone who has a job should consider themselves lucky. They claim that pay cuts and the withdrawal of workers’ rights is the natural order of things and it is the only way that Ireland can be build a competitive economy.
The claim from the Dublin government and IBEC is that wage rates in the Twenty-Six Counties are too high and have therefore resulted in an uncompetitive economy by making exports too costly. The fact is that workers in the Twenty-Six Counties work longer hours than their counterparts in the EU and average wage rates in the state are up to 10 per cent below that of the EU. Perhaps the bosses would like Irish workers to be ‘competitive’ with workers in the Third World. Maybe they would like to return to the days when workers lived in the squalor of Dublin’s tenements as they did at the turn of the last century. It is clear that the right-wing media cheerleaders wish to see a return to the days when William Martin Murphy sought to crush the trade union movement and force workers to subsist on starvation wages.
Employers are using the current recession and the myth of competitiveness as levers by which to drive down wages and working conditions. Workers are being forced to bear the burden of the recession while bosses seek to maintain their profit margins. A recurring feature of media discourse of the last 12 months has been the vilification of public sector workers by right-wing politicians, self-appointed media commentators and myriad quack economists. This campaign has been conducted in a cynical attempt to create the conditions under which all workers will be forced to accept both lower wage rates and working conditions. As Connolly rightly observed in 1915: “I can see nothing in the Governments of the world but a conspiracy of the rich for the purpose of robbing the poor.”
Yet there are those within the current leadership of the trade union movement who are calling on workers to accept the Croke Park deal. This deal seeks to further cut the living standards of public sector workers, who, over the last 12 months have suffered savage pay cuts, through further pay cuts, a lengthening of the working day and additional restrictions on the right to take strike action.
What is lost by public sector workers in terms of pay and conditions will be lost by all workers. Yet the trade union bureaucrats would have workers believe that this is in their best interests as the alternative might even be worse. Such servility it seems has long been a characteristic of what passes for trade union leadership in Ireland. In 1901, the president of ICTU addressed delegates at its annual conference seeking support for an alliance between capital and labour: “We, then, as organised workers, can say to those of our countrymen who, loving their country, desire to do her a service, and who control her capital: – ‘Let us join hands.’ This is easily possible. Is it too much to hope for and expect such a union between the classes which represent Capital and Labour?”
James Connolly was cutting in his denunciation of the then ICTU president, a Mr Bowman:
“A Socialist in the position of Mr Bowman would have striven to infuse into the minds of his hearers a spirit of revolt against the system that holds them as its slaves, a system that tortures them with want in the midst of locked-up storehouses of plenty; a Socialist would have taught the workers to manfully take their destiny, politically and socially, into their own hands; Mr Bowman taught them to whine for capitalists to come and exploit them.”
Over a century later and Irish trade union leaders are still “whining for capitalists to come and exploit workers”. If passed, the Croke Park deal would represent a significant defeat for all workers. Over the last number of weeks, workers have begun to defy the pleadings of their leaders to participate in the rescuing of a system that seeks to exploit them further and a number of public sector unions have already rejected the terms of the Croke Park deal. The deal should be rejected outright and workers should take back control of their organisation.
However, rejection of the Croke Park deal would only be a small step. The workers in Greece have mounted a vociferous and sustained campaign of resistance to the IMF-led take over of their country by international banks. We here in Ireland would do well to follow their example. In 1915, James Connolly stated: “shall we not say that as capitalism has sown poverty, disease and oppression among our Irish race so it will see spring up a crop of working class revolutionists armed with a holy hatred of all its institutions”.
James Connolly’s words continue to resonate almost a century later. Just as the men and women of 1916 acted as a beacon to oppressed nations throughout the world to rise up and throw off the yolk of imperialism, so, today, we can provide inspiration to those across the world who are resisting capitalist exploitation. The time has come once again for the workers of Ireland to unite and become international leaders in the struggle against exploitation.
What has changed since the time of Connolly? Nothing but the actors; the principles of the war are the same: the rich are trying to get richer off the backs of the workers. In the month in which we remember the life and death of James Connolly, Ireland’s greatest labour leader, we leave the last words to him:
“The capitalist, I say, is a parasite on industry; as useless in the present stage of our industrial development as any other parasite in the animal or vegetable world is to the life of the animal or vegetable upon which it feeds.
“The working class is the victim of this parasite – this human leech, and it is the duty and interest of the working class to use every means in its power to oust this parasite class from the position which enables it to thus prey upon the vitals of Labour.
“Therefore, I say, let us organise as a class to meet our masters and destroy their mastership; organise to drive them from their hold upon public life through their political power; organise to wrench from their robber clutch the land and workshops on and in which they enslave us; organise to cleanse our social life from the stain of social cannibalism, from the preying of man upon his fellow man.
“Organise for a full, free and happy life. For All Or For None. Speed The Day.”
Different Name, Same Aim
Campaign for British withdrawal
We Only Want the Earth!
No British Royal Visits!
Workers in Struggle
Britain's Day of Shame
Reclaim The Republic
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