Workers Hammer No. 193

Winter 2005-2006


Irish unions show their strength

Wretched deal at Irish Ferries

DUBLIN, 15 DECEMBER — Friday 9 December saw the largest display of trade union strength in Ireland for decades, with 150,000 marching in total across the country, 100,000 in Dublin alone. The union members turned out in force in support of Irish Ferries workers who had occupied two vessels in Pembroke Dock and Holyhead for three weeks, having foiled an attempt by the company to forcibly remove the mainly Irish crew and replace them with immigrant workers who would be paid half the Irish minimum wage. Providing a glimpse of the enormous potential power that the unions have to bring the capitalist system to a grinding halt, workers left their jobs en masse to march in solidarity with the ferry crews in what turned into de facto solidarity strike action. Dublin Bus services were shut down; LUAS and DART [Dublin light rail and commuter train] services were severely curtailed, as were CIE train and Bus Eireann services, while workers at a Tesco distribution centre in Tallaght walked off the job. Among the many union contingents were workers from building sites (Irish and Polish); Dublin airport workers, teachers, postal workers — whose union leadership had just agreed to a lousy deal based on “changes in work practices” — and even a group of uniformed pilots from the notoriously anti-union airline Ryanair. The march was extremely popular — union banners were applauded by people lining the route.

Our call for the union movement to organise immigrants and fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants was well received: workers snapped up 500 copies of the Spartacist Group Ireland’s leaflet (reprinted on page 12) and comrades sold well over 100 papers. In a clear statement of proletarian internationalism, trade unions from Britain, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania were represented on the demonstration. Nonetheless, papers like the Irish Sunday Tribune (11 December 2005) tried to imply that Irish workers are mainly motivated by anti-immigrant racism, asserting that, “Half of Irish workers believe that immigrants have a ‘negative impact on the economy, reduce average wages and take away jobs from native employees’.” But union signs and banners on the demonstration told another story. The Building and Allied Trades Union carried placards reading: “Irish workers, migrant workers, one union, one struggle” and postal workers carried placards stating clearly: “Say no to racism”. Poisonous nationalism was expressed on the demo — in the placards of the Irish Labour Party, which said: “Irish Flag for Irish Ferries”. The Irish flag is the flag of the Irish bourgeoisie, the class enemy! Unions must wage a class-struggle fight for full wages and union conditions for all, including immigrants! The fight against Labourite nationalism is central to our fight to build a revolutionary workers party.

Within a week of this enormous display of potential union power, the SIPTU union leadership had agreed a sellout deal, which did not secure full union wages for immigrants. Irish Ferries agreed to pay immigrants the legal Irish minimum wage of 7.65 euros an hour (as opposed to the 3.60 originally offered) but they will continue to “outsource” crews, meaning they will be able to replace unionised crews with non-union labour. For their part, the union bureaucracy outrageously agreed to binding arbitration for three years, which effectively means a no-strike clause. SIPTU official Brendan Hayes holds aloft the fact that the agreement means “vulnerable migrant maritime workers have the protection of Irish law” and that “a framework agreement which will legally protect all employees, irrespective of the flag under which the company registers its vessels — has been agreed” (SIPTU statement, 14 December 2005). The Socialist Workers Party welcomed the wretched deal, and parroted the bureaucracy’s line that the law will guarantee a fair deal for workers, saying “a legally binding contract guarantees the conditions of all workers for Irish ferries” (British Socialist Worker, 17 December 2005).

The notion that the laws of the Irish capitalist state will protect workers — immigrant or Irish — is a deadly illusion, cut from the same cloth as the myth that there can be “partnership” between workers, bosses and the government. The 9 December demonstration shows that workers in Ireland are sick to death of having their wages kept down by “partnership” deals, which have been instrumental in maintaining class peace while the capitalists make handsome profits. The bureaucracy uses the threat of union power to bargain for whatever concessions the capitalist class will grant, within the framework that guarantees their profits. What’s needed is not to negotiate a better “partnership” deal but to break out of this political framework of reformism. The kind of leadership the working class needs is one based on the understanding that the only way to defend and advance the rights of the working people is through waging the class struggle, independently of the bosses and the capitalist state. We fight for a revolutionary party that will be built in the course of such struggles, which must culminate in socialist revolution.