Workers Hammer No. 193

Winter 2005-2006


Unions must organise immigrant workers! Full wages and benefits for immigrants!

For solidarity strikes to defend crew members occupying Irish Ferries!

Down with "partnership" and all class collaboration!

The following leaflet was published by the Spartacist Group Ireland, Irish section of the International Communist League, on 7 December 2005.

Irish Ferries declared war on its workforce and the whole workers movement when it sent “security personnel” on board its vessels in Holyhead and Pembroke, for the purpose of forcibly replacing the crews with immigrant workers from Eastern Europe who will be paid pitiful wages. The company’s “security” squads, hired thugs reported to include former members of the army, sneaked on board in civilian clothing and were caught on CCTV monitors changing into military-style clothes, causing workers to fear a “terrorist attack”. This outrageous assault met with a courageous response from the ships’ officers and SIPTU crew members, some of whom barricaded themselves into the ships’ control rooms. The company’s boats are currently out of action. Port workers in Rosslare have refused to handle its ships, and SIPTU clerical staff at Irish Ferries have also voted in favour of strike action to support their embattled co-workers. SIPTU and SUI members: now is the time to strike Irish Ferries! Defend the occupying crew members! There have been important statements of support from unions elsewhere in Europe, such as the British RMT. There is an urgent need for solidarity action: dockers should move no Irish Ferries goods; Stena [ferry] workers should fight alongside their besieged union brothers.

The courage of these workers in occupying the vessels is in stark contrast to the cowardice of the trade union bureaucrats of SIPTU and ICTU, who have resorted to begging the government and Irish Ferries’ board of directors to intervene on behalf of the workers. This craven attitude is a product of the political perspective of the trade union tops, which is based not on a perspective of class struggle, but of class collaboration (or “partnership”) between labour and capital. What is needed is a class-struggle fight against the bosses that is geared towards building the unity of the working class in struggle. There is an urgent need to organise immigrant workers into the unions, and to fight for full wages and benefits for all immigrants. It is absurd to rely on the capitalist state to intervene to “protect” workers; the state consists mainly of the police, army and prison system and is the repressive instrument of capitalist class rule. For the political independence of the working class! For a class-struggle leadership of the unions! Equal pay for equal work! Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

If successful, Irish Ferries’ campaign to replace its 543 workers with immigrant labourers from Eastern Europe earning 3.60 euros per hour will set a precedent for busting unions and firing workers en masse by replacing them with cheaper labour. Despite its claims to the contrary, the company is highly profitable: Irish Continental Group, of which Irish Ferries is part, raked in 26 million euros in profits last year. The peculiar viciousness of Irish Ferries’ campaign has been criticised by IBEC [Irish Business and Employers Confederation] and Bertie Ahern, who called its actions “ham-fisted” (Irish Independent, 28 November). But the Irish bourgeoisie is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the conflict, as a victory for Irish Ferries would give the impetus for a wholesale assault on the workers movement.

The increase in the arrogance of the bourgeoisie is the consequence of the recent extension of the EU, with the large pool of cheap labour this provides, and 18 years of “social partnership” that has seen declining union membership and unanswered attacks on workers’ pay and conditions. But, as demonstrated by the rapid shutting down of Irish Ferries’ operation, the proletariat still has tremendous social power. This power must be brought to bear. Already, the Irish Exporters’ Association has begun bleating about the potential damage the ferries dispute could cause to Ireland’s export trade, which is worth 48 billion euros per year: Irish Ferries contributes about 25 per cent of this freight capacity.

Other disputes, such as the recent attacks on the CWU [postal workers] by An Post, highlight that this is a critical time for the working class to fight back against the bosses. The 3 November Dublin protest organised in solidarity with the Irish Ferries workers, when 10,000 workers took to the streets, demonstrated the support existing more broadly for the plight of the seafarers. Workers in other sectors of the economy — construction, services, manufacturing — understand that if the company wins, they will soon be facing the same treatment.

The union bureaucracy remains wedded to the concept of “Social Partnership”. This is in the tradition of Labour Party reformism, which holds that the working class must work alongside the capitalists and limit their struggles to what is “in the national interest”. SIPTU president Jack O’Connor still sings the praises of the “partnership” process, claiming that it heralded “the most significant enhancement of the living standards of working people in the history of the state” (An Phoblacht, 24 November). Mick O’Reilly of the ATGWU is more critical of “partnership”, but still argues, “The debate is not really whether we should have Social Partnership but who we should have Social Partnership with” (An Phoblacht, 24 November). O’Reilly is critical of the Labour Party’s alliance with bourgeois Fine Gael, but looks to the formation of a bloc with more “left-wing” petty-bourgeois forces, potentially including Sinn Fein and the Greens. Neither of these parties are part of the workers movement. Such a formation would still be a popular front, ie, an alliance between a reformist workers party and openly bourgeois parties where the interests of the working class are sacrificed on the altar of private property.

While many workers are opposed to a renewal of “partnership”, there are widespread illusions in the ability of the Labour Court to act on behalf of the working class. The Labour Court, as part of the capitalist state, is used by the bourgeoisie to present the pretence of “neutrality” and thereby to veil the reality of this vicious bourgeois class dictatorship. No illusions in the Labour Court!

EU expansion and the destruction of the USSR

The key component for understanding the current situation is the series of capitalist counterrevolutions that swept across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992. In Poland, for example, the destruction of the deformed workers state in 1989-90 by Solidarno??-led counterrevolution ripped the society apart and has contributed to massive unemployment and social immiseration. Among other things, the further expansion of the EU imperialist trade bloc into the former deformed workers states of Eastern Europe has provided the European bourgeoisies with a vast supply of very cheap skilled labour. This is a situation where bloodsuckers like those at Irish Ferries are eager to take advantage. Unlike those self-styled “socialists” such as the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party who supported the destruction of the Soviet Union and the deformed workers states, we Trotskyists of the International Communist League fought to the end to mobilise the working class in defence of the gains that those states embodied.

The events at Irish Ferries show that it is necessary for the unions to defend and organise the most vulnerable, immigrant section of the proletariat, which is linked to the struggle to maintain their own existence as an effective force. Just as Karl Marx emphasised that British workers must fight for equal rights for Irish immigrant workers in Britain, so too must Irish workers fight for equal rights for their immigrant brothers and sisters.

The importance of this was demonstrated by the case of the mainly Turkish GAMA construction workers. Employed by a Turkish company working on state contracts, the workers were paid an absolute pittance (around 2 euros per hour), with the company siphoning off around 40 million euros into secret Dutch bank accounts. Just like at Irish Ferries, this was a case of the bourgeoisie trying to use immigrant workers to force down wages. Outrageously, the union leadership did not organise a class-struggle defence of these workers. Nevertheless, the campaign publicising the case of the workers had some success, not least due to its prominence at the 2005 May Day protests when around 500 GAMA workers marched behind a SIPTU banner. If the working class does not take up the defence of immigrant workers and the bosses are successful in their current campaign, this could lead to the growth of truly sinister forces including fascists.

We need a revolutionary workers party!

Revolutionaries fight for the unions to combat racism, to organise immigrants and take up the fight for full citizenship rights. In contrast, while the Socialist Party exposed the horrific conditions of the GAMA workers, the political strategy of their campaign was based on wretched appeals to the bourgeois state. For example, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins asked, “Will the Taoiseach stand up to Gama from today and ensure this scandal ends forthwith?”, and argued that, “The Government must live up to the expectation that justice be done to all working people” (Socialist Party Press Release, 27 April 2005). Unsurprisingly, the Socialist Party welcomed the GAMA case being taken to the Labour Court, that is, to an institutionalised mechanism of class collaboration.

The Socialist Workers Party represents just another version of these same Labourite politics of pressuring the capitalist government. A typical SWP article on Irish Ferries, written by Kieran Allen, argued that “Solutions will not come from ‘complex’ legal discussions led by barristers — but from the mobilisation and actions of tens of thousands of workers”. But for Allen the purpose of such mobilisations should be for workers to impose their will on “their own” government: only through the use of “‘people power’ will any Irish governments be forced to turn on the very corporations who pull their strings” (Socialist Worker, 26 October-10 November 2005). But it is not possible for workers to use the capitalist government against the capitalist class.

We stand squarely in a different tradition. What is necessary is a revolutionary party that upholds the political independence of the working class — that does not crawl before and beg the bosses and their state, but relies on the power and independent organisation of working people. Such a party would act as a tribune of the people by fighting against all forms of capitalist oppression: it would fight for women’s liberation, for immigrants’ rights, for the defence of travellers, for equal rights for gays. Such a party would seek to emulate the Bolshevik Party that led the working class to power in the 1917 October Revolution, sweeping away the rotten edifice of bourgeois rule and establishing a workers state. Join us in the struggle to build that party!