Union leaders discuss sell out despite historic strike

250,000 public service workers took part in the one day strike on 24 November in opposition to the threatened cut of €1.3 billion from the public service pay bill in next month’s budget on top of similar sized cuts in Social Welfare payments and in public service provision itself.

€2.5 billion was already taken from these workers in a mis-named ‘pension levy’ which on top of other new taxes on income has saw low and middle earners in the public service lose thousands of euro from their pay packets.

The government and media wanted the 24 hour public service strike to be marked by incidents of a hostile general public venting abuse at a so-called ‘cosseted and privileged’ section of the workforce. Indeed many of the workers who Socialist Party members spoke to in pickets around the country confided that they were nervous of such a response such has been the campaign of vilification in the pro-capitalist press.

Instead incidents of hostility were more the exception than the rule and were far outweighed by signs of support from passers-by who honked their car horns in appreciation for the work of public servants. For many it was their first ever strike action and across the board rank and file members stepped forward to look after the logistics of getting placards and working out picketing rotas.

So the best the media could come up with on the day to denigrate the striking workers was to concoct a story that shopping malls in cross border towns like Newry were flooded with public sector workers who instead of manning the pickets decided to go Christmas shopping!

The Socialist Party’s call for a follow up 48 strike in advance of the budget coupled with a campaign to get private sector workers on board for future actions was listened to by the workers who are reconciled to further action being needed if any back down is to be forced. Currently 3 December remains the date set by the unions for the next day of strike action apart from IFUT (university lecturers) and the AHCPS (senior civil servants) who need to ballot again for any further action.

Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins flew back from the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg to visit picket lines at James Connolly Hospital and Fingal County Council in Blanchardstown before touring the city centre picket lines at various government departments, museums and galleries. The contrast with establishment politicians from government and so-called opposition who gave the pickets a wide berth was not lost on picketers who were pleased with Joe’s support.

While the government were surely rattled by the turnout and the generally positive response of the public they will take some encouragement from the line argued the next day by Peter McLoone, general secretary of IMPACT and chair of the ICTU public services committee who has publicly conceded that there will be cuts in public service expenditure which he feels should be temporary.

Peter McLoone and the other trade union leaders are back in talks with the government. They are attempting to make a deal which will supposedly leave “core pay rates” intact, however which will mean major pay cuts for public sector workers. Discussions are taking place around the idea of reducing the pay bill by cutting paid holidays, extending the working week, extending the working day from 8.00am to 8.00pm, paying overtime at basic rates and imposing 12 days unpaid leave.

No matter how they try to package such a deal it basically will result in pay cuts for all public sector workers. This is a disastrous position which, if came into effect would severely cut the pay of nurses, paramedics, fire fighters, prison officers and others who work anti social hours as well as low paid administrative workers who have depended on overtime to supplement their meagre basic pay.

The lack of leadership and a real fight by the trade union leaders during this crisis has fed a certain cynicism among many workers who see an inevitability to cuts in pay but feel that a stand must still be made. This outlook is not borne of support for the idea that cuts need to be made but rather the lack of any alternative and the constant propaganda from the establishment parties, the media and also trade union leaders that everyone must share in the pain!

The ICTU leaders are prepared to make a rotten deal with the government that will cut the pay of public sector workers, weaken working conditions and potential lead to up to 20,000 job losses. The depth of the crisis is such that it may not be possible for the government and the union leaders to concoct a deal that is “sellable” to union members. Regardless of the choreography at the top between government, employers and union leaders an active response is needed from the ranks of the unions to reject any sell out deal.

The Socialist Party believes the next stage in this struggle should be a 48-hour public sector strike. At the same time the unions should broaden out the campaign to include fighting pay cuts and redundancies in the private sector. On that basis the unions should call combined action of public and private sector workers – a one day general strike to defeat the government and push back the employers

The demands on the Socialist Party leaflet handed out to the workers were:

  • For a resolute stand by the trade unions to defend public pay and services – not another cent off pay or services.
  • Defend the public sector – bail out working class people not the bankers and developers who caused the crisis.
  • No trust or no deals with this government – they have already stated their intention of slashing the public sector to pieces over the next four years.
  • More national action is stronger than regional action – follow up the strike with a 48-hour public sector strike before the Budget.
  • Unite public and private sector workers in co-ordinated action. Extend public sector action into a general strike of all workers to fight the attacks of the government and the employers on pay, services and jobs.