After Croke Park: what to do now? - facing reality in our unions


In mid-June the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Public Services Committee voted to accept the ‘Croke Park deal’. ‘Social partnership’, presumed dead and buried when the government unilaterally imposed pay cuts on public sector workers in the December ’09 budget, was revived and given a new lease of life. But this is ‘social partnership’ with a difference. Instead of the union leadership believing that ‘partnership’ gives them some input into government policy (as they have wrongly thought for the past 20 years), all they can now offer in its defence is that this is the “least worst deal” and that “it’s better to be inside the tent than outside.”

It is a testament to the strength of the sway the union leadership has over the members. In the INTO, for example, union members were ‘led’ from a position where 79% of members voted for industrial action to prevent pay cuts last October to a 63% vote to accept those same pay cuts and a raft of changes to working terms and conditions. What had changed in just 7 months to bring about such a seemingly impossible turn-around?

The most obvious thing is that the union leadership chose to sell the deal on the basis of the fear factor. They argued that the only alternative to this deal was a sustained campaign of industrial action. The threat of “industrial warfare” which would see us spending months on strike was used as a stick to beat the membership into submission. The leadership did not see industrial action as being a weapon with which we could win. The idea that we could work out a strategy which would involve rolling strikes and action in key areas - a strategy worked out on our terms and designed to hurt the government and force the trade union movement’s analysis of how the financial crisis should be dealt with onto the agenda – did not form part of their version of “industrial warfare”.

Another element of the ‘fear factor’ which the union leadership exploited was events in Greece. While it is clear that the economic and social turmoil in Greece was as a result of the greed and avarice of financial speculators and showed the importance of a strong trade union movement to defend workers against this greed, the trade union leadership took the simplistic view of pointing to Greece and saying ‘conflict on the streets is the alternative to this deal’.

Union leaders such as Jack O’Connor, Sheila Nunan and Peter McLoone took this stance in relation to the Croke Park deal because they have accepted the government’s TINA (There Is No Alternative) analysis. 20 years of ‘social partnership’ leaves the trade union movement without a real social and economic alternative. They genuinely do believe that they are better off ‘inside the tent than outside.’

They were able to sell this TINA analysis because anarchists, socialists and those who have an alternative viewpoint have failed to establish any real base in the unions. Small groupings did come together, most notably in the INTO and IMPACT, to oppose the deal. However these groupings clearly failed to connect with the mass of ordinary union members in being able to espouse an alternative strategy.

That’s the challenge now for those of us who fundamentally disagree with the current union strategy of appeasement and acceptance of the attacks on our living standards. We cannot give up the struggle for the real soul of our trade unions. We need to attempt to build on the small groupings which came together to oppose this deal and to begin in earnest the task of discussing and developing an alternative strategy.

Words:Gregor Kerr