Anarchism in Interesting Times
I wrote this article in 2013 for issue 9 of the Irish Anarchist Review. I think most of it holds up, three years later. I would go as far to say that overall, the passing of time has made the situation with the big Irish trade unions even worse. The spectacle of Brendan Ogle a supposed left wing militant trade unionist, calling for support for a Fianna Fail minority government was painfully predictable after he had talked down the direct action of the anti-water charges movement in favour of his ultimately unsuccessful Right2Change electoral strategy. Thankfully, in general, the fightback against austerity here has finally built up a head of steam, but shamefully, it is difficult to see the unions being part of that anytime soon.
There is no doubt that the majority of our union leaders are a cynical bunch. The fact that they use strike action as a threat against workers rather than employers testifies to this. They present a hopeless situation where a general strike would inevitably lead to defeat. This of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy as a general strike under their stewardship would be a defeat. They have no wish to rock the boat; their aim is to solidify their position as a group with its own distinct interests, at the negotiating table with the government and IBEC (The employer’s federation). They yearn for the return of social partnership, where the union bureaucracy was essentially part of the state apparatus.
The idea that we need to rebuild the movement from below, is one that everyone on the left would agree to on paper, but in practice, most of the left are moving to try to rebuild it from above, via the shortcut of winning positions on union executives. This tactic can only serve to perpetuate the clientelist model that currently exists, where the rank and file plays almost no role other than as pawn under the control of the player on the left, rather than the player on the right. A general strike called by left union leaders would still entail a process that the majority of union members played no role in, other than to cast their vote.
The left union bureaucrats, though sincere, are still separated from the majority of workers by their status as leaders and it is they who would give the order to go on strike or to return to work. The picket lines would be organised by branch officials, for the ordinary union member it would be a matter of taking a placard in hand, doing your shift on the line and going home. For a general strike to be meaningful, it is important for it not to be that singular event we have come to expect, a form of militant protest. It must be a process that elevates class consciousness and transforms the way we organise our workplaces.