Irish Congress of Trades Unions ‘defers’ March 30 General Strike

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Section of the 125,000-strong Dublin demonstration on February 21 called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in defence of jobs and wages
Section of the 125,000-strong Dublin demonstration on February 21 called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in defence of jobs and wages

THE Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has ‘deferred’ the strike action it has called for March 30 following a government offer of talks.

With many unions having already balloted for strike action, and without even the hint of any major concessions to the trade unions, the ICTU has abandoned the action, showing its weakness at a time when working people want to see the strike take place as a declaration of their determination that they will not carry the can for the capitalist crisis.

Workers now fear that some rotten compromise is on the way, and that the union leaders will accept most of the vicious attacks on the working class that the Irish government is proposing.

The Congress statement simply declared: ‘The Executive Council of Congress today (March 25) agreed to accept the invitation from Taoiseach Brian Cowen, to re-engage in talks with government, with a view to achieving an “integrated national response” to the problems confronting the country. Congress has therefore deferred all action planned for March 30, pending the outcome of talks and the April 7 Budget.’

The SIPTU trade union has stated that its ‘priorities in talks on a new national agreement will be to protect jobs and restructure public finances through a fairer tax system’.

SIPTU’s General Officers have told members that the priority in talks on a new agreement will be protecting jobs, even if it means extending the government’s time frame for borrowing. It will also seek a two-year moratorium on house repossessions and the use of mediation rather than the courts to resolve problems with repayments.

The union will also be seeking major tax reforms, including the closing off of all tax shelters, protection for those dependent on social welfare payments and protection for occupational pension schemes threatened with insolvency.

The ICTU Ten Point Plan will provide the basis for SIPTU’s position in the talks.

Below is the text of a circular sent to all SIPTU union members yesterday in the wake of the ICTU executive decision to call off the March 30 Day of Action.

‘Dear Member,

(1) SIPTU members throughout the country overwhelmingly endorsed the proposal to undertake an industrial campaign for reinstatement of the Transitional Agreement or an acceptable alternative. In virtually all employments balloted, industrial action was approved and most approved strike action also. Several employers brought themselves into compliance by either agreeing to apply the terms, or enter into the inability-to-pay process. Yesterday, March 24, the Taoiseach issued an invitation to talks. Today Congress decided to accept. Consequently, the Day of Action scheduled for Monday next, March 30, 2009, has been deferred pending the outcome.

(2) These talks will take place against the background of a challenge of unprecedented proportions. We are experiencing the most severe global collapse since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In Ireland, Live Register Unemployment increased by 87% to 353,000 people over the past year. Simultaneously, notwithstanding the so-called public service “pension levy”, the gap in the public finances has increased from €2 billion to €6 billion.

(3) The outlook which brought about the global collapse was slavishly copied here. Blind faith in the free market replaced coherent sustainable policy. “Light touch” regulation resulted in the banks accumulating a foreign debt equivalent to 60% of the State’s GDP by mid-2008. Much of it was for speculative property investment. This dramatically inflated prices across the economy. Simultaneously, the tax base was dismantled, shifting the emphasis from direct to indirect sources, such as VAT and stamp duty, transferring the burden onto the middle and lower income groups during the credit-led property boom. When it evaporated it left a gaping hole in the public finances.

(4) Eircom, which could have provided the cutting edge for a new economy was privatised, raided by corporate vultures and completely undermined. Consequently, instead of being ahead of the curve on broadband infrastructure, we are among the “also rans”. Energy prices were deliberately inflated in order to “generate competition”. This absurd policy resulted in our electricity prices, which had been among the cheapest in Europe, becoming the second most expensive. Financial institutions such as ACC, ICC and Trustee Savings Bank were privatised. If this had not happened they would now be playing a critical role.

(5) On social policy, trade union calls for better employment protective legislation before our borders were opened to workers from the ten EU accession countries on May 1, 2004, were stiffly resisted. Marketisation of the health service along American lines became increasingly embraced. The co-location hospital concept entails the provision of publicly-owned land for the development of private hospitals, supported by tax incentives involving millions of euros of public money. If it goes ahead, it will inevitably consolidate the two-tier system, to the detriment of a huge proportion of the population.

6) One would imagine that abandoning the outlook which spawned these flawed policies that caused our problems in the first place would be a good way to start tackling the crisis. Tragically this will not happen. It is the basic philosophy of the centre-right parties which dominate our politics, from the PDs through Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to the Green Party. As long as we continue voting for them, that will be the case. Only Labour, and the parties of the Left, recognise that the free market has its place, but it must be subordinated to the interests of the common good. So long as right wing parties enjoy majority support through the ballot box, we must try as best we can, through industrial campaigns and negotiations, to moderate the worst effects on working people and their families.

(7) The government is still refusing to bring the main banks under public control and deal decisively with all the issues in this critically important area. They are committed to a strategy of fiscal retrenchment to balance the public finances over a short period. This will involve radically increasing taxation and cutting back on public services. Apart from the social consequences, it will further exacerbate the economic downturn. Together with the employers’ organisations, they refuse to consider any alternative to cutting pay, and imposing the lion’s share of the burden of adjustment on working people while the wealthy remain unaffected.

(8) Trade unionists would normally never support increasing taxes and cutting public spending in a recession. It dampens economic activity, thus making the problem worse. However, in the current global crisis several countries are borrowing extensively. There is a question as to whether we can continue to do so indefinitely and, without doubt, we will incur penal repayment rates as time goes on. Accordingly, the problem in the public finances must be addressed. The question is, over what time frame and by what means. If it is attempted too quickly, it will make matters much, much worse.

(9) By borrowing abroad and pumping billions of Euro into our economy for speculative purposes, our banks have dramatically inflated prices and costs. Consequently we are all now faced with a difficult adjustment. Normally this would be achieved by currency devaluation. However, as that option is not available, the government/employer strategy is to simulate it by driving down pay across the economy. This means that working people will bear the burden exclusively. The trade union movement has rejected this approach and advanced the concept of a “Social Solidarity Pact” entailing an input by all sectors of society in accordance with their means. Our “Ten-Point Plan” provides a firm foundation for these talks because it is based on fairness and because it recognises the need for all sectors to contribute to a solution. At the talks, Congress will urge:

• Keeping people in jobs is our greatest priority. We should allocate one billion euro immediately to a model that maximises the numbers working and upskills people for future opportunities;

• Extending government borrowing over a longer timeframe to avoid the damage that will be caused by trying to repair the public finances over too short a period;

• Resolving the banking crisis in a way that restores certainty, which Congress believes can only happen through nationalisation. We must cap executive pay and benefits, overhaul corporate governance and provide legal protection for whistleblowers;

• Ensuring no family loses its home because of the recession. Banks should use mediation in the event of a default and nobody should face legal action for two years after repayments stop;

• Protecting those pension schemes threatened with insolvency and, ultimately, developing a new National Pension System;

• Enacting the employment protection legislation already agreed and addressing non-compliance with the pay agreement;

• Restructuring the tax system to ensure those who earn the most pay the most. Income from all sources – wealth and wages – must be taxed the same way, closing all tax shelters that don’t deliver national benefits;

• Changing the Pension Levy to address the impact on low to middle income earners and commit to revisiting the issue in the context of a new National Pension System;

• Protecting vulnerable people by safeguarding social welfare payments;

• Developing the concept of a National Recovery Bond.

Yours in solidarity,

Jack O’Connor,

Brendan Hayes,

Joe O’Flynn.

General President, Vice President, General Secretary’