Union leaders need to pick a side

“Social partnership” should really be deader than a Star Trek extra beamed down with Captain Kirk. Union leaders should be socially and morally distancing their unions and the movement from any deluded notion of returning to social partnership in any of its bastardised forms.

Unfortunately, the mood music emanating from some union leaders over recent weeks reeks with the stink of social dialogue and partnership. A post-covid reincarnation of social partnership will certainly not be in the best interests of the working class, and, despite what some union leaders would have us believe, neither is it in any way comparable to the “bulldog fighting spirit” of the post-war era. The biggest and nastiest war being raged at this point in history is class war, and our union leaders need to pick a side to fight alongside.

Back in 2010 the then general president of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, argued stoically, but wrongly, that the Labour Party needed to join forces in unholy coalition with Fine Gael in order to help ameliorate the excesses of their future right-wing colleagues in government. Perhaps it could be argued that it was initially a reasonably laudable position that was subsequently blasted to smithereens when the Labour ministerial mudguard attacked their portfolios with all the gusto of an austerity junkie seeking that last sweet hit of austerity before the power dwindled away.

Labour Party ministers seemingly cared little for the damage their austerity was causing to the very people who elected them to protect their interests. Power within capitalism corrupts, and those Labour chihuahuas with rottweiler tendencies, in the paraphrased words of the inimitable Father Fintan Stack of Father Ted fame, “had their fun, and that’s all that matters.”

There is nothing new about union leaders courting power and chasing a seat at the big boys’ table while cautioning members about the “tough times ahead” and the “need to be reasonable in our demands.” It is no coincidence that the number of days lost to industrial action over the period of social partnership declined dramatically, and with it the threat of last resort, a strike, which unions and workers always need in order to secure advances against the capitalist class.

The ten richest people in Ireland have continuously increased their wealth from 2010, from €21.6 billion to €53 billion. This is part of the reason why people want, and recently voted for, change. Even a mere €20 billion of that fortune would greatly help transform our devastated public services.

A cursory glance at the top 100 “rich list” printed recently in the Irish Independent promotes the common narrative that Ireland’s wealth is in property. However, 83 per cent of the richest people in Ireland have wealth built up in various other sectors. We are continually fed the falsehood that buying your own house means you are part of that wealthy elite, while only a mere 17 per cent of the richest people in our country are property moguls. The next-biggest group is in industry, followed by finance, technology, retail, and transport. In 2019, 95 per cent of new apartments were bought by investment funds.

Ireland is world-renowned as the mystical land of myths and legend, but nowhere is this more accurate than when it comes to class. We need unions to put the class interest of workers at the epicentre of their very reason for existing. Engaging in social dialogue and partnership might seem important to some, but it meekly and subserviently helps to prop up the right-wing status quo and bury the need for radicalism and activism in the left-wing dustbin of history.

Ireland really is the best little country to do business in. However, what we must understand is that it’s not important which political party or parties implement the policies that have such an adverse impact on our class. There is really no point in insisting that another political party would do it differently. They might reallocate priorities and be less austerity-driven, but the reality is that the system we live our lives under cannot be tweaked.

Coronavirus is a warning, and we should pay heed to its stark message for all society: capitalism is unsustainable. We urgently need a new political and economic system that puts life above money and profit. System change that places human life and all other forms of life above the profit-seeking motives of billionaires and millionaires is much more important than government change and infinitely more progressive for our class than another go at the senseless merry-go-round called social partnership.