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McAlevey

In an era of weakened trade unions, dismal working conditions and a far-right emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, the release of Jane McAlevey’s new book No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age comes at a crucial time.  This book contains important lessons not just for trade unionists looking to reverse the decline of our movement, but for all progressives who are serious about challenging corporate power.

Following on from her first book Raising Expectations and Raising Hell, an excellent first-hand account of her experience as a union organiser in the United States, No Shortcuts puts her practice of organising into a theoretical framework. McAlevey begins by outlining the reasons for the decline of trade unions in the United States. In a welcome departure from other well-hashed analyses of this subject, responsibility for the weakening of worker power is not placed merely on the shoulders of neoliberal stalwarts like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. Instead, she breaks out of this comfort zone and examines the strategic mistakes trade unionists have made themselves over the past number of decades. Her central claim is that unions and, by extension, progressive politics, have declined because they have moved away from deep organising and toward shallow mobilising.

McAlevey outlines three methods which people of different political persuasions approach trade unionism: advocacy, mobilising and organising. Liberals generally follow the advocacy model, which sees paid officials lobbying and campaigning on behalf of workers. “Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way,” argues McAlevey. “Lawyers, pollsters, researchers and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle…advocacy fails to use the only concrete advantage ordinary people have over elites: large numbers.”

The second approach, mobilising, is one practiced by people slightly to the left of liberals and is generally the most common method used by trade unions today. This is the practice of maximising numbers at protests – usually the same activists who were at the last protest, and the one before that – and is generally directed by full-time officials.

The third approach, organising, is one engaged in by those on the radical left with a class analysis. Organising “places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all – that’s the point of organising. In the organising approach specific injustice and outrage are the immediate motivation, but the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority.”

There is no pretence on McAlevey’s part that her definition of organising is in any way original. Rather, organising is about going back to the basics of what trade unions used to do, particularly those affiliated to the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) in the 1930s: high participation among union members, class politics and extensive use of the strike as the key weapon to protect and improve working conditions. This model of “whole worker organising” recognises that people have a stake in wider society and not just the place they work. For instance, what good is a pay rise one week if your landlord puts up the rent the following week? Workers can face injustice in their communities just as much as they face it in the workplace, and it’s the job of unions to organise against these injustices. As McAlevey explains: “Most good unions that organise inside the shop mobilise outside of it: deep inside, shallow outside. It’s as if they can’t see the full extent of the battlefield or the vastness of their army.” She continues: “A one-dimensional view of workers as workers rather than as whole people limits good organising and constrains good worker organisers from more effectively building real power in and among workers’ communities.”

For me, one of the most crucial contributions McAlevey makes is her method of identifying leaders in the workplace. She argues that much of the success of a union campaign lies in organisers’ ability to identify what she terms “organic leaders”. They “seldom self-identify as leaders and rarely have any official titles, but they are identifiable by their natural influence with their peers. Knowing how to recognise them makes decisions about who to prioritise for leadership development far more effective. Developing their leadership skill set is more fruitful than training random volunteers, because these organic leaders start with a base of followers.”

No Shortcuts outlines a number of case studies to show that the organising model can achieve enormous gains for workers. Chapter 3, excellently titled ‘Class Snuggle vs. Class Struggle’, compares two separate campaigns led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to unionise workers in private nursing homes.

The first was led by the SEIU’s national leadership, who sought to unionise the workers a “top-down and top secret agreement” with the owners of the nursing home employers. Worker engagement was minimal and the union leadership conceded a number of clauses that limited the power of future members, such as a no strike clause. Starting pay in nursing homes covered by this agreement was $10.75 per hour – significantly below the living wage of $15 – while sick pay and health coverage were minimal or non-existent. The union’s alliance with employers provided virtually no material benefit for workers on the shop floor.

In contrast, SEIU Local 1199 New England applied the organising model which saw huge worker engagement in the campaign and the repeated use of strike to force concessions from the employers. As a result, the starting salary in these nursing homes is almost €15 per hour and workers have family health care coverage and up to 12 paid sick days per year.

Chapter 4 describes in detail the work that went into building for the massive Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strike in 2012 and how the CTU transformed into an organising union after newly elected president Karen Lewis and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won control of the union. Before going on strike, the union embarked on an intensive organising campaign in order to build community support for the strike and conduct mass political education. The strike was provoked by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s plans to close “failing” schools and cut teachers’ pay. The seven day strike ended when the teachers won a 17.6% pay increase over three years and prevented the introduction of performance related pay. By linking this dispute with wider political issues such as structural racism (the schools facing closure were primarily in black neighbourhoods) and the role of public education in society, the CTU secured immense community support. One other important outcome of this strike will be that the battle-hardened teachers of Chicago will be in a solid position to resist the attacks on public education and union rights that will inevitably come from Donald Trump’s administration.

Chapter 5 outlines how workers in Smithfield Foods, based in the traditionally anti-union deep south, won a €15 per hour wage, paid sick leave, paid holidays and health coverage. Again, this was achieved by high levels of worker engagement and by taking strike action. In Chapter 6, McAlevey writes about the Make the Road New York (MRNY), a social movement that campaigns on issues affecting immigrants and organises workers. Not discounting the positive work that MRNY has engaged in she points out that the organisation have not gone beyond the mobilising model.

No Shortcuts outlines some of the reasons for the decline of trade union power in recent decades, but crucially it also offers solutions. Those solutions lie in unions engaging in deep worker organising that relies more on class struggle in the workplace and less on legal manoeuvring or ‘clever’ negotiating skills. As McAlevey proves, when workers strike, they can win – and win big. And just as importantly, the experience of being on a picket line invariably builds the confidence of workers and provides them with vital experience for bigger fights ahead.

This is undoubtedly one of the best books written in recent years on trade unions and should be considered required reading for anyone with an interest in tackling the decline of the labour movement.

 

 

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I attended Sinn Féin’s ‘Towards a United Ireland’ conference in the Mansion House yesterday (Saturday 21st January), which was an excellent event with brilliant debates on one of the most pressing issues facing us in Ireland today – the partition of our country.Contributions from Mary Lou McDonald, the unionist commentator Alex Kane and Cat Boyd of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign were particularly insightful. What struck me about the conference was the undeniable vibrancy that exists within Sinn Féin at the minute, something that’s lacking in most other political parties.

However, the conference highlighted many of the shortcomings of Sinn Féin’s vision for a united Ireland. Predictably, one of the arguments put forward by a range of Sinn Féin speakers in favour of a united Ireland was “tax harmonisation” and “foreign investment’, which actually means extending the gombeen tax haven economy of the south to our six north-eastern counties. If the price of ending partition is taking part in the one of the greatest injustices of our age – global tax avoidance – then it’s not something that’s going to engage working class communities, and justifiably so.

A few mentions were made about bringing in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil into a broad coalition to achieve a united Ireland. There was even mention of “social partners” in an era when the bosses have ripped up social partnership agreements and are going on the offensive against workers’ pay and basic rights. This stems from the false idea that there is such thing as a “national interest”, which ignores the reality of class conflict within any given nation. FG and FF are the parties of landlords, developers and unscrupulous bosses. Indeed, just a few days ago, these parties prevented a bill being passed in the Dáil which would have made it more difficult for landlords to evict people and make them homeless. And recently Blueshirt beast Michael Noonan sang the praises of foreign vulture funds that are driving up rents and forcing families to sleep in cars and damp, miserable hotel rooms. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not our allies and progressives have nothing in common with them. They’re our enemies of our people.

All that being said, Sinn Féin’s event was a positive one that will hopefully kick start a long overdue debate on the ridiculous division of our country. The main thing I took from it was to reinforce something I’ve been thinking to myself for a while. If Irish independence is seen as the cause of only Sinn Féin, it will never happen. A campaign for independence needs to be broad, encompassing socailists, trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists and other progressives including, of course, Sinn Féin. In order to do this, Sinn Féin supporters need to stop claiming that People Before Profit do not support a united Ireland, a falsehood repeated by Gerry Adams again yesterday. Whatever about the Socialist Party/AAA, whose views on partition is atrocious, People Before Profit have always supported Irish independence. Misrepresenting the views of people who are your natural allies will do nothing to build a mass movement.

The encouraging thing is, there are already cross-border campaigns today that can be built on; the campaign for marriage equality, for instance, as well as the struggle for abortion rights, the Right2Water movement and the huge demonstrations we saw all over the country in summer 2014 in solidarity with Palestine.

A campaign for our full independence needs to tap into the seething anger we are seeing here and across Europe against neoliberal capitalism. We need to be clear that our vision of Ireland is one that repudiates the counter-revolutionary Ireland of Blueshirts, landlords, priests and gombeens. We want to see a society that does not help multinational corporations to avoid paying tax; one that does not force families to sleep in cars; one where we have more to offer our young people than oppressive low-paid call centre jobs or the prospect of emigration; one that makes the necessary shift away from fossil fuels and towards green energy; a society where our children are not segregated at the age of four in order to be indoctrinated by religious institutions; a country that opens its borders to refugees fleeing war and famine, and puts an end to the inhumanity of direct provision.

Realising this vision of another Ireland is entirely possible, but it’s up to progressives to get the strategy right and ensure it happens in our lifetime. Otherwise, we’ll be left with the rotten sectarian colony in the north and the tax haven racket in the south for the foreseeable future. Let’s grasp the opportunity to build a radical independence campaign and change our country for the better.

Onwards to the socialist republic.

David Cameron visits NuneatonWhen the British Conservative Party announced at its 2013 conference that it had the interests of “hard-working people” at heart, they invoked a mantra long propagated by an out of touch political class. “Hard-work”, we’re often told, is a positive thing in and of itself, regardless of its social effects or the impact it has on the individual actually carrying it out. The term, employed in the rhetoric of both the left and the right, is rarely challenged and forms much of what is viewed as “common sense”. Hard work is seen as a virtue, a service to the nation and an ideal to aspire to.

Yet, when we are honest with ourselves, most of us hate work. It’s why Mondays are grim and Fridays are awesome. It’s why we spend most of our week days watching the clock in eager anticipation of 5 o’clock, all the time wishing our lives away. The person who claims to enjoy “hard work” is either a liar or intensely boring. A recent Gallup poll found that, across the globe, only 13% of people actually like going to work. This is unsurprising, given that work for most people under capitalism is often low paid, unrewarding, stressful, degrading and tedious.

There is nothing noble about coming home from work mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Neglecting your friends and family in favour of helping your boss make more profits is not virtuous. And restricting the time you spend on developing talents such as music, art or sports because of your excessive working hours is not only detrimental to you personally, but is also detrimental to wider society. How many people with the musical potential of Jimi Hendrix have been unable to develop their talents because they had to spend the majority of their life in a factory? How many potentially great writers have been unable to express themselves like George Orwell or Oscar Wilde because the bulk of their energies were channelled into working in a supermarket?

Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, trade unions and the left have argued for the creation of more jobs to tackle unemployment. Yet, in doing so, they have failed to highlight one of the most absurd contradictions of capitalism; the fact that there are 200 million people unemployed across the globe, while those who are in employment are generally overworked. Rather than increasing the number of jobs, we should be arguing for existing jobs to be shared out while simultaneously reducing the length of the working week.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently outlined a strong economic, ecological and social case for reducing the standard working week to 21 hours – something that has the potential to resonate in the 21st century. Less work can assist in the fight against climate change and allow us to live more sustainable lives. The fast-pace of our working lives forces us into many environmentally and socially destructive habits. We drive cars because they are deemed to be more “convenient” instead of using less carbon-intensive public transport. And instead of growing our own food, many people consume nutritionless ready meals and packed vegetables which, as the NEF shows, are grossly more damaging to the eco-system.

Trips abroad can also become more ecologically friendly than the carbon-intensive short-term holidays of modern capitalist society. As it stands, most people can only avail of two or three weeks away from their jobs at any one time, meaning slower modes of transport, such as trains, are not a viable way of visiting a foreign country. If workers were given the opportunity to take a number of months off at one time, in exchange for working extended hours at another time of the year, what is to stop them getting a train to Beijing or a ship to New York? The mass use of airplanes merely emphasises the sheer rush and intensity of modern life, as people seek to maximize the amount of leisure they manage to squeeze into the meagre time they have away from work.

In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancement would allow people in the 21st century to enjoy a 15-hour work week. Leisure time, it was suggested, would become so plentiful that people would struggle to find enough activities to occupy themselves. Yet, despite a rise in productivity and the abundance of material goods, these predictions failed to materialise. Across Europe, the average working week stands at 41.6 hours, and that doesn’t include time spent commuting to and from work.

The ‘work ethic’

Negative aspects of any class society, such as inequality, ecological degradation and social deprivation, need to be justified or excused by widely propagated myths in order to be sustained. The excessive working hours endured by most people is justified by the work ethic, as exemplified in the Conservative Party’s condescending slogan lauding “hard-working” people (the inference being that those deemed not to be “hard-working” are less deserving and less eligible for political representation).

The worship of work is as old as capitalism itself, and it is under the unique characteristics of capitalism as a mode of production that the work ethic takes hold. Under slavery and feudalism, work was seen as a negative thing, something that was bestowed upon humans from God as punishment for ‘original sin’. Ancient societies in Greece and Rome saw human labour as something to be avoided at any cost. Work was for the slaves — the lowest rungs of society. Before capitalism, most labour was done out of necessity. In feudal Europe, for example, peasants produced their own food and the surplus was passed onto the lord who owned the land. Since the production of huge surpluses was not necessary, people enjoyed extended periods of leisure once they produced what was needed. Work did not define individuals, as is the case today; work was merely a means to an end.

The Protestant Reformation challenged the traditional idea of work, with Martin Luther arguing that God’s Will could be fulfilled by individuals working hard. Labour was seen as a service to God, an outlook which helped to normalise the long, gruelling working hours which defined the Industrial Revolution. These ideas proved useful for an economic system which was based on, as Marx wrote, production “for production’s sake”. Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the Protestant work ethic’, argued that the rise of these ideas ensured that capitalism would surface in Europe before it would in any other part of the planet.

The work ethic transformed over time, gradually becoming more secular to reflect societal values. Where people once served God, we now aim to be seen as “contributing” to society, a perverse form of social Darwinism under which humans beings must justify their existence through “hard work” before they can benefit from the fruits of civilisation. The unemployed, the elderly and the disabled are seen as a “burden” on society, living a life of luxury at the expense of the mythical “taxpayer”.

In the United States, the ‘American Dream’ played on the unrealistic aspirations held by many working people, who were conned into believing they could one day be millionaires, provided they put in the work. During the World Wars and the subsequent recovery, the population was called upon to work in the ‘national interest’, a term which has been resurrected by the right following the global financial collapse of 2008. Today, as Sharon Beder pointed out, “the work ethic is promoted primarily in terms of work being a responsibility both to the family and the nation”. She went on to explain:

“As we begin the twenty first century work and production has become ends in themselves. Employment has become such a priority that much environmental degradation is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.”

The capitalist work ethic is often used as a vicious weapon of class warfare. It dehumanises us and commodifies our very being. We are not seen as individuals with aspirations and interests; we are mere beasts of burden, with the sole life purpose of “working hard”. Our lives should not be defined merely by productivity nor should we have to justify our existence by proving to others our ability and willingness to “work hard”. Human progress is about overcoming the need for human toil as much as is practicable, and this is a case the left needs to make. As the great Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid once quipped: “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats. We are human beings.”

This article was published in the Morning Star

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Next month, the leaders of the world’s eight richest countries will convene in County Fermanagh to hammer out how meddlesome foreign policies and a destructive economic doctrine known as austerity will be implemented over the next twelve months.  The G8 summit has been accompanied by an imposing mixture of merriment, glee and propaganda, revealing much about the state of Northern Ireland’s obedient local media.

The propaganda takes both a positive and a negative form.  On one hand, “business leaders” hail the summit as an enormous boost for the local economy, the silver bullet needed to rejuvenate a rural county long forgotten by policy makers. Absurd claims of a tourism boost go largely uncontested in a buttering-up process intended to encourage the population to notice only the pleasant side of deficit hawks, war criminals and a mafia gangster.

On the other hand, a malicious smear campaign has been orchestrated, lumping entirely peaceful protesters together with dissident republicans and fictional “anarchists”, who are said to exist in their thousands. The purpose of this is obvious. People are being intimidated with the threat of arrest and imprisonment if they take part in any counter demonstrations. The ‘liberal’ local Justice Minister, David Ford, has set aside an entire wing of the maximum security Maghaberry prison for “rioters” while the PSNI have employed the use of surveillance drones, remarkable by the fact that no main party in Stormont has so far voiced any concerns.

Press releases issued by the PSNI and local government have, predictably, been regurgitated by a local press eager for an easy news story. In a bizarre front page article earlier this month, the Irish News reported that “thousands of anarchists” were intending to take over buildings in Belfast during the summit. The scaremongering is blatant. Yet, any analysis explaining why many people feel the need to protest against the G8 is glaringly absent in the vast majority of news reports. Of course, little of this is surprising.

Since the end of the conflict in the north fifteen years ago, a new “common sense” has taken hold. The public sector is said to be “bloated” and the only remedy for our weak economy is to lure foreign investment by radically slashing taxes for the rich. The politics of green and orange is overlapped by an economic consensus which contends that “the markets” know best, taxes should be minimal and the role of the state is merely to facilitate the successful operation of private business.  Dublin academic Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father, describes this as the “double transition” – a transition towards both peace and neo-liberalism. “Eastern Europe, South Africa and Northern Ireland,” he wrote, “are all unique in terms of the dynamics of their history and geography. What they have in common is that they found themselves as societies in transition at a time when economic thought had solidified around neo-liberal principles.” To oppose an administration which has overseen a doubling of unemployment in six years is to oppose the ‘peace process’. “Sure it’s better than the Troubles,” is the popular reaction.  

The adherence to neo-liberalism is clear to be seen in the approach of politicians and mainstream commentators. “I think this will be a brilliant advertisement for Northern Ireland,” gloated David Cameron when the announcement about the summit was first made. “I want the world to see just what a fantastic place Northern Ireland is – a great place for business, a great place for investment, a place with an incredibly educated and trained workforce ready to work for international business”. Northern Ireland is no longer a country (not that I ever accepted that it was); it’s a business and should be run as such. The economy should be, above all else, “competitive” – a euphemism for low wages and high profits. So goes the conventional narrative.

Despite this apparent negativity, the G8 summit is an opportunity to challenge this tedious narrative. On Saturday, June 15, thousands will pack the streets of Belfast to demonstrate their opposition to the policies of those attending the summit. On the following Monday, another rally will make its way from Enniskillen towards the Lough Erne Hotel where the summit is being held. The smears and intimidation shouldn’t discourage anyone from attending either protest.

As well as these demonstrations a four-day festival of political discussion, comedy and music will take place in Belfast. Organised by activists from ICTU Youth and the Belfast Trades Council, the ‘Another World is Possible Festival’ is an opportunity for discussion, debate and activism. Highlight speakers include George Galloway and Tariq Ali, as well as trade union leaders from Nipsa, UNISON and Unite. I feel honoured to have taken part in the organising of this festival, particularly since we have received solidarity greetings from John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Richard Wolf and others. The potential is there to inspire people to become involved in trade unionism and socialist politics who wouldn’t otherwise do so. The festival can begin to challenge the trite politics of Stormont, confront the dogma of “the markets” and build a movement for change. Ignore what is claimed in the media. This is not about damaging property or throwing bricks at the police. This is about the age old working-class principles of action; education, agitation and organisation.

We deserve a better kind of politics – and a better media, for that matter. If you’re angry at unemployment, cuts, bank bailouts, austerity, emigration, the divide-and-rule tactics of conservatives, racism, war, imperialism, inequality, the destruction of the environment, lousy wages, over work, immoral corporations, poverty, hunger or unrepresentative politicians, this festival is for you. No one’s political activity should be confined to sitting on an armchair screaming at the evening news. Everyone has the ability to change society. We don’t need to wait on odious sycophants such as Bono and Bob Geldof to raise the issues which affect the bulk of humanity. We have the ability to empower ourselves.

Another world is possible.

For a full listing of events, visit www.anotherworldispossiblebelfast.org or follow the festival on Twitter @AntiG8Protest

This article was published in the Morning Star

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More than 100,000 people took to the streets around Ireland on Saturday (February 9) to demonstrate against the €64 billion bank debt which has been forced onto the country’s population. The protests, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, marked the end of a busy week in Irish politics, which saw the publication of a report into the barbaric Magdalene Laundries, the liquidation of the former Anglo-Irish Bank and the announcement of a supposed “deal” on the hated promissory notes. Basic democratic standards took a hit on each occasion.

Although the population have been subjected to a relentless campaign of government spin and misinformation, those who attended Saturday’s rallies were well aware that the “deal” presented to the population earlier in the week was merely an extension of the calamitous bank guarantee which Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan condemned this country to. As a result, Ireland will pay for almost half of the total cost of Europe’s banking crisis, with every citizen coughing up €9,000 – compared to a European average of €191. Over the next 40 years, because of our political class’s dread of seeing billionaire speculators suffer a loss, the country’s population will witness hospital closures and mass emigration in order to repay a loan which they never took out. This is the incessant “no bondholder left behind” approach so eagerly adopted by Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil. “We are not going to have the name ‘defaulter’ written across our foreheads,” boasted Taoiseach Enda Kenny. “We will pay our way, we have never looked for a debt write-down.” The only concern this government has with paying off an illegitimate debt, it seems, is the timing. It will now be paid off over four decades instead of one. So much for a “deal”. So much for our “partners” in the ECB.

The political class in Ireland have long been infatuated with the wealth of foreign capitalists. Since partition, our economy was built around the goal of attracting “foreign investment” rather than the development of native industries. Economic policy was constructed around the desires of the wealthy, more so than most other European nations, a situation which continues to the present day. It is the enduring continuation of “trickle-down theory”, the folly long promoted by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher which contends that the more wealth those at the top accumulate, the more those at the bottom will benefit. The global stagnation of wages in the midst of rising CEO pay over the last three decades is proof of its failure.

Despite the gravity of last week’s events, as well as the wider drive for austerity in general, the ICTU leadership succeeded only in completely neutering the message of Saturday’s rallies. A comedian, a rapper and musicians dominated the stage outside Government Buildings in Dublin in what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to depoliticise the protest. The crowd was entertained rather than radicalised by an uninspired display devoid of any political content. Its success in entertaining those in attendance was affirmed by the droves of protesters who departed the rally early.

The overall message of the demonstrations was carefully crafted by a trade union leadership determined to pursue a social partnership model which has immensely weakened the movement. The ire of the top brass was directed solely at the EU/ECB/IMF Troika, and not the government which has chosen to implement their policies, betraying pre-election promises. Rather than demanding the outright repudiation of a debt that we have no moral obligation to pay back, the ICTU leadership is content to call for a “better deal”.

Bland, apolitical campaigns which fail even to inspire otherwise enthusiastic activists are unlikely to reverse the drop in trade union membership we have seen over the past number of decades. The opportunity to send out a radical message on Saturday was entirely squandered. This is a somewhat unsurprising consequence, given that this same leadership failed to take a position on the Fiscal Compact Treaty last year which enshrined austerity into EU law.

As we approach the centenary of the great class battle which occurred during the Dublin Lockout, the contrast between Larkin and Connolly and the present leadership couldn’t be greater. It’s time for change.

This article was published in The Morning Star

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There are many issues which lay bare the subservience of Ireland’s political elite to the edicts of international capital. The bank guarantee of September 2008; the handing over of natural resources to multinationals; the miniscule tax rate levied on corporations; a crippling austerity agenda which continues to stunt the country’s economy – the list goes on.

This week saw yet another bleak day in the state’s history when gombeenism ran roughshod over common decency. On Monday (October 1), €1 billion was handed over to unguaranteed, unsecured bondholders of Allied Irish Bank, which is 99% owned by the state, as part of a pitiful bid to appease “the markets”. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition has claimed ignorance over the identities of these and other similar recipients of Irish state funds, although the list is widely known to include financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Barclay’s. By the end of this year, a total of more than €19 billion will be paid to speculators who gambled in the boom years and now refuse to take a loss. In 2013, more than €17 billion of state money will be squandered in the same way.

This enormous transfer of wealth takes place against the backdrop of the largest spending cuts in the state’s history. In the demented political sphere of Ireland, where the nation’s economy is seen as a mere tool to service the needs of multi-national corporations, closing A&Es, reducing the wages of teachers and slashing allowances for disabled people are seen as “tough” decisions. Increasing corporation tax and forcing the super-rich to take a loss on their gambles are, apparently, weak decisions. A 15% unemployment rate on top of mass emigration, it seems, is the tolerable price to pay in the appeasement of “the markets”. Sacrifices must be made to save the European financial system, we have been told.

For all their talk of “injustice” and “unfairness” earlier this year, the GAA stars who rallied behind disgraced former billionaire Séan Quinn have remained remarkably silent on this particular issue. The handing over of scarce public funds to nameless professional gamblers merits no public demonstration of anger from Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte or the others who chose to support a corrupt billionaire. Nor were they as outspoken when Ireland’s economic sovereignty was handed over to the IMF in 2010.

Diarmuid O’Flynn, a hurling reporter for the Irish Examiner, has filled the void left by these sports stars and, of course, many other journalists. RTÉ, the national broadcaster, failed to report on Monday’s €1 billion bond payment. O’Flynn is one of the organisers of a weekly demonstration in his home village of Ballyhea in County Cork against the bondholder bailout. Now into its 84th week, the Ballyhea protest is a small glimpse of indignation among a population which has been renowned globally for its tame acceptance of harsh cutbacks. O’Flynn’s blog, Bondwatch Ireland, is an excellent source of information for those seeking to find out the true scale of the toxic debt plunged onto the nation’s shoulders. A result of meticulous research, the site details on a weekly basis the upcoming bond payments due at Ireland’s state-owned banks. Irish journalists should be well advised to consult the site.

Many of the attempts to explain what caused Ireland’s economic collapse have been muddled, causing much confusion around the issue. Some commentators point to the “cute-hoorism” prevalent among the Irish ruling and political class, while others highlight the outright criminality which existed at the top of Ireland’s banking sector. All of these arguments carry weight, but ultimately fail to provide a thorough explanation.

Ireland’s problems transcend its own national boundaries. Although all of the above were certainly contributing factors, the country’s collapse was part of a global calamity. Since the 1970s, capitalism was transformed from its Keynesian model towards a more radical neo-liberal one. Trade union influence diminished, financial markets were deregulated and public assets were privatised. Ireland was long touted as the “success story” of this economic arrangement.

The rise of neo-liberalism saw an unprecedented concentration of the world’s wealth into increasingly fewer hands. The demise of trade union movements in much of the west resulted in falling and stagnating wages for most workers. In order to make up for the loss of income, people were forced to take on ruinous amounts of debt to secure some of life’s basics, most notably in Ireland’s case, a home. The bursting of this credit bubble was inevitable.

In 2011, the British TUC released a report revealing the extent to which the incomes of workers had stagnated. It was found that UK workers would be earning a combined total of £60 billion more had wages increased in proportion to the growth of the wider economy. The same is true in many other countries. In the United States, the Irish bourgeoisie’s ideological home, this inequality occurs to an unnerving degree. The poorest 50% of Americans own a mere 1% of their country’s wealth, while the richest 1% own more than 34%. Or, to put in another way; the richest 1% of Americans own 34 times more wealth than half of all the American population combined. One family, the Waltons, who own Wal Mart, now possesses more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. Such is the economic model our rulers aspire to.

During the boom years, with its unregulated financial markets and low tax rates for corporations, Ireland was held up as the poster boy of neo-liberal capitalism. The Celtic Tiger ran riot as the worst off in society were left behind. On 24 September, the Simon Community reported that homelessness has increased in Dublin, with more than 2,600 people seeking the housing charity’s assistance. This situation continues alongside the sordid spectacle of up to 400,000 empty homes scattered around the country – many of them owned by the state’s ‘bad bank’, NAMA.

Just as many of Ireland’s problems were rooted in a global system, so too do the seeds of a solution lie in other parts of the world. Although afflicted with a notoriously parochial political system, the population would do well to note the actions of people in other parts of Europe. Following its own crisis in 2008, Iceland refused to repay the debts accumulated by private banks, to the fury of the neo-liberal “experts” and “the markets”. Depositors’ money was guaranteed but private investors were forced to take a loss. These are real “tough” decisions. Iceland now has an unemployment rate which is less than half that of Ireland’s, and a growth rate of 3%. This political courage needs to be combined with the resistance of the kind shown by trade union movements in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Neutered as it is by a subservient ‘social partnership’ model, the Irish trade union movement, with honourable exceptions of course, has so far failed to inspire mass action. The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions even refused to take a position on the EU Austerity Treaty in May.

Ireland’s socialisation of private losses is a national scandal which remains so far under-reported. It’s astounding that many fail to make the connection between this and the array of cuts to public services taking place right now.

The news that RBS chief Steven Hester has turned down his obscene £1 million bonus has been welcomed by all shades of political opinion. “Banker bashing” has transcended the narrow boundaries of the left and is now part of mainstream discourse, with even millionaire David Cameron spouting populist rhetoric attacking certain behaviour in the City. Mr Hester, however, will have little difficulty getting by on his modest salary of £1.2 million. Perhaps this is the “restraint” that David Cameron is referring to when he harps on about “moral” capitalism.

It might well feel good to attack the activities of “reckless bankers”. However, the problems inherent in the economic system we currently live under run far deeper than that. Certainly, lending huge amounts of money to people who could never afford to pay it back and subsequently selling that debt on to other financial institutions is irresponsible, but this does not address what it is that is wrong at the very core of capitalism.

One glaring absence in most public debates about the economy is the key issue of what actually caused the current crisis. It’s almost taboo to highlight the fact that wages in general have been stagnating since 1980. With the advent of Thatcherism/Reaganism, the assault on organised labour became ever more intense. The defeat of the British miners and American air traffic controllers in the 1980s marked the beginning of the decline of the trade union movement in the two countries. This was mirrored across the world, not least here in Ireland. These anti-union assaults heralded the birth of the most modern form of capitalism; neo-liberalism.

Trade union membership in the UK peaked in 1979, with just over 12 million members. This number has fallen year on year since the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s deliberate destruction of the British manufacturing industry. Today, just over 6 million UK workers are unionised. The picture in Ireland shows a similar trend. Irish trade union membership peaked in 1980, claiming 62% of the country’s workforce. In 2010, just before the Troika’s “bailout”, less than 25% of Irish workers were in a union. Young people, especially, are less likely to even know what a union is, let alone join one.

The effect decreasing union membership has had on society was entirely predictable; wages fell in real terms and working conditions deteriorated. Last week, a TUC report revealed a number of startling findings. The main one was this; had wages grown at the same rate that the economy was growing over the past three decades, workers in the UK would be collectively earning £60 billion more than they are earning today. The TUC’s Touchstone Blog has a very useful tool on its site called the ‘Incomes Tracker’, which all workers might want to have a look at. It helps put this great robbery into perspective. Say you are earning £21,000 per year. Had your wage risen at the same rate the economy was growing (and remember, workers create all wealth in any economy) you would be taking home a handsome annual salary of more than £32,000. Or, if you are taking home a modest wage of £14,000; you would actually be on a wage of £24,000 had your wages grown in line with the wider economy.

When the economy was growing, the rich were increasing their income accordingly. However, those who were actually working and producing things to make the economy grow received nothing extra for their labour. Despite becoming more productive, workers’ income stayed the same. In many cases, wages actually decreased in real terms. In the US, this reached extraordinary levels. Between 1979 and 2007, the richest 1% of Americans increased their income by 275%. In contrast, the bottom 20% increased their income over the same period by a mere 20%. While some union activists were preaching class war, the ruling class were busy practicing it.

And don’t think for a minute that the pain is now being shared out proportionally just because there is a recession; far from it. Last year the income of the directors of the top 100 companies in the UK increased by 43%. The thousand richest people in the UK fared even better. According to the Times Rich List the total wealth owned by this group of people has increased by 53% since 2009. They now own a combined wealth of more than £400 billion.

It’s increasingly likely that this deep inequality will lead to social catastrophe. There has been only one other period in modern history when inequality was as great as it is now; the decade immediately before the Great Depression.

The race to attack the incomes of workers highlights the sheer irrationality of capitalism. When wages are repressed, demand collapses, as the working class as a whole are unable to buy back to goods it collectively produces. This leads to millions of useful products rotting unsold in warehouses and factories. This is known as a crisis of overproduction. The solution of the capitalist class to overcome this problem is an inherently unstable one; pumping out credit. Instead of raising the income of those who create the products they want to sell, the capitalist class encourage workers to obtain credit cards and stack up mountains of personal debt. Rather than actually overcoming it, the best capitalism can offer is the postponement of a crisis. With personal, commercial and public debt all spiralling upwards over the past three decades, it was only a matter of time before this system collapsed.

However, things are likely to get worse. A lot worse. The internationally coordinated attacks on wages and working conditions, coupled with the destruction of the old social democratic welfare states, will cause consumer demand to collapse. This will lead to a vicious cycle of ever more job losses and company closures, which will collapse demand still further. Even Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank Of England, has warned of the coming depression being worse than the 1930s. The coming years will see thousands defaulting on personal debts. House repossessions will become more common as people struggle to meet ruinous mortgage payments. The Euro is also on the verge of collapse, with some countries veering towards default. The fact is, the crisis of 2008 was merely a forerunner of a larger crisis about to come.

Tumultuous historical periods such as the current one often witness great calamity. In times like these, the stupidity of those in power should not be underestimated. Just look at the political response to the crisis. Almost all commentators are calling on governments to “get the economy growing again”, regardless of the impact perpetual growth will have on this planet’s fragile environment. We also hear politicians urging the banks to “start lending again” without questioning why we need to run an economy built upon colossal amounts of debt. And the best our geniuses in Stormont can come up with is a proposal to reduce corporation tax.

Despite the frantic efforts of the world’s leaders, no solution will be found to this crisis within the current economic structures. A radical reorganisation of society is the very least that is required to guarantee a decent standard of living for every human being on this planet. Anything less will bring us back to the conditions of the 1930s.

Three years ago, the world watched in awe as the world’s stock markets plummeted. The accounts of some of the world’s biggest banks turned out to be as fictional as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. To avoid imminent collapse, they crawled with their begging hats to their respective governments. The subsequent bailouts have bankrupted previously prosperous economies, with ordinary citizens facing decades of austerity as a result.

The collapse of the world’s economy was the inevitable result of three decades of neo-liberalism, which, along with rampant deregulation, saw the suppression of wages and destruction of workers’ bargaining rights. Now that their experiment has went belly-up, we have been asked to foot the bill. In the run up to the November 30 strike, no one should forget how this crisis started, why it happened and who was at fault. Have you ever met a school dinner lady who traded in derivatives? Have you ever came across a teacher who sold a credit default swap or a bus driver who engaged in predatory lending? Of course not. People like this did not cause the crisis, so they should not be asked to pay for it.

Contrary to received wisdom, public sector pensions are not “gold plated”. Half of public sector pensions are less than £6,000 a year. The real gold plated pensions are actually found at the top of the private sector. Last year the TUC found that the directors of the UK’s top companies have an average pensions pot of £3.8 million, with some reaching well over £5 million. It’s often pointed out that workers in the private sector are granted much less generous terms and conditions. That may be so (as a private sector worker, I know that well), but surely that’s an argument to fight for better terms and conditions and, of course, pensions in the private sector? Attempts to equalise the misery and create an artificial divide between workers in the private and public sectors must be opposed.

The spectacle of those at the top continuing life as usual while public services are decimated must be one of the most infuriating things for workers forced into taking strike action this month. At the end of October, it was revealed that the pay of the UK’s top company directors rose by 43% in the past year, increasing to an obscene £2.7 million a year. For David Cameron to say public sector pensions are “unaffordable” while top bosses take home millions is dishonest, to say the very least. This statistic alone easily debunks the patronising drivel that “we are all in this together”, a meaningless slogan continually espoused by a cabinet of millionaires.

With ever more unions joining the biggest strike since 1926, the media are gearing up for a predictable smear campaign. “Union barons” and “union bosses” will be attacked with the most venomous vitriol, while the real barons and bosses who destroyed the economy in the first place will go unscathed. Deliberate half-truths and outright falsification will littler the newspapers in the run-up to November 30 in an attempt to turn public opinion against the unions. This is a key reason why trade union activists need to be engaging with people on the ground.

Although the immediate issue with the November 30 strike is pensions, it is part of something larger and much more intense. Across the globe, a class war being waged. While the working classes in the Middle East are rising up to demand democracy and economic fairness for the first time, the working classes in the West will be fighting increasingly hard to retain the gains we have made over the past 60 years. The eternal conflict between capital and labour is intensifying. Warren Buffet, one of the richest individuals in the world, confirmed this recently when he said: “Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.”

The November 30 strike represents the beginning of a hard fight ahead. Most importantly, it should not be seen by activists as an end in itself. One day of strike action isn’t going to change the intentions of the bosses’ class; that will require a long, drawn-out struggle. Radical action will be required, including general strikes and civil disobedience. It’s a struggle everyone should get involved in – all our futures are at stake.