Back to the 1970s?

A sudden spate of strikes in Ireland doesn’t mean we are witnessing a return to the militancy of the past.

Jason Walsh

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It seems the working class is flexing its muscles again. After decades of declining relevancy in the West, some unionised workers are making demands of their bosses that aren’t couched in the terms of ‘health and safety’ or ‘workplace bullying’. Instead they are making actual economic demands – demands for jobs and money.

My own country, Ireland, rarely at the centre of anything, has seen industrial militancy spread almost like wildfire, most of it unofficial or semi-official in nature. Workplace sit-ins and occupations are the weapons of choice. First came Waterford Crystal, occupied by workers when the plant was threatened with closure. Workers at car parts manufacturer Visteon in Belfast also seized their plant, an action which was quickly followed by Visteon staff in Britain. More recently workers at travel agent Thomas Cook in Dublin and DIY store 4Home co-op in Mitchelstown, Cork, seized their offices when threatened with redundancy. Industrial diamond manufacturer, Element 6, has also become the site of a workplace battle.

Tommy McKearney, a former republican prisoner and an organiser with the small Independent Workers’ Union, tells me these various occupations are significant but have to be understood in their proper contexts: ‘It certainly indicates a growing militancy matched with a certain amount of desperation. Waterford Crystal had a long tradition of militancy so that wasn’t altogether surprising and with Visteon the industry was militant whether or not that particular factory had any history of it. A group such as Thomas Cook and retail workers in County Cork are different’, he said.

The sight of police raiding the Thomas Cook offices in the middle of the night and dragging staff out in handcuffs horrified the public, many of whom wryly remarked that they had not seen any senior business figures arrested. This anti-elite sentiment, however, has not coalesced into any kind of recognisable political analysis or even a clear set of demands. Widespread public anger at business and government in Ireland, particularly over throwing endless amounts of money away in an effort to save the country’s failing banks, exists side-by-side with resignation that jobs will be lost and that cuts in public spending are necessary.

While occupations are by their very nature militant acts, today’s industrial strife is particularly noteworthy because the demands are so modest. In most cases workers are merely demanding better redundancy terms, already resigned to losing their jobs as the economy continues to shrink. Although McKearney admits this is a problem, he doesn’t feel that criticism of those making the demands is helpful: ‘There is the weakness insofar as the demands are limited and it’s all that people see as possible in real terms – the Irish economy has seen a series of damaging events over the past 12 months – but that’s too harsh a criticism. You have to take the reality of the situation into consideration.’

McKearney says the unions themselves have failed their members: ‘It indicates that the trade union movement at ICTU level is not proving the answers for working people. Twenty years of social partnership has left them powerless – they have no ability to come up with an alternative either in terms of economic policy or in action’, he said.

Indeed, this inability to articulate an alternative seems to be the defining characteristic of today’s left. Outside of the cautious ‘left’ of Europe’s social democratic countries making a few meek calls for a return to the kind of Keynesian mixed economy that defined the postwar era, there is a total absence of any clear view on how the world economy might be turned around, let alone anything resembling the left’s traditional call for the profits to go to those who actually produce them. Sloganeering the left can do; policy it seems less capable of.

Writing in the Guardian, Andy Beckett asked if the left was missing the opportunity of a lifetime by failing to respond to the ‘collapse of unfettered capitalism’ (1). It’s an interesting question but one that falls into the trap of seeing the left as being capable of winning the war by waging the battles of the past all over again. Entirely bereft of new ideas, at least ones that don’t make things worse, the left has no answer to today’s crisis because it has spent 30 years cultivating a gloomy outlook and blaming its failures on outside forces.

Economist Paul Ormerod says the left has no economic answers because it simply spent too long pointing to Marx and Keynes (2). Putting aside the question of whether Keynes can be called ‘left-wing’ in any meaningful sense, this analysis obscures the fact that since the New Left of the 1960s purported socialists had been abandoning its main constituency, the working class, in disgust because, as they saw it, it had failed to live up to its historic mission. This diminished view of working people became common currency by the 1980s with tales of how ‘the Murdoch press’ stole the British elections for the Tories and has now reached fever pitch in the left-leaning anti-consumerist and anti-social behaviour narratives which view the so-called ‘underclass’ as a toxic bunch of ignorant troglodytes who need to be managed by the state – a far cry from the heroic figures of the workers in whose self-interest was the liberation of all humanity.

Today talk of a return to ‘1970s-style’ militancy abounds but few seem to recognise that the 1970s was a period of defeat for organised labour, a period that saw the beginning of the death throes that would culminate in the victories of Thatcher and Reagan and the historic crushing of the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the UK. Although the strike was an open political battle of epic proportions, much of the left had by then begun its ‘cultural turn’, abandoning economics and production, long before the 1980s and was already in thrall to ‘new social movements’ such as environmentalism (3). During the 1980s and 1990s – a period of troubling politics to be sure, but also of genuine, albeit severely uneven, economic growth – the left had nothing much to say, and certainly no positive vision of how this growth might be increased and shared with all.

Securing better redundancy terms for workers is by no means ignoble, but neither that, nor promising to administer some kind of ‘socialism of scarcity’, is the kind of policy that is likely to be greeted with much enthusiasm by people whose standards of living are in visible decline. Even if open industrial militancy does reach 1970s-levels, the battles of that decade belong to another era. The issue of just what today’s battles might be is far from clear but demanding an end to calls for austerity, whether in the name of protecting public finances or the environment, would be a good start.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black spent a day with strikers at the Lindsey oil refinery and revealed how officials are using financial threats to get the right result in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum. Previously, Mick Hume examined the Lindsey dispute. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Rob Lyons praised the strikers at Gate Gourmet. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

(1) Has the left blown its big chance of success?, Guardian, 17 August 2009

(2) Has the left blown its big chance of success?, Guardian, 17 August 2009

(3) See the archive of Marxism Today, the house journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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