The discussion on a national strike later this month has seen one recurring question asked, to date without a satisfactory answer. What good would such a strike do?
Before addressing this question, let us remind ourselves of one basic fact. This fact is so obvious that we shouldn't need reminding of it. It is this: the current economic crisis is, in its entirety, down to a failure of market economics. The failure and corruption of the beloved capitalist system of bankers, government and developers has put this small country in a position where we are now mortgaged, through Nama, for a couple of generations to come. We are not, despite the accusation of Minister Brian Lenihan, all responsible. Rather Mr Lenihan, the government, Seán FitzPatrick and his cronies in the banks, loose financial regulation, and the greed of the construction sector has bankrupted us all.
This is where we are today. This is how we got here. This is who got us here. And now we need to fix their mess. I can accept that all of society must now help get us out of the mess that the few have created. But we should not accept that workers will face all of the pain while the guilty escape.
Nama is an abomination. As a small country, a functioning banking system here does not require taxpayers to underwrite a giant 'pyramid system' such as Anglo. Anglo should fail and that failure, with all its personal pain and loss, should be a lasting monument to greed and corruption. A prison sentence or two would also help us feel a tiny bit better.
Social partnership too must fail and be consigned to the scrapheap, at least for now. Why? Because unions which now call workers to arms have for over 20 years sat side by side with the very worst elements of Irish society, those who have facilitated this mess. They have played the consensus game to such an extent that class politics in this country is currently on life support, yet now we have this charade of a trade-union movement which has long since stopped fighting threatening revolt. There are exceptions. Liam Doran of the INO has a proven track record of fighting for members. Eamon Devoy of the TEEU won a vital battle recently against the race to the bottom in the electrical contracting industry. However, many leaders are on six-figure salaries yet are not known to the bulk of their own members. They sit waiting for phone calls from the Department of the Taoiseach to attend pathetically choreographed discussions with a government which has treated them with utter contempt in favour of the bankers and developers.
Now union members who fund the six-figure salaries must also pay for the sins of FitzPatrick and Co. Will the movement of Larkin get out of Government Buildings and re-engage with the people who built a nation that has now been bankrupted by gombeen men? A national strike would have two effects. A broader and more just tax base must be a core demand. This should include penal tax rates for those earning €200,000 and the closure of tax loopholes for the super rich. If they leave, good riddance. Rats often leave a sinking ship.
Secondly, it would allow unions to set the agenda as to how we want our society to move out of this mess, and to do so in a way that is more economically sustainable without sacrificing important social values. Up to now the government has created a vacuous public vs private debate, the aim of which is to turn worker on worker as they bring down the axe. Divide and conquer is a strategy aimed at allowing them pursue the neo-conservative policies that got us here in the first place. It is time for those who fund this country through their taxes to wrestle control back. Where pay or conditions are attacked it must come from the top down. Reducing the Taoiseach's pay to the level of Barack Obama perhaps?
Finally and most importantly, the unions must show, not just say, that the days of cosy consensus with the corrupt and divisive governments of recent times are over. Every government henceforth must know that if they put the interests of the likes of Seán FitzPatrick before ordinary working people there will be a price to pay.
I suspect it won't happen. Although the rhetoric is necessarily stronger the will is not there. There's no fight there. Get ready to have your pockets rifled.
Brendan Ogle is regional organiser of Unite