The Workers' Struggle at Iarnrod Eireann

This article is from Social Democracy, Nov 6, 2017.  It discusses the role played by SIPTU in the Iarnrod Eireann dispute in particular but generally describes Irish Trade Unions as bureaucratic structures that demobilises grassroots self empowerment.

"To retain their control the bureaucracy carefully maintain a division between different groups of workers by staggering and delaying ballots, and will only ever expand their area of operations, and then only temporarily, when they are threatened from below as they were with water charges, a campaign they notoriously washed their hands off initially and then demobilised through their R2W intervention."

James Larkin, O'Connell St, Dublin.  Original photo by Oisín Kelly

James Larkin, O'Connell St, Dublin.  Original photo by Oisín Kelly

The Workers' Struggle at Iarnrod Eireann
Another attack on the working class!

6 November 2017

Workers at Iarnrod Eireann have held the first in their planned series of strikes on Nov 1st   with more to follow on the 7th, 14th, 23rd, and December 8th. Their request is modest, a raise of 3.75% over three years in line with other transport workers. But after 10 years without a pay rise and with record numbers of passengers using the railways the company is now seeking to impose changes in line with those demanded from Bus Eireann workers; closure of some rail lines; outsourcing of work; forced re-location; freezing increments; adjustments to pensions and performance management. This comes on top of a reduction in staffing levels of 20% with the resulting increased workload shifted on to the remaining staff.  The company offer of 1.5% and the conditions attached to it represents an assault on real pay levels and working conditions which contains eighteen different changes to the workers' contracts. It is this and the the arrogant dismissal of the drivers claims that has caused outrage among the workers and prompted the strike action.


This attack on the rail workers is more than just a sectional dispute it is part of a general coordinated attack on the working class that has gone on since the banking collapse. In this particular instance it comes as the culmination of talks that have run on for four years with the leadership of the unions missing opportunity after opportunity to strike when other workers were going out. All of which begs the question; why did Siptu and the rest of the bureaucracy not think of launching this campaign when Iarnrod Eireann workers were willing to support the Bus Eireann workers strikes against cuts and privatisation in the spring of this year or during the many strikes by Dublin Bus against cuts and the privatisation of routes going back to 2013?

Being aware of the union leaderships' refusal to co-ordinate resistance, and their avoidance of opportunities to broaden the fight against austerity, the Iarnrod Eireann management “Torpedoed” the talks at the last moment leaving the negotiators nothing to show after a concentrated five weeks of talks. The joint statement by the unions involved referred to the management's attitude as “contemptuous”.  They are undoubtedly correct!

The State employers hold the union leadership in contempt because after a decade of
compliance with acute cutbacks they know that they will agree to anything that provides them with a fig leaf irrespective of the cost to the broader layers of rank and file union members. It is this knowledge that gives them the confidence to be so “contemptuous” as to embark upon a €20'000 fishing trip while demanding that workers surrender their modest pay claim and their working conditions.

Absurd request

Following the arrogant dismissal of the pay claim by Iarnrod Eireann management Paul Cullen of Siptu has described the National Transport Authority as the “elephant in the room”. His comments were an appeal for them and the minister for Transport Tourism and Sport to intervene, but these bodies are the facilitators of cutbacks and privatisation, not disinterested arbiters and after the outcomes of the Bus Eireann dispute and the Dublin Bus route privatisations Siptu know that. The call on Shane Ross to “intervene” is an absurd request for the State to intervene to stop the management implementing changes that are in line with government policy.

This isn't going to happen. If Ross did intervene it would have only one purpose, that of bolstering the will of the management if it quails or to stave off a decisive workers victory by offering a few crumbs and diverting it in to further arbitration. The bureaucracy's great hope however is that such an intervention, for instance the release of funds overdue for routine maintenance, no matter how disappointing for the workers, may save a protracted struggle and put the issue quickly to bed.

A struggle within a struggle

Industrial struggle is fraught with difficulties for the union professionals. For the full timers a prolonged or acute struggle presents the danger that the workers will become confident in their own organisational abilities and develop positions that are beyond the bureaucrats' control. On the other hand they fret that their credibility with the workers will suffer when their prolonged negotiating and lobbying strategy fails so obviously that the bosses disdainfully dispense with their services and will not condescend to meet with them. This is what happened with the Iarnrod Eireann management which preferred to torpedo the talks in the certain knowledge that it will not be long until the union leaders find a way back to negotiations that contain no meaningful new concessions.

As the bureaucracy mediates between the management and an angry workforce they must allow the workers to show that anger through industrial action, just enough to re-convince a disdainful management that they need their services again but not enough that the workers action promotes a growing self-confidence and leads them to think that they can manage their own affairs without a caste of full time and ineffective bureaucrats.

The union bureaucracy's privileges are based on the hundreds of thousands of sub paying rank and file trade union members over which they have a highly secure control but during periods of heightened class struggle when they are caught between the workers and the bosses their control becomes unstable. However, in the complete equation it is only the rank and file workers that are not consciously organised as an independent force for themselves.

The Usual Pattern?

If the past is anything to go by this strike campaign will be faced immediately with a leadership desperate to re-enter talks and to quickly demobilise it, any recent campaign outlasting two or possibly three days of action counts as prolonged. The media, and the usual cacophonous gaggle of right wing politicos will intensify their campaign of vilification and complain furiously that the workers are in some way anti-social for preventing fans attending football matches or are cynically inconveniencing the public for entirely selfish reasons.

Following the usual methodology the LRC is likely to be brought in and the strike demobilised to facilitate talks. The most minuscule of alterations may be made using this route but the main issue of a pay rise of 3.75% will not be realised at all or possibly only partially but with a prodigious expansion of the score of caveats already attached to the 1.5% offer. The bureaucracy can probably expect to be granted cover for their cancellation of industrial action by vague promises for the establishment of a  joint committee which will be set up to look at all the contentious issues.

Break the pattern!

If events follow the usual pattern the union leadership will then once again face their members to denounce the minister, the management and the government and angrily regurgitate the old story that the deal they have negotiated is all that is practically achievable at present! Another couple of meetings will be set up to hammer out the details of the agreement they have just made, but are very unhappy with, and workers will be flattered by pats on the back and congratulations on their militancy as they return to normal service with  hollow promises that negotiations and consultation can halt the progress of the cuts. Anyone that has been a trade union member over the last decade, and longer, is familiar with this charade.

Sooner or later however, this pattern will break and for socialists consciously hastening the day of its demise is an imperative. For the working class the bureaucracy are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem but the well-worn path to surrender that they have trod for decades is becoming increasingly jagged. As the State ruthlessly reduces funding for services and pushes onwards to a low wage economy the bureaucracy have to struggle harder to control their increasingly angry members’ expectations. As a result the frequency with which disputes arise has increased. The last decade has seen repeated attacks on public sector workers in transport and each time opposition  has been demobilised with very little to show leaving the employers agenda intact. Pressure is building however and this time the Iarnrod Eireann workers have been described as 'enraged'. But that rage is not independently organised and notwithstanding spontaneous outbreaks, control, as things stand is conceded to the bureaucrats.

Socialist struggle

It doesn't have to be this way, but it will require a struggle. It is inevitable that the workers will try to fight back but it is not the role of socialists to act as passive observers. Socialists who describe themselves as revolutionaries should not be remaining silent, protecting their organisational base within the bureaucracy, and passively waiting for a revolt to arise spontaneously. They should be campaigning vociferously, making a conscious political intervention, condemning the antics of the bureaucrats and agitating openly and honestly for a self-organised rank and file response to sell out after sell out.

Calls, emanating from the centrist left, have been made on the bureaucracy for a “bold industrial strategy” and to “link” the issues at Iarnrod Eireann to “similar problems in Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus” but the bureaucrats they are calling on to “link'' the issues have been consciously and successfully keeping those issues separate. Not only are these “calls” totally ineffectual they serve only to reinforce illusions in the bureaucracy. We know this because it has already happened in the BusEireann strike in the spring. Balloting rules were used by union leaders as a delaying tactic preventing the possibility of action until it was too late. Then, once Bus Eireann workers were demobilised, the support strikes that had been balloted for, all on issues of serious concern in their own right, were cancelled also.

Spread the strike, it can be won!

As the strike campaign commences the Iarnrod Eireann workers cannot afford to leave it to the bureaucracy to achieve victory. In this they have indeed a task ahead of them but the anger and determination is there. It begins with confronting the contemptuous management of Iarnrod Eireann and their State backers and it continues with a fight to spread their industrial action in the face of the bureaucracy's opposition to class struggle methods. In effect they must stop the wheels turning and spread the strike to other threatened services, at first in transport. The events of last spring, however momentary, point the way forward; flying pickets and sympathy strikes are the most effective weapons in the workers arsenal.

This attack on the rail workers is merely the most acute point of an attack on the working class in general that is now almost a decade old. It involves the plundering of health, welfare, education, pensions, the ongoing attempts to privatise water and most importantly the point blank refusal to provide housing for working class people.

Resistance to this attack must be organised not just within the broadest swathe of austerity struck workplaces but also in the affected communities. It is the workers themselves through solidarity on the ground who must link these issues by immediate practical measures, not the bureaucracy. To retain their control the bureaucracy carefully maintain a division between different groups of workers by staggering and delaying ballots, and will only ever expand their area of operations, and then only temporarily, when they are threatened from below as they were with water charges, a campaign they notoriously washed their hands off initially and then demobilised through their R2W intervention.

Strike after strike shows that resistance to austerity has masses of trade union organised workers at its core but its potential is hampered by a compromising and bureaucratic leadership. To carry the fight forward that bureaucratic leadership's hand must be forced by a democratic and self-organised movement of rank and file workers.  Such a movement has the potential to both strengthen trade unionism and to take the struggle beyond the confines of 'industrial' issues to oppose the myriad aspects of this crisis ridden system's destruction of working people’s lives and to be the backbone of an anti-capitalist movement. This cannot be achieved without the most acute criticism of the union bureaucracy and their pro capitalist strategy which means calling for workers to self-organise against austerity and therefore against the bureaucracy and to fight back. All socialists must agitate for that outcome.

Victory to the rail workers!
No more bureaucratic sell outs!
Build a trade union rank and file movement!
All workers are under attack - broaden the resistance!