State Intervenes in Irish Rail Drivers' Strike, but Trouble Looms

Irish rail drivers, members of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union, have been engaged in a battle with the rail bosses over conditions and recognition. Under pressure from all sides, and with the intervention of the Labour Court, the union has decided to suspend future strikes.

The spectre of Larkinism is haunting Ireland. A rash of strikes over the last period, especially in transport, has rocked Ireland's booming economy. Striking rail workers have been engaged in a rolling-programme of one-day stoppages which has shaken the Irish Establishment to its foundations. The strikers, members of the transport union, the ATGWU, have been attacked in the Dail [Irish Parliament] by the Irish Taoiseach [Prime Minister], Bertie Ahern, for threatening "industrial anarchy". The strike, he said, was "manifestly unnecessary" and "causing severe hardship". The employers' organisation, the IBEC, not only called for an end to the stoppages, but for all strikes in the emergency services to be banned!

The action follows a 10-week strike last summer by rail workers over union recognition. The same problem of union recognition has emerged as the central issue in the current dispute, which has threatened to escalate into an all-out battle. However, underlying all this is the attempt by rail bosses to undermine working conditions on the railways.

The strikes by 114 rail drivers employed by Iarnrod Eireann's railway workshops have helped to rekindle Ireland's class struggle. Amid scenes of pickets and widespread chaos on the railways, the powers-that-be launched a sustained assault on the strikers. Attacked by an unholy alliance of employers, government dupes and respectable trade union bureaucrats, these determined workers decided to stand up against worsening terms and conditions and for union recognition.

In the Dail, the Taoiseach threw down the gauntlet, accusing the strikers of undermining the role of trade unions as "social partners", as well as threatening the accord. As a mouthpiece of the rail employers, Ahern accused the striker's union, the ATGWU, of a "flagrant breach of agreed procedures within the trade union movement", as if the matter had anything to do with him.

The dispute is rooted in the attempt to impose worsening conditions in the rail industry. The Iarnrod Eireann asked the rail unions, SIPTU, NBRU, as well as the ILDA, to accept a new roster system that included working longer hours and compulsory Sunday and holiday working. Unfortunately, due to the lack of leadership, both SIPTU and NBRU, accepted the new practices that came into affect a week ago.

The ILDA, which joined the ATGWU as an autonomous branch of the union, rejected the new terms, arguing that it not only meant increased work loads but put safety at risk. This is an issue for all rail workers, many of whom in other unions, have refused to cross picket lines. Iarnrod Eireann claimed it was losing £150,000 per day in lost revenue.

Tangled in the terms and conditions issue is the question of union democracy. Out of frustration against the right wing policies pursued by the SIPTU leaders, union members broke away to form the ILDA. In a ballot, out of 128 ballot papers issued, 114 voted in favour of the merger with the ATGWU. The employers however have refused to negotiate with the ATGWU.

The dispute has wider implications and threatens to overturn the "social contract" embodied in the "Programme for Prosperity and Fairness" (PPF). This is an agreement by the employers and the tops of the trade unions to keep the lid on the class struggle and secure a stable industrial climate for business, both national and international. "The orderly conduct of industrial relations", states Ahern, "is essential to our well-being, quite apart from the implications for the PPF. Without it, we would have anarchy and the public and the economy would suffer, ultimately damaging jobs and competitiveness."

The state has also been used to intimidate the strikers, with the Labour Court now intervening. The National Implementation Body, which was set up by the PPF, said that the strike was in breach of all industrial relations procedures. The Supreme Court has ruled in the employers' favour that the ILDA was not an "accepted body" under the Trades Union Act and that the bosses did not have to negotiate with the union.

True to form, the bureaucrats of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions also called on the workers to abandon their action. The same has been the case with the leaders of SIPTU. These "labour lieutenants of Capital", to quote American socialist De Leon, are more interested in class collaboration than class war. For them, the most important thing is the survival of the PPF. Even if that means sacrificing the rail workers.

However, the rail workers are in no mood to cave in, despite the intervention of the Labour Court and the temporary suspension of the strikes.

This dispute is more than simply about lost profits. That is why the actions of the strikers have been met with a chorus of opposition from employers, government and bureaucrats. Their whole "partnership" scheme is under threat.

Just as Larkin, the founder of the ATGWU, faced a barrage of attacks from the Establishment ninety years ago, so the striking rail workers of Ireland face the same tirade today. Whatever the immediate outcome of the Labour Court intervention, the spectre of class struggle in Ireland is still alive and kicking.