Fintan O' Toole reached out to us this week. He pleaded that all should consider attending the I.C.T.U march on Saturday, even if we didn't care much for the Unions: To cut to the chase Fintan; no sale. Put simply it is completely naive to think that the union leadership wouldn't use a huge turnout as ammunition for its only real goal, which is to defend the pay and conditions of its members, especially those in the public sector. In these crisis times unions have been in the vanguard of those appealing for radical change in society. That is at least partly polemical, as maintaining the privileged pensions and permanency of employment of middle income people in the public sector was scarcely a banner under which James Connolly would have wished to march. Yet S.I.P.T.U was one of the prime movers in the recent gathering at the R.D.S that attempted to advocate that there was a better way to resolve the economic calamity. It was curious then to hear one of their representatives Paul Bell on Newstalk with very impermeable priorities. Questioned as to the errors made in over staffing when the H.S.E was set up in 2004, Bell replied that it was his unions job to defend the interests of their members. So waste and profligacy are quickly prioritised when interests clash. On R.T.E in recent days S.I.P.T.U economist Paul Sweeney also evinced a non-holistic approach when disagreeing with Liam Griffin. When the noted hotelier made the arguable case that registered agreements led to casual staff being paid far too much on weekends, Sweeney glibly disregarded the thesis on the basis that the issue didn't bear any discussion when there were more malign fish to fry.
But this is fairly typical of the pronouncements of union spokespeople and their media acolytes like Fintan O' Toole. Indeed, as an aside, it was to some degree comical that comments were made that the Irish Times journalist should set up a political party in the wake of his latest book. Although the Irish Times Deputy Editor's current work contains many good ideas to reform the political system, it seems fanciful that he would do other than to try and influence the Labour Party/Union alliance from the outside. For he along with Sweeney and Bell are just as much members of an unreconstructed tribe as parish pump members of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Perhaps the distinguished journalist thinks that the public sector is perfect. But if he doesn't any of his writings about the subject ( except when talking about the elite public servants ) only paint them in a favourable light in comparative terms. It has also been tittersome recently to hear David Begg blast 'right-wing economists' declaring that their views are no longer worth considering. This is presumably the same David Begg who proclaimed as recently as two years ago, that a public sector pay increase was affordable.
Although the Croke Park agreement is safe for now, and for the record this blogger doesn't necessarily think it should be torn up, the latest I.C.T.U march is just another step in 'the game' that the unions play to maintain their place in the hegemony. It may seem fantastical now, but it's easy to forget that this time last year the unions were fighting tooth and nail against any cut in pay in the public sector. The left in Ireland likes to claim periodically that public discourse is completely tilted towards the right. They partly point towards the often intemperate rantings of such as The Daily Mail and The Irish Independent to prove their point. Yet in general the rhetoric of 2009 was very far from skewed against the public sector argument. How many times did we hear the outlandish theory that any rift between public and private amongst the populace was organised by malign forces in Government. The woeful administration we have had in recent years was capable of many things, but claims that they could orchestrate tension on The Frontline and Liveline, not to mention around people's dinner tables was conspiracy on an Oliver Stone-like scale. For the truth was that the unions played an absolute blinder with the cards they were dealt last autumn. The process was unfailingly portrayed as being the doing down of patriotic public servants at the expense of the profligate elites. Indeed this writer always thought it fascinating that the public sector managed to compare their lot to bankers and developers rather than their private sector equivalents. Why exactly was it just that wage increases awarded in an era the left itself declared unsustainable should be left untouched. The fact that not even their opponents ever argued that a reduction in public sector wages was actually the morally correct thing to do showed how 'the game' was so skilfully played.
And the next step occurs on Saturday. Those who have declared they weren't part of the problem will righteously march. Maybe even some of the acting community still doing ads in the media for the banks will be in attendance. Being morally pure post-Celtic Tiger is a tricky business. A notion many of us, who would love to protest, but not under a union banner, would, I suspect, attest to.