ICTU: Taking the politics out of protest

Date:

Depending on whose figures you believe, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people took to the streets yesterday (Sat 9th February) to register their opposition to the foisting of private bank debt onto the shoulders of ordinary workers, the refusal to tax the wealthy and the accompanying austerity agenda which has led to wage cuts, job losses, cuts in services and a plethora of increased taxation measures all of which have disproportionately affected those on low and middle incomes.

One of the biggest contingents on all of the protests (they took place in 6 different venues around the country) was made up of members of the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT), which had called on people to attend the marches to show their opposition to and their determination to fight the government’s new property tax.

Far from wanting to take the fight to the government – on either the issue of the property tax or any aspects of the wider austerity agenda – the organisers of the protests, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, wished to portray the protests as being a ‘fun day out’ and attempted to downplay and even prevent any direct criticism of the government.

Aggressive stewarding

On the Dublin protest, at least, this led to the preposterous situation of march stewards aggressively challenging people carrying CAHWT banners and attempting to prevent them joining the march.  I personally witnessed one incident in which members of CAHWT were physically confronted by a senior ICTU official who attempted to prevent them joining the march at the top of Dame St.  I was also told of one other such incident. 

I acknowledge that the vast majority of the stewards on the march were ordinary trade union members and carried out their duties reasonably and effectively but one such incident is one too many.  This completely unacceptable behaviour comes as a result of attempts to take politics out of the protest.

The ICTU were happy for us to march from Cook St. to Merrion Square to say we were unhappy with the ‘burden of debt’ but did not want anyone pointing the finger of blame at the Irish politicians responsible for heaping the cost of that debt on our shoulders in the form of the property tax and other austerity measures.  This was further evidenced at the end of the march when members of the CAHWT were shepherded by march stewards and gardaí into the park at Merrion Square (in a manner that showed no concern for public safety).

Annoyed

Many anti property tax campaigners, and many trade union members were rightly very annoyed at the manner in which we were used and abused by trade union leaders yesterday.  We did not attend the march to show our support for the government, we did so to demonstrate clearly our opposition to government policy and our determination to fight for the abolition of the property tax.         

The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions do not wish to see a spirited fightback against government policies.  This would deprive them of the role they have carved out for themselves as highly-paid ‘mediators’ between union members and the government/employers.  They have forgotten (if this current batch ever knew) that their role is supposed to be to represent the members, and that they are employees of union members whose role should be to carry out the instructions of members.

In that context they see ‘protests’ such as yesterday’s as the equivalent of opening a safety valve, allowing a little bit of steam out and taking the pressure out of the situation.  For the last number of years they have managed to do just that every time they have called a protest. 

Seeing through

But there are signs that people are beginning to see through their duplicity.  This is demonstrated first of all by the fact that the numbers on the 6 protests yesterday was closer to 50,000 than 100,000 – a significant drop on the numbers ICTU have been able to call out previously.  And large numbers of those present chose to march under the banners of CAHWT rather than with their union banners.

On the Dublin protest, not alone were the organisers anxious to prevent any display of opposition to the government, but they too were in hiding.  When the march ended, instead of the usual spectacle of union leaders’ (almost always boring) speechifying, we were subjected to entertainment – comedians and music and a concert-like atmosphere, a ‘Rally for Fun’ as it had been billed.  This was not just further evidence of taking the politics out of the protest but also showed their unwillingness to put themselves before the court of public opinion.  There is no doubt that they feared a repeat of the incidents at two of the previous such marches when speakers from the trade union leadership were roundly booed by marchers.

Impediment

The heavy handed behaviour of a number of stewards and the dumbing down of the protests’ message has caused even more people to see the ‘leadership’ for what they are – an impediment to struggle rather than a support.

It is to be hoped, however, that people – campaigners and union members – do not decide to walk away either from the struggle or the unions as a result of demoralising and disempowering experiences such as yesterday’s.  The leaflet distributed by the WSM yesterday called on union members to ‘take back the power’ and urged members to “….take control of union structures, dump the current leadership and replace them not with an alternative leadership but with a new type of union which will take control back into the members’ hands….”

Yesterday’s experience makes that call all the more relevant.  If we don’t rise to that challenge, we allow those who would take the politics out of protest to win.  Let’s not let that happen.

WORDS: Gregor Kerr  IMAGES :Andrew Flood

We have  Facebook albums of pictures from the demonstrations in Dublin and Cork


See also: Footage of the Garda attempting to forcibly remove a small group chanting 'Who sold us out, the Unions sold us out' on the Feb 9th 2013 ICTU march against debt driven austerity.

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